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Home arrow Communication arrow Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis
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Findings from the BP Data

Table 10.2 shows the frequency of metaphorical uses from 2010 to 2012.

A frequency count is a relatively superficial way of investigating metaphor, but a number of interesting changes were evident over the period of the data, which formed part of the evidence for wider patterns. These were:

Table 10.2 The occurrence of metaphors in the 2010-12 BP texts

2010

2011

2012

OIL SPILL IS MALEVOLENT/WILD CREATURE

23

0

3

FINANCIAL ITEMS MOVE IN SPACE

20

39

4

WEATHER IS ANIMATE

9

0

0

Metaphors in source domain of MYTHS AND LEGENDS

1

4

8

BUSINESS IS SPORT

1

10

8

BUSINESS IS A JOURNEY

0

1

15

BUSINESS IS WAR

0

12

7

OIL IS WATER

0

0

6

Metaphors in source domain of THEATRE AND ART

0

2

5

Metaphors in source domain of CRIME

0

0

5

BUSINESS GROWTH IS LIKE BUILDING

0

6

4

BUSINESS GROWTH IS ORGANIC

0

1

2

COMPANY IS HUMAN

0

4

2

Other live metaphors

4

8

23

Other dormant metaphors

14

37

50

Other dead metaphors

14

26

41

Totals

86

150

183

Totals per 000 words

9.5

21.4

25.8

  • 1. The occurrence of metaphors of all kinds increased over the span of the data.
  • 2. The source and target domains changed over the span of the data.

Firstly, the general rise in frequency of metaphorical usage may have a number of drivers. Studies indicate (e.g. Krennemayr, 2011) that news writing is quite metaphorical, and that, if anything, hard news writing uses more metaphor than soft news. These findings relating to occurrence of metaphor run counter to my own analysis of the BP texts, where the pattern of text type shifts from primarily news and financial reports (Krennemayr’s “hard news”) towards evaluative writing such as editorials, travel pages, reviews, letters, business articles and personal blogs, which are more aligned to her definition of “soft news”. The shift is not wholesale, but Krennemayr’s findings would predict a drop, rather than a rise in metaphor. Since I find that genre is an important explanatory factor for linguistic movement in this BP corpus over the three-year period, and since Krennemayr’s work is relevant, providing a specific review of how metaphor works in news within a substantial corpus, it is worth taking this apparent discrepancy seriously. It would seem that both the higher incidence of metaphor in Krennemayr’s texts and the higher incidence of metaphor in hard news compared with soft news can largely be explained by a single categorisation difference. Krennemayr takes the formulation ORGANISATION FOR MEMBERS to be a metaphor, which she labels personification. Indeed, she cites this as being a key explanation for the “unexpected result” (2011: 123) of the relative overuse of verbs in their metaphorical sense in news. I classify such usages as metonymy, with the justification that they signify a whole-part relation, and in doing this I follow Chandler (2007) and Cornelissen (2008). If this category were added into the analysis of metaphor, it would certainly change the pattern to be more in line with Krennemayr’s expected behaviour for the data. Her overall point remains very pertinent to this work, namely, that news writing is highly metaphorical, and that metaphor has a number of functions that are specific to the genre—including making complex or abstract concepts more accessible to the reader, a cohesive function to create a satisfying whole, a rhetorical persuasive function and a way of creating humorous effects (Krennemayr, 2011).

Secondly, there is noticeable change in the clusters of metaphors that appear regularly. Target domains in 2010 are the oil spill itself, the weather and financial items such as shares and profits. Both the oil spill and the weather are represented through metaphor as animate, threatening or uncontrolled.

Louisiana-based BP spokesman Neil Chapman said 49 vessels—oil skimmers, tugboats, barges and special recovery boats that separate oil from water—are working to round up oil as the spill area continues to expand. (Carleton Place (Canada), 27.4.2010)

The sunken BP and Transocean oil rig is spewing 42,000 gallons of crude a day. (NewsWatch: Energy, 27.4.2010)

And the Coast Guard unfortunately admitting that no matter how much cooperation they get from the currents as well as the winds, it probably will not be able to stop that 1800-mile slick from splashing onto shore by the weekend. (CNN, 27.4.2010)

By 2011, targets remain financial items, given the first quarter results, but metaphors relating to business become more predominant, particularly those that offer a combative view of business, using the source domains WAR and SPORT. This was found in context to relate mainly to BP’s business struggles one year after Deepwater Horizon, which concern not only the oil spill, but also other difficulties such as BP’s business dealings in Russia. By 2012, as 27 April does not fall on results day, financial texts have dropped in number and proportion, and related metaphors are greatly reduced. Business is still a target for metaphorical expressions, and those relating to WAR and SPORT are still in evidence, although there are fewer, and in the area of business some alternative metaphorical constructions have emerged in the areas of business growth and business conceived as a JOURNEY.

