Opinion: new research looks at the language used to report on tragic events in 2015 in Berkeley and Carrickmines

By Fergal Quinn and Elaine Vaughan, University of Limerick

Language matters. In subtle and yet powerful ways, we create our world with words. We do this in our everyday interactions with others in our homes, at work and within all of our actual and virtual and communities. The significance of language as a prism through which we construct and make sense of the world is fundamental to multiple academic fields, such as linguistics, sociology, psychology, and communication studies. 

This is amplified when we consider the relationship between language and the media and how language is used in the media. We see it in language's potential to not only reflect but influence public understandings and attitudes to particular groups and communities, issues or events. Studying media discourse is important for what it reveals about a society and for what it contributes to the character of society. Questions about how subtleties and coded meanings are communicated in the media are particularly crucial when we consider issues around socioeconomic inequality. 

These questions feed into broader concerns about the relationship between the news media and the reproduction of inequality. Does the media simply report on issues as they arise, and events as they happen, or does it actually challenge injustice? We know language is implicated in all of this, but how? 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Barry Lenihan reports on the third anniversary of the Berkeley balcony collapse in California in which six Irish students died

A study carried out in UL focuses on news coverage of two tragic events: the Berkeley balcony collapse in June 2015 in which six students died, and the Carrickmines fire in October of that same year in which four adults and six children died. 

As one commentator put it at the time, it is a tale of two tragedies, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. The victims were all Irish, but from different communities, "settled" and Traveller. The relationship between Traveller and settled communities in Ireland has long been uneasy, with studies highlighting anti-Traveller attitudes among the public, and an overall perception of Travellers as "social misfits"

Community advocates claim that the media perpetuate such perceptions rather than actively interrogating them. Other academic studies make the case that pre-existing negative perceptions and polarised attitudes become particularly visible in the wake of events such as Carrickmines. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, RTÉ Dublin correspondent John Kilraine reports on the Carrickmines fire inquest verdict, which killed four adults and six children in 2015. Catherine Joyce, manager of the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group, reacts to the inquest verdict.

The Carrickmines and Berkeley events are similar in terms of what is termed "newsworthiness", the factors that take an event into the news. Both were horrifically tragic and unexpected events with an unusually high number of Irish victims and should therefore provoke high levels of interest in Irish audiences. So were these intrinsically "newsworthy" events reported in the same way - and did they get the same level of coverage? 

To look at the type and volume of the coverage, and the language used to report on both events, we built an electronic database of news reports about Berkeley and Carrickmines. We harvested articles from Irish newspapers for a period of one month after each event and used specialised software to look for patterns in the language used in the articles. 

When we did this, a number of striking patterns emerged. The first was an imbalance in the coverage in the sample: almost twice the number of articles and words covered the Berkeley tragedy in the month after the event compared to Carrickmines in a similar time period. The number of words suggests an uneven focus then, but the nature of how these words are used also appeared to feed into a tendency to "other" the victims in Carrickmines in a way that was not evident in the Berkeley coverage. 

From RTÉ Six One News, a report on a message from Pope Francis which was read out at the Carrickmines' fire victims' funeral

The dominant participants in the Carrickmines text overall are different to what might have been expected. In the usual coverage of a tragic event (Berkeley being a typical example in this regard), the key participants would tend to be either victims, family of victims and/or those who may have been at fault in causing the incident (the pilot of a plane in a plane crash, for example). 

But when we look frequency patterns for the reporting on Carrickmines, other people in the story feature almost as strongly as the victims and their families and close friends (for example, non-Traveller residents in the Carrickmines area and the council). Elsewhere, the language used in reporting demonstrates an emphasis on the ethnicity of the victims in Carrickmines and a general lack of personalisation (the use of names or the fact that those who died were primarily children). 

Coverage of Berkeley emphasised signifiers of the wider connections of the victims to society, in terms of relationships or family backgrounds in a way which emphasises the value and potential of lives lost in a way that is conspicuously absent in the Carrickmines coverage. This is accentuated by an explicit positioning of the media itself within the news discourse via self-identification with Berkeley victims (a larger number of references to "us" and "our"). We also found that language of the Carrickmines news coverage tends to be more oppositional in tone with "residents" contrasted with "Travellers" and "temporary" contrasted with "permanent". 

These patterns were not uniform across all media outlets, and the tendencies reported here were stronger in some more than others

This oppositional "othering" tendency is accentuated by the way in which the news reporting moves quickly from a story around a "tragic incident" to one which is driven by "conflict" between Traveller and settled communities over the relocation of families affected. By focusing on this element, while ignoring other angles on the story such as the lack of monitoring of safety and fire regulations on halting sites, it contributes to the marginalisation of the less dominant group.

These patterns were not uniform across all media outlets, and the tendencies reported here were stronger in some more than others. We know that language can be used to reveal, to reflect – and to obscure – power, and that the media has a role and a responsibility in this regard. How we get at the truth of this is through the close analysis of individual cases. These individual cases form part of larger narratives, which we need to not only observe, but challenge, and, where necessary, change. 

Dr Fergal Quinn is a lecturer in journalism in University of LimerickDr Elaine Vaughan lectures in Linguistics, Applied Linguistics and TESOL at the University of Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