Newspaper discourses of ‘touch’ in the age of COVID-19

This case study locates and critically examines British newspaper discourses of ‘touch’ and digitally mediated personal relationships during COVID-19, with reference to touch and the digital in the lead-up to the 2020 pandemic. Broadsheet newspapers across the socio-political spectrum play a role in creating, shaping and reflecting narratives of touch and social relations. Their construction of touch topics and sensitivities, amplified or dispersed in a variety of social, cultural and political contexts, inform and organise how we think about and experience touch. Their versions of the world impact on the ‘types’ of touch we know and imagine, on who touches and how. Likewise, media representations of emerging technologies matter. They create and assess contexts of use and, in the process, imbue them with social life, with possible norms, rules, relations and moralities.

In attending to the media’s dealings with touch and the digital during the Corona pandemic, we hope to shed light on the ways in which new touch technologies enter an existing (albeit shifting) discursive landscape of digital touch, and to what consequence. The following questions frame our searches and analysis:

  • With a focus on major broadsheet newspapers in the UK, what have been the discourses of touch and remote personal communication during COVID-19?
  • How have they developed from previously (2015-2020)? What kinds of touch are included or missing?
  • How is digital communication addressed in relation to remote personal relationships and touch, in the age of COVID?
  • How are emerging touch technologies situated within these discourses, with what impact on communication and social relationships?

Here, again, we focus on personal relationships because they provide one of the contexts for touch technology design and early adoption. So far, our engagement with the newspaper materials has led us to reconnect with, and reconsider, some of the themes that were also pertinent to our previous exploration of Imagining Remote Personal Communication, such as questions of absence, presence and connection at a time when government regulations affect our feelings of proximity and closeness, and bring into focus new and old touch needs.