Various metaphors for business growth have been identified in literature, including parenting (Dodd, 2002) building (Dodd, 2002; White, 2003) and organic growth. Within the 2012 data set, examples of the BUILDING metaphor appear, in phrases such as the following.

Building brands through behaviour. (Campaign Middle East, 27.4.2012, my emphasis)

Shell turned a profit of $7.7bn (nearly ?5bn) in the first three months of this year and the trading performance will buttress already good market sentiment around its recommended acquisition of Cove. (The Scotsman,

27.4.2012, my emphasis)

The examples above are rather conventional usages, and only indirectly related to the BP events: in the first case the metaphor refers to a theoretical or hypothetical brand (advice for building a brand: don’t do what BP did!), and in the second to BP rival Shell.

This widening of application is true of the other cluster of business metaphors that are more conspicuous in 2012, namely, BUSINESS IS A JOURNEY. Of the 15 instances of the metaphor identified in 2012, only one refers to BP itself, and this is the third shown below.

Brands that embrace this new honest and responsible world have an exciting future. And agencies that can help their clients understand, navigate and deliver in this new world will be more important than ever. (Campaign Middle East, 27.4.2012, my emphasis)

The next step is to find the idea that can be used as a strategic compass not only to communicate this externally but also to galvanise the organisation itself. An idea that lies between the two biggest trends impacting business today: social responsibility and social media. (Campaign Middle East,

27.4.2012, my emphasis)

The troubled energy major, which is seeking to move on from the US Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster in 2010, had returned to profit last year with net annual earnings of $23.9 billion. (Agence France Presse,

27.4.2012, my emphasis)

Once again these metaphors are conventional, but I suggest that choice of conventional metaphors can still be telling. The third extract above refers specifically to BP, “the troubled energy major”, proposing that businesses need to move on from crisis situations. It would be reasonable to assume that BP, and other oil companies mentioned, could still be portrayed as “battling”, “manoeuvring” and “using weapons”, but there is a more “questing”, “building”, “pathfinding” tone to the metaphors used by 2012. Milne et al. (2006) explore the JOURNEY metaphor in the context of business writing on sustainability, finding that in that context, the metaphor depicts a journey without a destination, and hypothesising that the journey metaphor is a useful device for avoiding commitment to a definite end goal. It is possible that a similar ambiguity is relevant in speculation on the future of BP post-Deepwater Horizon.

Similarly interesting is the emergence of MYTH AND LEGEND as a source domain in the 2012 texts. The concept of myth and legend is realised in the following examples:

Attendees of the United States Energy Association’s (USEAs) membership meeting, taking place simultaneously at the Washington DC-based club, were invited to listen in as the Secretary blasted unnamed Washington insiders for perpetrating “fairy tales”about imagined obstacles to oil and gas drilling and expansion on US offshore and onshore federal properties. (Foster Natural Gas/Oil Report, 27.4.2012, my emphasis)

“Like presidents of both parties before him, however,” Mr. Coll writes, “he lacked the depth of conviction, the political coalitions and the scientific vision to do more than toss relative pennies into a wishing fountain.” (The New York Times, 27.4.2012, my emphasis)

These metaphors are not about BP’s progress itself, but appear in co-text. It would be overburdening the findings to suggest that the metaphors of journey, myth and art somehow recontextualise our perception of the BP events. However, these metaphor clusters, emerging as they do in 2012, may be a small part of a general pattern that places the BP into a less concrete and more abstract context.

In Summary

There is evidence to suggest that the use of metaphor within the BP texts increases. This is a slightly unusual pattern, given that news reports in particular are held to be highly metaphorical, but can partly be explained by an overlap in definitions of metaphor and metonym. The other change is in metaphor domains, where metaphors relating to the uncontrollable weather and oil spill give way to metaphors in the domains of journey, myth and legend, which add a different (more symbolic) dimension to the BP story, albeit to a limited extent.

 
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