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“Our biggest killer”: multimodal discourse representations of dementia in the British press

Brookes, Gavin; Harvey, Kevin; Chadborn, Neil; Dening, Tom


Gavin Brookes

Clinical Professor in Dementia Research


A recent (2016) Office for National Statistics report stated that dementia is now “the leading cause of death” in England and Wales. Ever fixated with the syndrome (an unfailingly newsworthy topic), the British press was quick to respond to the bulletin, consistently headlining that dementia was the nation’s “biggest killer,” while (re)formulating other aspects of the report in distorting and emotive metaphorical terms. In this paper we examine how the media, through use of a recurring set of linguistic and visual semiotic tropes, portrayed dementia as an agentive entity, a “killer,” which remorselessly attacks its “victims.” Such a broadly loaded and sensationalist representation, we argue, not only construed dementia as a direful and pernicious disease, but also, crucially, obscured the personal and social contexts in which the syndrome is understood and experienced (not least by people with dementia themselves). This intensely lurid type of representation not only fails to address the ageist misinformation and common misunderstandings that all too commonly surround dementia, but is also likely to exacerbate the stress and depression frequently experienced by people with dementia and their families.


Brookes, G., Harvey, K., Chadborn, N., & Dening, T. (2018). “Our biggest killer”: multimodal discourse representations of dementia in the British press. Social Semiotics, 28(3), 371-395.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jun 19, 2017
Online Publication Date Jun 30, 2017
Publication Date May 27, 2018
Deposit Date Feb 21, 2018
Publicly Available Date Dec 31, 2018
Journal Social Semiotics
Print ISSN 1035-0330
Electronic ISSN 1470-1219
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 28
Issue 3
Pages 371-395
Keywords Dementia; Alzheimer’s disease; Media; Office for National Statistics; Multimodal critical discourse analysis; Photography; Neuroimaging
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Social Semiotics on 30/06/2017, available online:


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