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Communication and Medicine

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An enquiry into scientific and media discourse in the MMR controversy: Authority and factuality

Gabriella Rundblad / Paul A Chilton / Paul R Hunter
Published Online: 2006-06-19 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/CAM.2006.007


In this paper, we investigate two scientific articles at opposite ends of the MMR debate—Wakefield et al. (1998) (which started the debate) and Taylor et al. (1999)—and four media articles published to inform the public of the results of these two scientific studies. Because people need to assess truth claims about health risks, communicators seek to establish their believability in two ways: authority (i.e., the attribution of scientific claims to sources that may be perceived as believable because of their status) and factuality (i.e., the moderating, limiting, or highlighting of truth claims). The importance of authority was confirmed by the media texts' preference for direct quotes and messages about what people ought to do, especially at the beginning of the debate. Our most significant find, however, relates to two important indicators of factuality: avoidance of vague references and high use of epistemic modals, where Wakefield et al. displays a pattern not at all different from the media texts and opposite to that expected from a scientific text. That Wakefield et al. stands out in the majority of indicators investigated is of interest in view of its controversial position in the MMR debate and worthy of further study.

Keywords: health communication; discourse analysis; authority; factuality; modality

About the article

Gabriella Rundblad

Gabriella Rundblad received her Ph.D. in English Linguistics from Stockholm University in 1997 and is currently Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at King's College London. She is a lexico-semanticist with a cognitive and psycholinguistic focus. Her main publication areas include lexico-semantic variation and change. Current research projects include cognitive approaches in discourse analysis of health communication, cognitive development in children, and psycholinguistic approaches to gender and plural form assignment in Swedish.

Paul A Chilton

Paul A. Chilton received his degree in Modern Languages and D.Phil from the University of Oxford. His research falls within cognitive linguistics as well as discourse studies and currently focuses on developing a discourse model using vector spaces. He is also known for his work on political discourse and the discourse of international relations. He is currently Professor of Linguistics at the University of East Anglia.

Paul R Hunter

Paul R. Hunter graduated in medicine from Manchester in 1979, after which he specialized in medical microbiology, and in 2001 he was appointed Professor of Health Protection in the new medical school of the University of East Anglia. His main research interest is in epidemiology and prevention of infectious diseases, especially those due to contamination of food and water. He is also interested in public health management of outbreaks and emergencies.

1Address for correspondence: King's College London, Department of Education and Professional Studies, London SE1 9NH, UK.

Published Online: 2006-06-19

Published in Print: 2006-05-01

Citation Information: Communication & Medicine, Volume 3, Issue 1, Pages 69–80, ISSN (Online) 1613-3625, ISSN (Print) 1612-1783, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/CAM.2006.007.

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