Faizullah Jan
Sayyed Fawad Ali Shah
Publication Date
June 21, 2014

This paper offers a critique of newspaper coverage of the polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan between May 2011 and May 2014. Its purpose is to explore how the discourse of the Pakistani news media on polio has constructed knowledge about this issue and played a role in the national debate on polio vaccination.

To help the reader understand the context, the paper explains that - in this polio-endemic country - vaccination campaigns are promoted by Pakistani government officials, military, and international organisations (as part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, or GPEI). These campaigns have been controversial. On the one hand, the government makes the argument - through extensive media campaigns, advertising, and billboards - that polio is a threat to the healthy future of their children and that the vaccine is safe. On the other side, some parents are refusing to vaccinate their children and claim that the campaign is part of a United States (US) and Zionist conspiracy to render Muslims infertile and staunch their population growth. Larson and Bhutta (2013) have stated that the number of parents accepting vaccination dipped after the news broke that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had used vaccination campaigns to trace down Osama Bin Laden, further strengthening the belief in Pakhtoon communities that vaccination was a tactic to sterilise their children.

In this context, the role of news media in informing the population about polio and the public health choices available is critical. However, the dependency of news media on official sources like government, the military, and international organisations shapes the ways the reporting about polio is framed. (As the authors elaborate in a section of the paper on media and state relations in Pakistan: "Pakistani media have always been under the influence of state in one way or the other.") Gramsci's (1971) theory of hegemony informs this study for its focus on the ways in which the process of socialisation works to enforce the values and interests of the elites. Media hegemony refers in this paper to the cultivation of consent for the values and ideas of Pakistani social classes and their ways of life, and to the cultural processes through which such dominant ideologies are used throughout media institutions and practices in both public and private spheres of social life. From this perspective, according to the authors, the ideology of journalists and media organisations promotes hegemonic views in many ways. "One of the ideological effects of such intended or unintended hegemonic representation is to negate social change."

The researchers selected 120 news stories from 4 Pakistani English-language newspapers - Dawn, The News International, The Nation, and Daily Times - and examined them through the framing analysis method, a qualitative tool. Frame is the central organising idea in a news story that provides meaning to events, emphasising certain elements of a story while ignoring others (Gamson & Modigiliani, 1989). Pan and Kosicki (1993) look at frames as macro propositions that work as the central organising ideas providing coherence to semantic and rhetorical elements of a news story. The coherence provided by the frames helps the reader understand what is the issue and what is at stake. Pan and Kosicki (1993) argue that framing devices can be classified into 4 structural categories: syntactical structures; script structure; thematic structure; and rhetoric structure. This analysis identified these 4 framing devices in the examination of news stories.

Four dominant frames emerged from the analysis of 120 selected stories:

  1. Globalisation of polio linked to Pakistan - 3 sub-frames emerged within this dominant frame: (i) financial support of international donors as a "lifeline"; (ii) international donors as saviors of Pakistani children; and (iii) Pakistan as a threat to other countries. "In conclusion, the news stories published in the four newspapers clearly support hegemonic discourses about the power structure in the polio program. Pakistan's government is portrayed as under the 'influence of the international community' and 'unwilling' to implement the polio eradication program prescribed by foreign experts."
  2. Polio workers as victims of terrorism - "In the rhetorical structure of the four newspapers, words like 'victims,' of terrorism and 'heroes' of the nation are used....[T]here is no effort to quote the families or coworkers of the victims, or to get perspectives from the alleged attacking groups. These reports presented government officials, police, and donor agencies' officials as the authentic and credible sources of information, without bothering to look into other sources of information."
  3. Politicisation of polio - Newspapers gave prominent coverage to events, ceremonies, and workshops in which politicians and government officials (usually of the ruling party) and sports and films stars promoted the cause of polio eradication.
  4. Abbottabad operation linked to increase of polio cases in Pakistan - Thirteen stories published in 2011 and 2012 linked the resistance to polio vaccination in Pakistan to the operation carried out by the CIA in the military town of Abbottabad to kill Bin Laden.

Out of the 120 stories, 73 quoted international donor agencies as the only source of information, while 12 had government officials as the main sources of information. In the remaining 35 stories, both government and official sources were quoted. "None of the reports mentioned any opposition voice, and opposition was totally ignored." Olufowote (2014) has argued that, in order to create a positive public discourse about an issue, newspapers need to give equal space to all the stakeholders, which the authors claim that the Nigerian press did in the context of the 2003-2004 vaccination stoppage in northern Nigeria. This strategy "played an important role in the bridging [of] differences between the proponents and opponents of the vaccination campaigns in Nigeria. However, Pakistani newspapers failed to play the same role."

The authors conclude that newspapers in this study played a hegemonic role in the distribution of information regarding polio vaccination. The study found that newspapers reinforced the frames sponsored by the dominant classes, ignoring the views of those who were opposed to vaccination campaigns.


PUTAJ - Humanities and Social Sciences, [S.l.], v. 21, n. 1, p. 179-193, June 2014. ISSN 2219-245X. AImage credit: