Risk in Discourses around Fracking: A Discourse Linguistic Perspective on the UK, the USA and Germany

Author(s) Mattfeldt Anna
Year 2021
Language of Investigation GB
Studied Language GB, DE
Please cite as follows:

Mattfeldt, Anna (2021): Risk in Discourses around Fracking: A Discourse Linguistic Perspective on the UK, the USA and Germany. In Journal of Risk Research 25.3, S. 317–330. (Special Issue Understanding Discourse and Language of Risk, hrsg. von Jens A. Zinn & Marcus Müller). DOI: doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2021.1881992.


Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a relatively new method of energy extraction that makes it possible to use considerable amounts of shale gas that were hitherto unreachable. Although proponents of fracking voice their hopes for energy independence and an economic boost, fracking has been under discussion in several countries, its possible risks playing a key role when it comes to political decisions regarding the technology. This paper shall examine media discourses surrounding the usage of fracking with a specific regard to the risks that are constituted. Discourses in the UK, the US and Germany are compared, focusing on similarities and differences. These three countries are chosen since the political approach on fracking has been quite different, with the US being one of the first countries to use fracking. The corpora are analyzed with a focus on the depiction of conflictive issues in the framework of so-called agonality. The public perception of risks is shaped by their dominance in the media and the way they are phrased (e.g. as something to worry about), which means that differences in the depiction of risks between the corpora of these three countries are particularly noteworthy. Most readers will not be experts on fracking and thus rely on linguistic descriptions of the technology and its possible potentials and risks. Thus, it is important to analyze how language constitutes fracking. While all three corpora focus on risks concerning drinking water, there are major differences, e.g. when it comes to the discursive weight of earthquakes that might be caused by fracking. Although this is a risk that could affect all countries, only the UK press describes this as a serious risk. The paper also focuses on risks that are harder to grasp, e.g. threats to the traditional social structure of communities where fracking is practiced.