It’s the REAL Thing: Contested Media Discourse and the UK Sugar Tax

Daniel, Elizabeth; O'Sullivan, Terry and Harris, Fiona (2022). It’s the REAL Thing: Contested Media Discourse and the UK Sugar Tax. Journal of Communication Management, 26(4) pp. 401–419.



Health policies often require individuals to limit behaviours deemed enjoyable or suffer other burdens. This leads to considerable and contested discourse often played out in the popular media. The aim of this study is to determine the effects of such contested media discourse on viewers’ perceived attitude change towards the target behaviour.

Combining concepts from discourse analysis and marketing-psychology elaboration models, we undertook an online survey in which a large sample of the public (N=855) watched parts of a real daytime news debate on the UK Sugar Tax. They then evaluated the effects of this discourse on their perceived understanding of the tax and perceived attitude change to the consumption of sugary drinks.

Participants differentiated between parts of the discourse related to facts and arguments (termed argument-related discourse devices) and parts related to the format and tone of the debate (termed debate-/speaker-related discourse devices). Contrary to what might be expected, debate-/speaker-related discourse devices, which might be thought of as subjective, appeared to effect positive perceived attitude change through a cognitive processing route that involved perceived improved understanding. The argument-related discourse devices, which may appear objective or rational, were not associated with perceived improved understanding but were directly associated with positive perceived attitude change.

Originality Given our interest in the relationship between discourse and perceived attitude change, we take the novel step of linking concepts from discourse analysis with models of attitude change taken from the marketing-psychology domain. Furthermore, our large-scale survey ‘democratises’ discourse analysis, allowing non-expert participants to reflect upon discourse.

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