A crisis threatening the UK? How newspapers talk about ‘social care’.


by Karen Kinloch, Elena Semino and Paul Baker

Any initiative aimed at re-framing public discourse about social care needs to be based on the best available evidence on current framings. The ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University specialises in state-of-the-art computer-aided methods to analyse the representation of a variety of social and economic issues in large linguistic datasets, including particularly from the media.

To investigate current framings of social care in the UK, we focused on the national press and collected all the articles which included the phrase ‘social care’ from eight national newspapers (The Express, The Guardian, The Independent, The Mail, The Mirror, The Telegraph, The Times and The Sun). As we were interested in the most current perspective, we limited our selection to the period between 18 June 2017 (the day following the last General Election) and 20 April 2018 (the start of data collection). This resulted in a ‘corpus’ of 5,510 articles, or approximately 2.5 million words of text to analyse.

We focused on the top 20 words which were commonly found in close proximity to ‘social care’ in the corpus (known as ‘collocates’; see Table 1), and on the top 50 most distinctive words in the data (known as ‘keywords’; see Table 2).


Table 1 – The company that ‘social care’ keeps in the UK press: top 20 collocates in a window 5 words to the left and 5 words to the right of ‘social care’.

Rank Word Total occurrences Rank Word Total occurrences
1 health 1,417 11 reform 86
2 adult 402 12 budgets 85
3 funding 386 13 cuts 136
4 crisis 279 14 he 66
5 system 276 15 fund 92
6 department 225 16 paper 70
7 NHS 467 17 integration 38
8 children’s 131 18 hunt 106
9 services 361 19 sustainable 51
10 costs 125 20 she 41


Table 2 – Distinctive vocabulary in UK articles that mention ‘social care’: the top 20 ‘keywords’ in the corpus, organised by theme

  General Collective Actors Individual Actors
POLITICAL Brexit, sector, election, deal, system, manifesto, government, councils, EU, Tory, public, cabinet, MPs, Tories Theresa, secretary, May’s, minister, Hammond, Jeremy, chancellor, Hunt, Corbyn,
FINANCIAL funding, pay, tax, budget, spending, cuts, austerity, financial
MEDICAL health, service, dementia, mental, homes, hospital, healthcare NHS, patients, staff, hospitals, nurses
PUBLIC/SOCIETY workers, elderly, public
THREAT crisis, needs, winter

The main themes emerging from the two Tables are: politics (e.g. ‘government’), finance (e.g. ‘funding’), health (e.g. ‘NHS’), societal groups (e.g. ‘elderly’) and, more generally, the idea of a societal threat (e.g. ‘crisis’).

To anyone familiar with the UK press, it is perhaps unsurprising that ‘crisis’ was a word which featured so prominently in our data (it is both a top collocate of ‘social care’ and one of the top 50 keywords in the corpus). Looking more closely at examples where ‘crisis’ and ‘social care’ occur together, it became clear that failings in the social care system were presented as a threat to society and one against which urgent action must be taken:

URGENT action is needed to tackle chronic underfunding and a staffing crisis in social care, a report warns. (Mirror, 8/2/ 2018)

Jackie Doyle-Price said that Britain was no longer a society where neighbours would look after those who were struggling. Solving the social care crisis would require ‘a culture shift for every individual’, as well as using older people’s housing wealth to pay for an ageing population. (Times, 4/10/2017)

More specifically, the crisis was often presented as the result of a complex interrelationship between an aging population, underfunding and the National Health Service:

Funding is not keeping pace with the demands of a growing number of elderly patients with complex conditions, nor the crisis in social care, which rebounds on the NHS, they say. (Independent, November 19, 2017)

The financing of social care also emerged as a central theme from both our analyses, with decreasing resources being juxtaposed against increases in costs and need for services. In the data, ‘costs’ are described as ‘rising’, ‘spiralling’, ‘huge’ and even ‘catastrophic’, while ‘funding’ is associated with ‘cuts’, ‘gap’ and ‘shortfall’. These patterns reinforce the negative representation of social care as a national crisis, as in the example below:

Lee Causer, of Moore Stephens, said: ‘Too many businesses in the care home sector are heading back to the brink. The mixture of rising costs, cuts in funding and an ageing population has created a volatile situation with many companies now showing signs of significant financial stress. (Express, August 14, 2017)

While the integration of social care and health has been championed in some quarters, we found that the link between the two in our news data was used to frame social care as an additional burden on an already overstretched health service. Frequent reference was made to delays in care, with patients described as being unable to leave hospital due to a lack of social care. This was in turn presented as leading to the unavailability of hospital beds:

The remorseless rise in demand for health and social care services is showing in lengthening waiting times for treatment and delays in discharging patients to appropriate care settings. (Guardian, November 20, 2017)

Hospitals have laid much of the blame on social care services, with patients waiting in hospital beds for the services they need to go home. (Times, October 3, 2017)

Many of the patients occupying hospital beds are elderly and medically well enough to go home. But doctors cannot discharge them due to a lack of social care. (Mail, January 4, 2018)

With regard to the types of people associated with social care, the imagined users of social care were overwhelmingly characterised as older people, in contrast with the reality of social care users who are equally likely to be children or adults with physical or mental disabilities. Neither of these other user groups featured as prominently as older people in the news reports we collected. The term ‘disabled’ occurred only half as frequently as ‘elderly’ in our corpus, and, when it was mentioned, it was predominantly as part of a list of service users, rather than a separately identifiable group, as in: ‘children, disabled adults and older people’. People described as ‘disabled’ were almost never described as working and contributing to society.

The high occurrence of expressions such as ‘elderly population’, ‘dementia’ and ‘care home’ and the co-occurrence of ‘elderly’ with ‘frail’ and ‘vulnerable’ suggests a stereotypical news representation of a social care service user who is an older person with complex medical needs and high levels of care. The combination of this pattern with the emphasis on inadequate funding means that older people are described both as a drain on resources (and as such a threat) and as the victims of the current social care system, both in personal and financial terms:

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt today throws his weight behind a controversial NHS tax’ to tackle the timebomb of how to pay for elderly people in care. (Mail on Sunday, March 25, 2018)

Without lasting reform, the most vulnerable frail and elderly people are at real risk of falling through the gaps and not getting the support they expect – and deserve. (Independent, August 31, 2017)

Overall, our analysis suggests that social care is at present predominantly framed in the UK press as an intractable problem that results from a combination of decreasing financial resources (mainly due to government policies) and increasing demands (due to a rising number of older people in need of support). Any attempt at proposing new perspectives and narratives needs to take these current framings into account.


Karen Kinloch, Elena Semino and Paul Baker are from the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science, and Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University.

This research was supported by:

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