How UK newspapers made sense of COVID-19 related death and bereavement

Headshot photos of Dr Ryann Sowden and Dr Lucy Selman





by Dr Ryann Sowden, Research Assistant, Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School and Dr Lucy Selman Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol

In a paper published recently in PLOS One, we explore the coverage of COVID-19 in British newspapers with a focus on key media narratives about the virus.

COVID-19 and media narratives

COVID-19 has caused over 120,000 deaths in the UK, leaving over a million people bereaved. Although death is often described as a societal taboo in British culture, it remains ever-present in the public realm of news and media which COVID-19 has dominated for the past 12 months.

In the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to claim a large number of lives in the UK, newspapers reported on the threat, damage and bereavement caused by the virus, as well as providing a lens through which readers could attempt to make sense of their own experiences.

We wanted to see how newspapers covered death, grief and bereavement due to COVID-19 during two week-long periods in March and April 2020 — a time when the UK had entered its first lockdown, and was making sense of a new disease, rapidly mounting deaths, and bereavement on a largely-unprecedented scale.

Our analysis drew on Terror Management Theory, which explores the conflict between our human desire for self-preservation, and the often-unpredictable and inevitable threat of death. When faced with a heightened threat of death (such as COVID-19) Terror Management Theory suggests that people seek increased comfort in national, spiritual or cultural narratives and rituals — whose security and certainty provide a symbolic escape from the reality of death.

We searched the seven most-read UK online newspapers for relevant articles, and using critical discourse analysis we identified three main narratives.

Fear of an uncontrollable, unknown new virus

As the pandemic began, newspapers both reflected and stoked public fear of COVID-19. COVID-19 related death was portrayed as something which could affect anyone. Headlines emphasised COVID-19’s lethal nature and risks. Sensationalist language was common, alongside a pervasive sense of uncertainty, helplessness and confusion.

Particularly tragic cases, often involving children or multiple deaths within families, were highlighted alongside the rising daily death count. As restrictions to hospital visits and funeral access came into place, a ‘double’ sense of terror was conveyed: the terror of death alongside the terror of disruption to culturally-expected grieving rituals.

Articles reported widespread disruption to the grieving process but rarely explained what these disruptions entailed or how they could be mitigated.

Managing fear through prediction and calls for behaviour change

Newspapers attempted to manage the dread and uncertainty of COVID-19 by ascribing a pattern and sense of predictability to COVID-19 related destruction, often identifying for readers ‘typical’ and ‘atypical’ demographics of victims.

An us/them dichotomy was also emphasised between those who followed lockdown guidance and others who breached it. War metaphors were heavily employed, with discussions of “sacrifice,” “the frontline,” “Pearl Harbour” and “the enemy.” These metaphors were gradually abandoned as the death rate increased, perhaps because the UK appeared to be losing the war.

Mourning and loss

Newspapers paid respect to the deceased and gave a public voice to grief, often focusing . on particularly tragic losses and the deaths of healthcare and key workers. Euphemistic and glorifying language was common. Deceased healthcare workers were referred to as “heroes” and “angels,” which gave meaning and symbolism to tragedy and loss.

Making sense of it all

We found that newspapers often drew on sense-making narratives of nationalism and cultural rituals when covering COVID-19. Sometimes these narratives were used to give meaning and sense to individual deaths – describing deceased healthcare workers as “heroes” and “angels,” and framing the national response to COVID-19 as a “war.” But at other times, the disruption of comforting rituals (for example, restrictions on funerals) was reported as a tragedy in itself.

Accounts of death, grief and bereavement in each of the narratives followed a similar format. Bereavement from COVID-19 was presented as a series of tragedies disrupting the ‘typical’ process of death and grief. For example, a death that was unexpected, with loved ones unable to visit hospital, view the body after death, or attend a traditional funeral.

Newspaper articles generally had a pessimistic, sensationalist focus. When covering restrictions and changes to healthcare or funeral rituals, they tended to report on what was not possible, and seldom provided information about what was possible or what supportive strategies could be implemented to make the process of death and bereavement as more acceptable.

We hope these findings help journalists and editors in dealing with the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and with future threats to public health — making sense of existential threats without losing sight of practical guidance and levelheaded reportage of bereavement experiences.

Paper: Sowden R, Borgstrom E, Selman LE (2021) ‘It’s like being in a war with an invisible enemy’: A document analysis of bereavement due to COVID-19 in UK newspapers. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0247904.

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