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Disease metaphors in new epidemics: the UK media framing of the 2003 SARS epidemic


  • Wallis, Patrick
  • Nerlich, Brigitte


Since the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, social scientists and sociologists of health and illness have been exploring the metaphorical framing of this infectious disease in its social context. Many have focused on the militaristic language used to report and explain this illness, a type of language that has permeated discourses of immunology, bacteriology and infection for at least a century. In this article, we examine how language and metaphor were used in the UK media's coverage of another previously unknown and severe infectious disease: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). SARS offers an opportunity to explore the cultural framing of a less extraordinary epidemic disease. It therefore provides an analytical counter-weight to the very extensive body of interpretation that has developed around HIV/AIDS. By analysing the total reporting on SARS of five major national newspapers during the epidemic of spring 2003, we investigate how the reporting of SARS in the UK press was framed, and how this related to media, public and governmental responses to the disease. We found that, surprisingly, militaristic language was largely absent, as was the judgemental discourse of plague. Rather, the main conceptual metaphor used was SARS as a killer. SARS as a killer was a single unified entity, not an army or force. We provide some tentative explanations for this shift in linguistic framing by relating it to local political concerns, media cultures, and spatial factors.

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  • Wallis, Patrick & Nerlich, Brigitte, 2005. "Disease metaphors in new epidemics: the UK media framing of the 2003 SARS epidemic," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 60(11), pages 2629-2639, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:60:y:2005:i:11:p:2629-2639

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Gilmore, Norbert & Somerville, Margaret A., 1994. "Stigmatization, scapegoating and discrimination in sexually transmitted diseases: Overcoming 'them' and 'us'," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 39(9), pages 1339-1358, November.
    2. Washer, Peter, 2004. "Representations of SARS in the British newspapers," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 59(12), pages 2561-2571, December.
    3. Joffe, Hélène & Haarhoff, Georgina, 2002. "Representations of far-flung illnesses: the case of Ebola in Britain," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 54(6), pages 955-969, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Eichelberger, Laura, 2007. "SARS and New York's Chinatown: The politics of risk and blame during an epidemic of fear," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 65(6), pages 1284-1295, September.
    2. Smith, Richard D., 2006. "Responding to global infectious disease outbreaks: Lessons from SARS on the role of risk perception, communication and management," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 63(12), pages 3113-3123, December.
    3. Wang, Yi & Cao, Jinde & Jin, Zhen & Zhang, Haifeng & Sun, Gui-Quan, 2013. "Impact of media coverage on epidemic spreading in complex networks," Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Elsevier, vol. 392(23), pages 5824-5835.
    4. repec:eee:socmed:v:200:y:2018:i:c:p:137-144 is not listed on IDEAS
    5. repec:eee:phsmap:v:490:y:2018:i:c:p:702-720 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Lawrence, Jody & Kearns, Robin A. & Park, Julie & Bryder, Linda & Worth, Heather, 2008. "Discourses of disease: Representations of tuberculosis within New Zealand newspapers 2002-2004," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 66(3), pages 727-739, February.
    7. Coveney, Catherine M. & Nerlich, Brigitte & Martin, Paul, 2009. "Modafinil in the media: Metaphors, medicalisation and the body," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 68(3), pages 487-495, February.
    8. Mazanderani, Fadhila & Locock, Louise & Powell, John, 2012. "Being differently the same: The mediation of identity tensions in the sharing of illness experiences," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 74(4), pages 546-553.
    9. Van Gorp, Baldwin & Vercruysse, Tom, 2012. "Frames and counter-frames giving meaning to dementia: A framing analysis of media content," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 74(8), pages 1274-1281.
    10. Basso, Frédéric & Robert-Demontrond, Philippe & Hayek, Maryvonne & Anton, Jean-Luc & Nazarian, Bruno & Roth, Muriel & Oullier, Olivier, 2014. "Why people drink shampoo? Food imitating products are fooling brains and endangering consumers for marketing purposes," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 59224, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    11. Delbaere, Marjorie, 2013. "Metaphors and myths in pharmaceutical advertising," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 82(C), pages 21-29.
    12. Hilton, Shona & Hunt, Kate & Langan, Mairi & Bedford, Helen & Petticrew, Mark, 2010. "Newsprint media representations of the introduction of the HPV vaccination programme for cervical cancer prevention in the UK (2005-2008)," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 70(6), pages 942-950, March.

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