Which specific linguistic forms did the uncertainties of the Corona pandemic produce? And which forms of crisis communication were chosen in different countries? The ‘Corona’ corpora compiled at the Discourse Lab of TU Darmstadt’s dept. for Digital Linguistics were created to help find answers to these and related questions as part of a research collaboration between linguistics and sociology.
Communicating the unknown
In Communicating the unknown. An interdisciplinary annotation study of uncertainty in the coronavirus pandemic (2021), Marcus Müller et al. investigate topic-matched British and German newspaper articles from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The corpora are part of a series of international corpora on the news coverage on COVID-19 which comprises data from the UK, Germany, Australia and the US.
The study considers two corpora of news articles (UK: ca. 13,400, DE: ca. 10,000) from 1 February through 31 May 2020 which were sourced via the media databases LexisNexis and Pro-Quest as well as from selected key outlets so as to cover the political spectrum from left to right: The Guardian, The Times (London), The Daily Mirror; der SPIEGEL, FAZ, die Welt. The data was pre-processed in the form of tokenization, sentence segmentation, lemmatization and POS-tagging.
Annotating the data with a previously elaborated gold standard tagset, the team compares uncertainty constructions by way of an “annotation-by-query”. Since uncertainty is not a purely linguistic phenomenon, the study integrates sociological perspectives to capture uncertainty markers in a socio-pragmatic approach.
Their findings reveal that in tendency, public news media in Germany initially aligned with the political response, supporting the federal disease monitoring agency RKI’s recommendations. By contrast, the UK media “played an important role in reporting dissent and disagreement, putting the government under pressure to change its original approach” (Müller et al. 2021: 500). ‘Fear’ is overall more prevalent in the UK media discourse, while German media discourse sees a steady increase in ‘disagreement’ markers throughout the four observed months.
‘Wollen’, ‘können’, ‘müssen’ – crisis communication with modals
An extended German corpus underlies a related study on risk communication with a focus on modal verbs, Necessity, norm and missing knowledge. What modals tell us about crisis response in German COVID-19 reporting (Müller 2021).
Modal structures, such as könnte gefährden (might jeopardize), müssen begrenzen (must contain), wollen bewahren (want to preserve), are shown to fulfill different discursive functions: they evoke normative backgrounds (müssen), indicate individual perceptions of certainty (könnte), and, very prominently in the data, point teleologically to a future objective (wollen).
These teleological backgrounds, according to the author, seem to have played a key role regulating the early crisis discourse by successfully evoking perspectives of future normalization.
Marcus Müller, Sabine Bartsch & Jens O. Zinn (2021): Communicating the unknown. An interdisciplinary annotation study of uncertainty in the coronavirus pandemic. In: International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 26/4, S. 498–531. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1075/ijcl.21096.mul
Marcus Müller (2021): Necessity, norm and missing knowledge. What modals tell us about crisis response in German COVID-19 reporting. In: Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik. (online first). DOI: 10.1007/s41244-021-00212-4