How the Catalan independence crisis shaped language and meanings in the Spanish press

Political struggles, such as the secessionist movement in Catalonia, alter and shape the meaning of political concepts, writes José Javier Olivas Osuna

Controlling the framing of issues has become an obsession for political communication strategists. Parties compete to impose dominant interpretations of reality – and even the vocabulary employed to explain crises and political events.

The meaning of political concepts and expressions can change under the influence of communication campaigns and critical political junctures. With colleagues, I analysed hundreds of political 'frames' (words and short expressions) in Spain's two largest newspapers, El País and El Mundo. The results, published in Political Research Exchange, show that not only the salience, but also the meaning of many of such political frames changed significantly as a result of the Catalan secessionist challenge between 2012 and 2019.

The Catalan political crisis

In the late 1980s, former President of Catalonia Jordi Pujol embarked on an ambitious nation-building programme. He sought to achieve a new hegemonic interpretation of Catalan society, its past and culture, as very different from the rest of Spain. The Great Recession created a window of opportunity for pro-independence politicians to exploit grievances. Nationalist politicians adopted a populist discourse and performative style. Welfare-chauvinist slogans such as, ‘Spain steals from us,’ became part of the strategy to detach Catalans emotionally from other Spaniards. In 2011, the Spanish Constitutional Court introduced several amendments to Catalonia's 2006 Statute of Autonomy. Nationalist leaders used this ruling to fuel public disaffection, and to mobilise Catalans against Spanish institutions.

Support for Catalan independence jumped from 19% in July 2009 to 44.3% in November 2012

During Catalonia's National Day celebrations on 11 September 2012, hundreds of thousands marched to demand Catalonia become a new independent state. This event marked the transformation of secessionism from minority to mass movement. Catalan press largely portrayed this as a unitary movement, and incorporated nationalist political frames. Support for independence had jumped from 19% in July 2009 to 44.3% in November 2012. Nationalists designed a roadmap for secession that included a gradual institutional disconnection from Spain and an independence referendum. Constitutionalist parties opposed this process. During these years, both separatist and unionist camps struggled not only at an institutional level, but also at the level of ideas. They tried to impose their own interpretation of this emerging political crisis, its causes and potential ways out.

A competition to control the meaning of political concepts

Ideologies and worldviews are not static but built on concepts that are essentially ‘contestable’. They are constructed using words, the meanings of which may be interpreted in different ways. Political actors try to assign ‘uncontested’ meanings to these terms and expressions to shape how citizens interpret reality. Individuals do not interpret words or symbols in an ‘objective’ manner by simple reference to an external ‘reality’. They attribute meanings to words by personal sensorial, emotional and social experiences. Parties compete to impose dominant interpretations of concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘equality’, ‘sovereignty’, and ‘justice’. By controlling the meaning of the political concepts and the language used in public debate, politicians can steer beliefs, attitudes, and policy decisions in their favour.

By controlling the meaning of political concepts and the language used in public debate, politicians can steer beliefs, attitudes, and policy decisions in their favour

The impact of media frames

Media plays a key role in this battle over concepts and meanings. The ‘frame’ (how topics are presented to the public) affects the way in which the public processes and reacts to that information.  That is, ‘frames in communication’ can activate specific ‘frames in thought’ in readers, viewers or listeners, and shape their reactions. The emphasis or omission of certain information aspects can significantly impact individuals’ values and policy choices as well as group sentiments and attitudes. Media also has the capacity to increase or decrease the relevance of certain topics. Thus, the ‘framing’, or the way news and op-eds present information, has a strong impact on public opinion and decision-makers’ choices.

Meanings and nationalism in Catalonia

Those challenging the status quo and proposing radical changes in the system, including populist and secessionist leaders, are particularly interested in contesting language, symbols and hegemonic beliefs. The nationalist ideas used to justify the creation of a separate state depend on the redefinition of concepts such as ‘nation’ and ‘the people.’ By introducing new frames and altering the connotations of existing ones, politicians try to impose new interpretations of their society and history.

Nationalist ideas used to justify the creation of a separate state depend on the redefinition of concepts such as ‘nation’ and ‘the people'

This is key in the process of generating a new political identity. Through this identity, the in-groups, those who belong, will develop a sense of mutual recognition, unity and common purpose. The outgroups, those who do not belong, meanwhile, become the cause of grievances and unfulfilled needs of ‘their people’.

Catalan political dynamics altered language and meanings

In Spanish newspapers, most of the frames associated with the topic of Catalan politics gained salience during 2014 and 2017, coinciding with two (illegal) independence referendums. Changes in the reporting of the crisis by mainstream newspapers mirrored changes in the nationalist communication strategy. Nationalists commonly used frames such as ‘disconnection laws’ and ‘will of the people’ to justify secession.  Indeed, until 2014 the nationalist camp used frames including ‘plebiscitary elections’ and ‘national transition’. These disappeared quickly afterwards, replaced by others such as ‘agreed referendum’, ‘the unilateral declaration of independence’ and ‘democratic tsunami’.

Expressions that previously enjoyed significant semantic diversity saw their meaning channelled into specific political senses. People ended up using expressions such as ‘catalanism’, ‘third way’ and ‘political prisoners’ with different connotations and associated with different semantic contexts.

So it wasn't only the frequency but also the meanings of key terms associated with the Catalan political crisis that were impacted by party communication strategies and political milestones such as mass mobilisations and referendums. Political frame meanings did not take a linear Darwinian path, nor did they form cyclical patterns. Instead, they followed a ‘punctuated equilibrium’ in which periods of stability and inertia in meanings were altered by exogenous forces that induced volatility and opened new semantic paths or connotations. This confirms that political struggles also alter meanings and the language used by media and, therefore, how individuals will likely interpret their future reality.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of José Javier Olivas Osuna
José Javier Olivas Osuna
Senior Talento Programme Researcher, National Distance Education University (UNED), Madrid / Research Associate, IDEAS, London School of Economics and Political Science

José holds a PhD in Government and an MSc in Public Policy and Administration, both from LSE.

He currently leads two projects on populism.

His work has been published in journals including the European Journal of Political Research, Politics & Society, and Governance.

Quantifying the ideational context: political frames, meaning trajectories and punctuated equilibria in Spanish mainstream press during the Catalan nationalist challenge
Political Research Exchange,
December 2023
Co-authored with Guillermo Jorge-Botana, José Ángel Martinez-Huertas, Ricardo Olmos Albacete and Alejandro Martínez-Mingo

José’s research interests also include borders, political communication, disinformation and democratisation.


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