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Corpus analysis or close reading? A case study on press representations of obesity

Franklin-Wilkins Building, Waterloo Campus, London

12 Feb newspaper

­­­This talk is based on an ESRC-funded research project currently running at Lancaster University which aims to examine newspaper representations around obesity. Media reporting of obesity has been criticised in academic research as alarmist and uncritical (Holland et al 2011) and is perceived by obese people as portraying them as freaks and enemies of society who are rarely given a voice unless successfully losing weight, which Couch et al (2015) argue is a form of ‘synoptical’ social control.

Taking five years of newspaper data from the Daily Mail, Paul Baker examines representations but also considers methods of analysis, comparing a traditional ‘close reading’ method with one associated with corpus assisted discourse studies.

Four sampling techniques were used in order to identify sets of 10 articles for a ‘close reading’. These were 1) sampling articles from the week where the highest number of articles were published, 2) sampling articles that contain the highest number of references to obesity 3) random sampling and 4) sampling based on using the tool ProtAnt which ranks the proto-typicality of articles based on the number of keywords found in them. The close reading considered phenomena such as quotation patterns, narrative structure, argumentation strategies and fallacies as well as lexical choice, grammatical relationships and metaphor.

For the corpus analysis, collocates of the terms obese and obesity were identified, grouped into semantic categories, and then concordance lines of a range of collocates taken from different categories were analysed. To ensure a degree of comparability across the different analytical conditions, the same amounts of time were spent on each form of analysis.

Having carried out the analyses a meta-analysis compared the findings elicited by different techniques in order to identify the extent that they overlap or give dissonant results. Rather than attempting to judge which approach was the most successful, the paper ends with a more reflective discussion of their strengths and weaknesses and makes suggestions for how they can be combined in order to complement one another following Baker and Levon (2015).


Baker, P. and Levon, E. (2015) 'Picking the right cherries?: a comparison of corpus-based and qualitative analyses of news articles about masculinity.' Discourse and Communication 9(2): 221-336.

Couch, D., Thomas, S. L., Lewis, S., Blood, R. W.and Komesaroff, P. (2015) Obese adult’s perception of news reporting on obesity. The panopticon and synopticon at work. Sage Open 5(4) 2158244015612522.

Holland K., Blood R. W., Thomas S. I., Lewis S., Komesaroff P. A. and Castle D. J. (2011). “Our girth is plain to see”: An analysis of newspaper coverage of Australia’s future “Fat Bomb.” Health, Risk & Society, 13, 31-46.


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