Portrayals of autism in the British press: A corpus-based study

Themis Karaminis*, Costas Gabrielatos, Ursula Maden-Weinberger, Geoffrey Beattie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Abstract

Press representations of autism and autistic people both reflect and help shape public attitudes towards autism and neurodiversity and may establish critical barriers to social integration for autistic individuals. This study examined such representations in UK newspapers in the period 2011–2020 using a corpus-based approach. It also considered how press representations changed over time and differed with regard to reporting style (tabloids vs broadsheets) and political orientation (left- vs right-leaning). We created the Autism UK Press Corpus, which included all documents (~24K) referring to autism in 10 national newspapers. We used document counts (normalised by newspaper size) to assess the ‘newsworthiness’ of autism. We also employed a synergy of corpus-based and critical-discourse-analysis methodologies to study lexicogrammatical patterns and uncover explicit and implicit attitudes towards autism. Our results showed that the coverage of autism increased slightly over time, especially in broadsheets and left-leaning newspapers. Newspapers emphasised adversities associated with autism, often used negative language, and tended to focus on boys. These representations shifted gradually towards more difference-based descriptions and included more diverse age/gender groups, especially in broadsheets and left-leaning newspapers. We discuss the broad implications of these findings for the autism community and those interested in a more inclusive society. Lay abstract: Any thriving society must recognise, accept and celebrate all of its diverse talent. But how accepting is British society towards autism and autistic people? This research addressed this question through the lens of the press since the press both reflects and helps shape public attitudes towards various social categories. We used specialised ‘corpus-based’ methods to carry out a large-scale study, which examined all articles referring to autism or autistic people in 10 national British newspapers in the period 2011–2020. We first investigated how often newspapers referred to autism. We found that the coverage of autism increased slightly over the years, suggesting that autism was becoming an increasingly newsworthy topic. Furthermore, the rise in autism coverage differed considerably between individual newspapers: it was more pronounced in the broadsheets than tabloids, and in left-leaning than right-leaning newspapers. But what was the focus of these articles? We found that newspapers emphasised the adversities associated with autism and portrayed autism with a lot of negative language. Newspapers also tended to focus on autistic children, and particularly on boys. There were some signs of change in more recent years, with some newspapers now representing autism as a difference and, in addition, referring to more diverse groups of autistic people. However, these changes tended to be confined to broadsheets and left-leaning newspapers. Our findings suggest that representations of autism in the contemporary British press are skewed towards stereotypically negative views, which may well hinder the acceptance of autism and the fostering of a more inclusive society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-23
JournalAutism
Early online date1 Nov 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2022

Keywords

  • acceptance
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • corpus-based
  • critical discourse analysis
  • implicit attitudes
  • newspapers
  • representations

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