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“I think we’d rather be called survivors”: a corpus-based critical discourse analysis of the semantic preferences of referential strategies in Hurricane Katrina news articles as indicators of ideology

Research output: Contribution to conference - Without ISBN/ISSN Conference paper

  • Amanda Potts
Publication date29/09/2013
<mark>Original language</mark>English
Event5th International Language in the Media Conference - Queen Mary, University of London, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 28/09/201330/09/2013


Conference5th International Language in the Media Conference
CountryUnited Kingdom


In times of great crisis, people often rely upon the discourse of powerful institutions to help frame experiences and reinforce established ideologies (van Dijk 1985). Selection of referential strategies in such discourses can reveal much about our society; for instance, some words have the power to comfort addressees but further oppress the referents. Taking a corpus-based critical discourse analytical approach, in this paper I explore the discursive cues of underlying ideology (of both the publications and perhaps the assumed audience) with special attention on journalists’ referential and predicational strategies (Reisgl and Wodak 2000). Analysis is based on a custom-compiled 36.7-million-word corpus of American news print articles concerning Hurricane Katrina.

A variety of forms of reference have been identified in the corpus using part-of-speech tagged word lists. Collocates of each form of reference have been calculated and automatically assigned a semantic tag by the UCREL USAS tagger (Archer et al. 2002). Semantic categories represented by the highest proportion of collocates overall have been identified as the most salient indicators of ideology.

The semantic preferences of the referential strategies are found to be quite distinct. For instance, resident prefers the M: Movement semantic category, whereas collocates of evacuee tend to fall under N: Numbers. This may prime readers to interpret Gulf residents and evacuees as large, threatening, ‘invading’ masses (often in conjunction with negative water metaphors such as flood). The highest collocate semantic category for victim, displaced, and survivor is S: Social actions, states and processes, indicating that the [social] experiences of these referents—such as being helped or stranded, or linked to social identifies such as wife—are foregrounded rather than their numbers or movement.

Finally, the plummeting frequency of refugee following a unique debate in the media over the word’s meaning and even its semantic preference will also be discussed as an illustrative example of how unconscious language patterns can sometimes come to the fore in contested usage and influence the journalistic lexicon. Following from this, a more considered use of referential strategies is recommended, particularly in the media, where this could encourage heightened compassion for- and understanding of those gravely affected by catastrophic events.