Date of Award

Spring 5-2022

Degree Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Committee Chair

Dr. Laura Stengrim

Committee Chair School


Committee Member 2

Dr. David Davies

Committee Member 2 School


Committee Member 3

Dr. Edgar Simpson

Committee Member 3 School



The United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic was hallmarked by blame rhetoric and fluid social and political expedience. However, the pervasiveness of othering and blame in contemporary pandemic discourse is perhaps consistent with the blame rhetoric of health crises throughout history. Using a rhetorical framing analysis approach, this study aims to explore the various elements of blame rhetoric embedded in newsprint media frames regarding historic infectious disease outbreaks. In doing so, this study investigates three case studies: the San Francisco smallpox outbreak of 1876, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s – 1990s. Through this investigation, I demonstrate how the elements of othering and blame in these historic health crises consistently mirror the political rhetoric surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic. I argue that the practices of othering and blame defining the contemporary pandemic rhetoric are not a new phenomenon, but rather a continuation of an ongoing problem. Lastly, I argue that it is not the intention of this study to establish an origin for these practices. Rather, the purpose of this study is to use these historic case studies to showcase how the past occupies the present and better illuminate the consequences of medical scapegoating as they occur in our current moment.