Panel 7 | Discourses of Covid-19 and the reconfiguration of the political

CADAAD2022 | 06-08/07/2022 | Bergamo, Italy

173 | Luke Collins & Veronika Koller

Investigating 'the science' in UK news coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic

This study explores the representation of 'the science' in the UK news media, with a particular focus on how it is reported to operate in relation to policymaking.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust scientists such as virologists and epidemiologists into the public eye, with individual experts often appearing alongside political leaders in public broadcasts (Law et al., 2021). Governments around the world have established and relied upon scientific advisory boards to process and report evidence relating to Covid-19 and to provide recommendations for national policy (Colman et al., 2021). However, the scientific evidence relating to Covid-19 and non-medical interventions, such as lockdown measures, has not been readily available and limited data and testing has led to a reliance upon modelling that is incomplete. A House of Commons (2021, p.40) report in the UK on 'lessons learnt' from the early response to the Covid-19 pandemic was critical of the 'little evidence' that those in government 'sufficiently challenged' the scientific advice they were given (House of Commons, 2021, p.58). This highlighted the relationship between scientific advisors and ministers as policymakers, as well as the epistemic authority given to representatives of 'the science' when it comes to national health interventions.

Taylor (2010) has shown that 'the science' has often been employed as a model of authority and that rather than being subject to critical evaluation on the basis of proof and evidence, it is deployed as an appeal to personal values. We explored 564 references to 'the science' throughout 2020 in the UK section of the News on the Web (NOW) corpus to investigate how the outputs and processes of scientific inquiry were presented to the public. Applying a transitivity analysis, we documented the various participant roles occupied by 'the science' and the associated processes cited around the term to consider how its discursive representation could inform the public's understanding and valuation of 'the science' as evidence driving government policy. Our observations show that journalists have challenged monolithic representations of 'the science' and that representatives of, and procedures involved in, scientific inquiry are frequently positioned as peripheral or enacted upon by more agentive participants, such as government ministers. Furthermore, journalists were critical of the government's mantra of 'following the science' as lacking transparency. Finally, although 'the science' is a direct and active participant in verbal processes ('saying' and 'telling' others what to do) and material processes ('leading' and 'guiding' the government), journalists frequently use relational processes to raise questions as to the definition and classification of 'the science' (e.g. "the science is actually the opinions of scientific advisors").


Colman, E., Wanat, M., Goossens, H., Tonkin-Crine, S. and Anthierens, S. (2021). Following the science? Views from scientists on government advisory boards during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative interview study in five European countries. BMJ Global Health, 6, e006928.

House of Commons (2021). Coronavirus: Lessons Learned to Date. Sixth Report of the Health and Social Care Committee and Third Report of the Science and Technology Committee of Session 2021-22. Parliamentary copyright.

Law, A., Moir, J. and Hollick, D. (2021). The message and the science: media and COVID-19. Media Education Journal 69 3-8.

283 | Christiane Barnickel & Dorothea Horst

Aesthetic reconfigurations of the political during the pandemic: Group representations COVID-19 special programmes on German public television

The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic is a paramount example of crises, understood as transformation phases from one ordering regime to another (cf. Wengeler & Ziem, 2013, 4f.). These transitions and reconfigurations come along with a loss of certainties, knowledge negotiation and (new) knowledge formation. Crisis discourse bears witness to, and provides fundamental insights into a world that is subject to negotiation.

One aspect of Covid discourse are differentiations between various social groups: vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, young and old, people at risk and people being a risk to others etc. These discursive constructions especially raise and negotiate questions of community and solidarity, as well as of their respective boundaries.

Unsurprisingly, questions of who is being constructed as a group, which characteristics are attributed to certain ethnical, professional or age groups and how they are being constructed as a group in and through discourse attracted the interest of the discourse scholar community. From various epistemological and methodological perspectives, these contributions have provided valuable insights into sense production and discursive (re-)ordering during the pandemic in various communicative contexts and at various levels. However, they tended to focus especially on spoken or written text of political statements and media discourse (for an overview cf. Barnickel/Horst, forthcoming).

Yet, configurations and reconfigurations of the social are not solely created in spoken and written words. Visual elements make the crisis visible, tangible and utterable as aesthetic articulations and, thereby, constitute experiential modes of togetherness and separation, inside and outside, centre and periphery in times of crisis. This is not only true for the linguistic landscapes, we are confronted with, e.g. the signs reminding us to keep distance.

