Colonizing the Coronavirus through Sound and Music: Media Representation, Neoliberal Biopolitics and Race in Pandemic News Coverage

Deaville, James | $31,256

Ontario Carleton University 2021 SSHRC

From late January through mid-March, 2020, North American and European news outlets provided the public with the sounds and sights of quarantine as experienced in the earliest epicenters of Wuhan (China), Tehran (Iran), and Milan (Italy). My project “Colonizing the Coronavirus” intends to explore and compare how the soundtracks of that pandemic coverage reflected and disseminated entrenched Western attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and nation. Drawing on results from a CU-SSHRC COVID‑19 Explore Research Development Grant that involved preliminary research into selected Western news coverage from Wuhan, I plan to make the study comprehensive for Wuhan and to extend the investigations to reports from the early “hot spots” in Iran and Italy. Considering that this reporting was the first opportunity for the public from the West to hear and see the effects of the coronavirus in otherwise inaccessible locales (especially China and Iran), the news from the early sites of infection takes on particular importance.

Given its global reach and profound effects on society, the pandemic has called forth an avalanche of research in all academic fields. A robust body of literature has arisen that addresses pandemic discourses on social media and elements of “fake news” on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. However, professional audiovisual reporting from the early sites of infectionthe West’s major initial source of sounds and sights from inaccessible China and Iranhas not received the same degree of attention by specialists. Moreover, no scholar has written about the soundtracks to the correspondence reports that were broadcast from those locations. Yet as typifies newscasting around the world, sound and musicthe “ultimate hidden persuader” (Cook 2000, 128)were at work in the coverage, not only underscoring the news, but also surreptitiously attempting to convince the audience of how to feel about that news.

“Colonizing the Coronavirus” accords with the theoretical and methodological approaches of my prior SSHRC-funded research on news music and how its producers exploit soundtracks to purvey problematic attitudes toward their subjects (Deaville 2006, 2012, 2019). I continue using qualitative news frame analyses of media content to determine the subliminal messages generated by reportage soundtracks; however, the parameters for study differ. Here I am listening both for environmental sound/silence and music, since in Wuhan and Tehran, the city soundscapes seem crucial for audiovisual reporting as compared with the music heard from Milan and elsewhere in Italy. Also this project seeks to situate racial, ethnic, and national discourses within the neoliberal biopolitics of a health crisis rather than a war or armed attack. Thus my findings should be of interest to a news-consuming public that has itself experienced the pandemic.

My methodology will be shaped in part by the exigencies of the public-health response to the coronavirus emergency, but in any case it involves gathering and analyzing news items as sources. While reviewing the relevant literature with the RA, I plan to gather the onsite sources in the late summer and/or during the Fall Reading Week of 2021. We would then enter them into the database and construct the website during the winter of 2022, analysing and interpreting the results in the second summer and fall, with dissemination beginning to take place in the Winter Term of 2023.

The academic disciplines of communications and media, journalism, sound studies and musicology would find the project’s outcomes valuable. I expect producers of news media will benefit from the resulting insights, and the public will want to engage with our social media outreach, as they have for my ongoing Trailaurality project (2005- ).

With funding from the Government of Canada

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