From icon to naturalised icon
: a linguistic analysis of media representations of the BP Deepwater Horizon crisis

  • Jane Gravells

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This research explores how news media reports construct representations of a business crisis through language. In an innovative approach to dealing with the vast pool of potentially relevant texts, media texts concerning the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill are gathered from three different time points: immediately after the explosion in 2010, one year later in 2011 and again in 2012. The three sets of 'BP texts' are investigated using discourse analysis and semi-quantitative methods within a semiotic framework that gives an account of language at the semiotic levels of sign, code, mythical meaning and ideology.
    The research finds in the texts three discourses of representation concerning the crisis that show a movement from the ostensibly representational to the symbolic and conventional: a discourse of 'objective factuality', a discourse of 'positioning' and a discourse of 'redeployment'. This progression can be shown to have useful parallels with Peirce's sign classes of Icon, Index and Symbol, with their implied movement from a clear motivation by the Object (in this case the disaster events), to an arbitrary, socially-agreed connection. However, the naturalisation of signs, whereby ideologies are encoded in ways of speaking and writing that present them as 'taken for granted' is at its most complete when it is least discernible. The findings suggest that media coverage is likely to move on from symbolic representation to a new kind of iconicity, through a fourth discourse of 'naturalisation'. Here the representation turns back towards ostensible factuality or iconicity, to become the 'naturalised icon'. This work adds to the study of media representation a heuristic for understanding how the meaning-making of a news story progresses. It offers a detailed account of what the stages of this progression 'look like' linguistically, and suggests scope for future research into both language characteristics of phases and different news-reported phenomena.
    Date of Award1 Apr 2015
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Aston University
    SupervisorJudith A Baxter (Supervisor)


    • discourse analysis
    • crisis communication
    • semiotics
    • news media

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