Audio-visual movement images also constitute a highly relevant and fruitful object of research that are worth considering, especially with regard to their (media-)aesthetic composition. Using the example of Covid-19 special programmes on German public television, which have temporarily been broadcasted daily during the pandemic, the paper focuses on the aesthetics of these very discursive constructions. It aims at analysing the way in which they constitute a collective self-reference and sense of the world that becomes visible, tangible and utterable as aesthetic articulation in linguistic and media practices. In this light, the programmes are exemplary (re)configurations that create particular modes of togetherness and separation and can be understood as what Richard Rorty (1998) has called a “poetic doing” of political communities, i.e. the constant reconfiguration of a sense of commonality in aesthetic practice. Relating this to Jacques Rancière's work on the dissensus (2010) and the distribution of the sensible (2004), the paper takes an interdisciplinary perspective at the interface of social sciences, linguistics and media studies in order to illustrate the political dimension of mediated meaning construction. We argue that such disagreement-based shifts of the social are instances of the political itself (Rancière, 2000) that re-distribute the sensible, its political subjects and their attributions and power relations (Rancière, 1999, 2010[1996]).

By analysing instances of “poetic doing” in selected special television programs we aim at illuminating how a media-aesthetic perspective can help to elucidate such practices of reconfiguration in order to gain a more comprehensive idea of the discursive construction of the pandemic and the sense(s) of the world created.

308 | Gerardo Costabile Nicoletta

“Because of people like you…”. Banal politics and the apparatus of responsabilization in the Italian pandemic context

The outbreak of the pandemic has exacerbated consolidated discursive conflicts in Italy. Indeed, the new discourses of health crisis are re-articulating old debates about the unevenness of the Italian civil society. Moving from stereotyping of the Italian citizenship, institutional communications have called citizens to be ‘responsible’, that is, to act as an extension of administrative state apparatuses. In this context media and institutional communicative practices have been fundamental gears of these governmental technologies aiming at the construction of new sites of political authority as well as legal jurisdictions on private life. This paper aims to understand how media and institutional communicative practices have been appropriated or contested by populations through qualitative discourse analysis of a corpus of social media commentaries. However, the symbolic-emotional impact of the covid-crisis management measures has not equally affected the population. If, on the one hand, a strong conformism to public institutions discourses emerged in the name of “the community”, on the other hand, many conflictual reactions arose. Looking at ‘banal politics’ circulating in social media commentaries, the paper proposed will try to picture failures and successes of the apparatus of responsabilization emerged in the Italian Covid crisis. Theoretically, the paper draws on discourse and governmentalities to deal with how Covid-19 discourse is reconfiguring political subjectivities through the normalization of specific conceptions of the political. Methodologically, the paper combines discourse analysis of institutional communications and media practices with the analysis of receiver reactions studied through discourse analysis of social media commentaries. The analysis is based on a corpus of the regional government press release, news reporting on the social media accounts of mainstream press with the commentaries on Instagram and Facebook in the period between October 2021 to December 2021. The mapping of the users’ comments to media and institutional communications, the paper ventures, can provide valuable insights to understand how an apparatus of responsabilization is constructing new political subjectivities in the context of the Italian covid crisis management.

318 | Amelie Kutter

Politicising the borderland. Narratives of the pandemic at the Polish-German border

The Covid-19 pandemic is an exemplary transboundary crisis: it transgresses animal and human habitats, territorial borders, and geographic spaces. Its management, however, has been decided upon and implemented, mainly unilaterally, by national and subnational authorities, with severe consequences for spaces such as EU border regions that rely on the permeability of borders and the compatibility of different national regulations. This paper combines border studies and research on politicisation in crisis discourse (Kutter, 2020) to explore how the borderland subjectivity, previously enabled by EU market freedoms and freedom of movement and supported by EU funds and cross-border governance, was reconfigured and politicised through discourses of the Covid-19 pandemic and its management.

This paper looks into narratives of ‘borderland crisis’ that emerged in the Polish-German border region in 2020-2022. More specifically, it investigates the crisis narratives of two groups, who draw on the border(land) as a resource and are heavily affected by border closures and incompatible national regulations: commuters, who make their living on the other side of the border and people engaged in cross-border cultural events. The analysis suggests that the construction of a ‘borderland crisis’ enabled these groups to politicise and render their situation subject of cross border collective action. At the same time, to sustain their activities as containment measures continued, borderland inhabitants resorted to nationally-spatially segregated everyday and professional life, so that the social fabric faded that new pathos of belonging had been drawing on.