‘Guv, I'm a copper, not a social worker!’: Using corpus-assisted discourse studies to analyse how caring professionals are portrayed on anglophone TV

Leedham, Maria (2022). ‘Guv, I'm a copper, not a social worker!’: Using corpus-assisted discourse studies to analyse how caring professionals are portrayed on anglophone TV. In: ICAME Conference, 27-30 Jul 2022, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK.

URL: https://icame.info/conferences/


Many professionals in broadly-categorised ‘caring’ domains feel they are poorly-represented in television dramas (e.g. Chatterjee, 2020; Weaver et al., 2013). In the case of social workers, previous research has indicated that both press and entertainment media consistently portray the profession negatively, particularly in child protection cases (e.g. Reid & Misener, 2001; Zugazaga et al 2006). This study builds on previous work on the portrayal of social workers in UK press articles (Leedham, 2021), extending this scope to consider how jobs broadly classified as ‘caring’ are portrayed in English-medium TV programmes first shown in the period 2010-2017, and seeks to answer the following research questions:

1) What are the proportions of positive, negative and neutral mentions of social worker(s) on TV?
2) How does this portrayal differ from that of other caring professionals?
3) What is the nature of the negativity around social worker?

The research takes a social constructionist approach to knowledge creation; methodologically, the study combines corpus linguistics with discourse analysis in exploring how the language surrounding mentions of professionals constructs, reinforces and extends the wider societal view of the profession (cf. studies in Taylor and Marchi, 2018). The dataset employed is the 325 million word TV Corpus (Davies, 2019) comprising transcripts from a broad array of TV dramas from anglophone contexts; this is explored through collocate lists and concordance lines (n=1600) from eight subcorpora featuring the professions of social worker, nanny, teacher, doctor, cop, therapist, priest and nurse. Two hundred concordance lines per profession were categorised using five levels from highly positive to highly negative by two independent raters, and negative categories were then further coded. Additionally, IMDB* programme plot synopses featuring social worker were explored to investigate the positioning of this professional group within programmes. Findings indicate a highly negative portrayal of social workers as either judgmental bureaucrats or uncaring childsnatchers, and also suggests that social worker characters on TV – in common with those from other female-dominated professions such as nanny and nurse – are frequently-portrayed as having inappropriate sexual relationships with clients. Insights into how different professionals are portrayed were also revealed through the search term n*t a social worker - as in the title quotation - wherein characters seek to distance themselves from particular professions perhaps viewed as lower status.

The study contrasts with previous research on how professions are portrayed on TV as the focus here is on the language surrounding mentions of the professionals rather than their visual depictions or characterisation through actions. As such, it exemplifies the use of corpus linguistic procedures alongside more qualitative methods and illustrates the widespread use of corpora across research areas as part of the ‘new normal’ of corpus research. The study furthers understanding of the ways in which social workers and other professionals are portrayed in television dramas through the dialogue of characters, illustrating the role of entertainment media in shaping widely-held views on different professionals.

* Internet Movie DataBase https://www.imdb.com/

Chatterjee, D. & Ryan, A.M. (2020). 'Is policing becoming a tainted profession? Media, public perceptions, and implications', Journal of Organizational Behavior, 41: 606-21.

Davies, M. (2019) The TV Corpus. Available online at https://www.english-corpora.org/tv/.

Leedham, M. (2021). '‘Social Workers Failed to Heed Warnings’: A Text-Based Study of How a Profession is Portrayed in UK Newspapers', The British Journal of Social Work. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcab096

Reid, W. J., & Misener, E. (2001). Social work in the press: a cross-national study. International Journal of Social Welfare, 10(3), 194-201.

Taylor, C., & Marchi, A. (2018). Corpus approaches to discourse: A critical review. London and New York: Routledge.

Weaver, R., Y. Salamonson, J. Koch, and D. Jackson. (2013). 'Nursing on television: student perceptions of television's role in public image, recruitment and education', Journal of Advanced Nursing, 69: 2635-43.

Zugazaga, C.B., R.B. Surette, M. Mendez, and C.W. Otto. (2006). 'Social worker perceptions of the portrayal of the profession in the news and entertainment media: an exploratory study', Journal of Social Work Education, 42: 621.

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