Australian newspapers react to chaos: Using corpus-based Critical Discourse Analysis to analyse Australian media reporting on the January 6th capitol attack

Australian newspapers react to chaos: Using corpus-based Critical Discourse Analysis to analyse Australian media reporting on the January 6th capitol attack

By Raphael Lo Schiavo-Rega

This article was originally published by the Sydney Corpus Lab.

Like many people across the English-speaking world, the January 6th capitol attack (Image 1) both surprised and intrigued me. I was especially interested in the reaction of the media, and the wildly different representations created of the event by mouthpieces on both sides of the American political chasm. It made me wonder if such polarisation also existed in the Australian media, especially given the shared ownership of outlets such as Fox News and The Australian, and so I decided to base my master’s dissertation on answering that question.

Image 1: 2021 Storming of the United States Capitol (Tyler Merbler, licensed under CC BY 2.0).

To do this, I undertook a corpus-based Critical Discourse Analysis of the coverage of the capitol attack by The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald, using a corpus of 276 articles that spanned a total of one month’s reporting (06/01/2021 – 06/02/2021). Importantly, I endeavoured to create this corpus as transparently as possible, devising a set of explicit principles for the creation of small topical news corpora. While you can read about these principles in my dissertation, in this post I focus on the corpus analysis and key findings.

I subjected the corpus to a varied methodological approach, using corpus-linguistic techniques such as concordancing and cluster analysis in combination with the theoretical framework of Cognitive Linguistic Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS). The overarching goal was to understand how three facets of the January 6th event were represented: the Event itself, its Participants, and the [Inter]actions of Participants.

For Event representation, I looked at each papers’ use of noun labels for the event (e.g. MARCH; RALLY; PROTEST; ATTACK) to categorise and evaluate the event according to both sentiment (positive; neutral; critical) and cognitive frame (e.g. violence, killing, aggregate). I found that both newspapers represented the event critically, labelling it with protest-critical terms (such as RIOT or CHAOS), while also profiling cognitive frames of mass violence and death in their respective categorisations (e.g., violent attack on Capitol; deadly insurrection; mob assault – see Figures 1-3).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Next, for Participant representation, I examined each paper’s use of noun labels for participants and their sentiment/frame, but also the way these labels convey participants’ sociological role according to van Leeuwen’s (1996) Social Actor approach. Here I found that both newspapers conveyed the Participants as ideological Other by backgrounding their sociological agency and framing them with negative predicative content (such as violence or chaos). The word mob when used for the participants was pre-modified by angryviolentriotous and (pro-)Trump, and the link to Trump was also made explicit in the use of ‘possessivations’ such as his supporters/Trump supporters/Trump’s supporters/the president’s supporters.

Lastly, for [Inter]action representation, I looked at each paper’s use of verbs in image-schema – schematic configurations of experience that realise ‘basic domains of action, motion and force’ (Hart, 2014, p.168). Here, I found that both papers uniformly presented the January 6th protesters as blameworthy for violent action, using schema such as ASYMMETRICAL ACTION (e.g., the Capitol building was stormed by a violent mob) or SHIFT-IN-STATE (e.g., the rioters breached the Capitol).

Overall, then, my investigation into The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald’s representations of January 6th showed a distinct lack of polarisation, despite the pre-existing left/right orientation. This therefore raised questions as to the applicability of the left-right political dichotomy when studying Australian coverage of international events such as the January 6th Attack, suggesting the need to instead understand such reporting from the perspective of a shared domestic ideology. Moreover, my dissertation also broke new ground in applying CL-CDS theoretical concepts to the study of Australian reporting of such events, an area previously unexplored. Finally, developing and applying the corpus building principles and methods helped my research achieve greater transparency, and therefore replicability.

For more information and additional findings, you can read my dissertation here and you can contact me via email at rloschiavorega[at]gmail[dot]com.


Hart, C. (2014). Constructing contexts through grammar: Cognitive models and conceptualization in British newspaper reports of political protests. In J. Flowerdew (Ed.), Discourse in Context: Contemporary Applied Linguistics (Vol.3) (pp.159-184). Bloomsbury Publishing.

van Leeuwen, T. (1996). The representation of social actors. In C.R. Caldas-Coulthard & M. Coulthard. (1996). Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis (1st ed.) (pp.32-70). New York, NY: Routledge.

Raphael Lo Schiavo-Rega recently completed a Masters of Cross-Cultural and Applied Linguistics at the University of Sydney. His research interests include corpus-based approaches to Cognitive Linguistics Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS) and its application to study of media, persuasion and ideology.
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