Do narratives shape crisis responses? How was the #covid-19 crisis narrated in Europe?

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The Italian response to the crisis originated debates over how to best respond to the outbreak

Crisis narratives shape public understanding and, consequently, the response to the crisis itself. For example, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, when in February 2020 Italy was experiencing more cases than any other country, the Italian response to the crisis originated debates over how to best respond to the outbreak. In this study, I looked at how experts, politicians and other social actors described linguistically their domestic measures in relation to Italy's response to coronavirus. I specifically analyze narratives in four European countries: Spain, France, the Netherlands, and the UK. Here's what I found.


My analysis shows that the narratives attached to nation-specific decisions were highly culturalized

My analysis shows that the narratives attached to nation-specific decisions were highly culturalized and connected to country-specific shared experiences, such as a sense of national exceptionalism built in opposition with the denigration of Italy as the Other-identity. Attribution of blame and blameworthiness was also found to be a common pattern across countries according to which Italians were framed as wrongdoers but also as deserving blame. Finally, I also built a comprehensive “timeline of narratives” which opens avenues for a critical reflection on the impact such narratives may have had on the understanding of the crisis, including the creation of a negative climate of division and inappropriate crisis responses.

The way crises are narrated has immediate consequences for news framing, public understanding, and policy

Despite the limited sample analyzed in my study, the findings have already important implications. The analysis highlighted patterns of discourse strategies across the four countries' crisis narratives which arguably shaped the understanding of the crisis as mild; they did so by criticizing the Italian strategy, by comparing coronavirus to influenza, and by resorting to xenophobic or exceptionalism ideas. As discourse shapes and it is shaped by public events, the way crises are narrated has immediate consequences for news framing, public understanding, and policy and therefore the results of this study crucially point to the wider issue of using appropriate linguistic devices when communicating a crisis. For example, in the language of crisis, rather than employing inappropriate frames which perpetuate stereotyped cultural images and create a polarized climate of mistrust and division, a more critical, self-reflective, and transparent approach should be adopted which could contribute to more appropriate crisis responses.


Read the full paper here

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Slides of the presentation 👇

European narrations of COVID19
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