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Home arrow Communication arrow Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis

Findings from the BP Data

In 2010 and 2011, the number of actors mentioned is nearly 17 per 000 words. By 2012 there is an increase to about 21 per 1000 words. Put simply, more people are being drawn into the BP story, or rather the BP story is being widened to include more people. The proportions of types of social actor are also considerably changed, as Table 8.2 shows, with some types increasing and others disappearing from the story.

The largest groups of people mentioned in 2010 are (1) BP staff (2) US agencies and (3) universities and private agencies. By 2012, the three largest groups of people, accounting for three-quarters of actors, are (1) members of the public and the community (2) writers, other artists and fictional characters and (3) those in politics. This represents a considerable shift in the cast of stakeholders from both 2010 and 2011 to 2012. By 2012, mentions of BP management and staff are almost completely absent. Where the name of Tony Hayward does appear, it is either as the neutral but familiar “ex-boss of BP” (Campaign Middle East, 27.4.2012) or the evaluative “BP’s hapless chief executive, Tony Hayward” (The New York Times, 27.4.2012). The one named BP employee (Kurt Mix) is mentioned in the context of his arrest for deleting electronic evidence in relation to the disaster. Those mentioned in the areas of business and media comment are still evident, but these are now secondary to those mentioned in an artistic context.

Members of the public are increasingly mentioned in broad groups—for example, “thousands of people”, “Americans”, “the public”, “consumers”— and are ever further away from the events, for example, people who live in a town (not near the Gulf) whose work situation has been affected by the Gulf oil spill, or the brother- and sister-in-law of the journalist visiting New Orleans to report on the state of the town after recent disasters. Similarly, politicians, who have an increased presence in the 2012 texts, are less closely connected to events than is the case in 2010. At that time, key figures include, for example, the Chair of the Energy committee, and Governors of the Gulf States. By 2012, they include figures much further away from events, for example, George W. Bush, UK Chancellor George Osborne and President Vladimir Putin. This is another indication of the shift of the representation of the crisis from being something highly situated and local, to something representative and global (even though we know that newspaper coverage is located increasingly in the USA). The considerable proliferation of people mentioned is shown in the analysis which excludes repeated instances. This indicates that 89 unique people or groups are mentioned out of 148 total participant-mentions—a higher proportion than in previous years, where the same people tend to be cited repeatedly.

As indicated in the overview of text genres, a significant change in 2012 is the emergence of texts with a connection with fiction and nonfiction writing, art and music. This brings with it a new cast of characters whose part in the BP story is extremely diverse:

[Review of a film based on a Margaret Atwood book] Also thrown into the mix are Conrad Black, the disgraced media mogul who went to prison for mail fraud, a tattooed Canadian man serving time for robbery and abused migrant tomato pickers in Florida. All are subjects worthy of discussion, but tackling them in one film disrupts the movie’s momentum and shortchanges viewers. Baichwal could have devoted a single film to just BP’s disgraceful behavior. (The New York Post, 27.4.2012, my emphasis)

[New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis and the BP oil spill] Fast-forward to April 14, 2012. There were no musicians enlivening the concourse as I arrived this time, but there would be hundreds of them down along the sunny riverfront, where an estimated halfmillion people make a pilgrimage each year to the French Quarter Festival. (Sarasota Herald Tribune [Florida], 27.4.2012, my emphasis)

The references to written and performed art generally entail the BP events being placed within a wider context, with no restriction on participants. By 2012, readers and viewers are expected to understand what the events might represent, or what social meaning they have, even as further light is shed upon them through their juxtaposition with other social phenomena. A number of the people included in the “Art” category are not real but fictional.

In Summary

The pattern of participants in the texts over the years is one of increasing fragmentation and dispersal. More and more people are mentioned in connection with the BP story, and there are more unique mentions rather than repeated individuals, yet they have weaker and more distant connections with the BP crisis. BP employees and the victims of the explosion are virtually absent by 2012.

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