On evidentiality, voice and sourcing in newspaper language

10 04 2008

Every language has means for communicating source of information (as in “I guess so”). In linguistics, this phenomenon is called evidentiality, a massively contested research topic. According to some, evidentiality is a subdomain of epistemic modality while others argue that it is a deictic category. Some define evidentiality in a narrow sense, limiting its scope to the basis of speaker/writer knowledge, while others define the term in a broader sense, namely as speaker/writer attitude towards knowledge.

My interest lies in the application of evidentiality to newspaper language, a genre that lives by informational quality and reliability. Journalists encode speaker perspective by sourcing truth claims either to themselves (e.g. in editorials) or to outside voices (e.g. quotations). This is one way journalists establish authority, balance and objectivity – the holy trifecta of news reporting. By sourcing information, journalists

displace some of the responsibility of truth claims onto other persons. In essence, the journalist is guaranteeing the “objective” accuracy of the mimetic reproduction in the story but not the truth of the assertions being made by the persons quoted or otherwise sourced.

(Peterson 2001: 209)

Interestingly, newswriting minimizes or obscures both the presence of the journalist as well as overt source references:

While most news texts are the result of the processing and editing of other texts (Bell, 1991; van Dijk, 1988), they are constructed within a set of conventions that aim for ‘a unified text which conceals the editor’s intervention’ (Bell, 1991: 51). The sourcing of material in press releases or interview questions or news agencies is edited out.

(Matheson 2004: 455)

What remains however, are traces of journalistic stance: words that index writer perspective and attitude. For instance, in Analysts expect the share price to fall sharply, the price drop is attributed to an unidentified third party (analysts) and assessed in terms of degree of severity (sharply). According to Martin & White (2005), these values are “invoked” by the author and pattern in three distinctive journalistic styles: reporter voice, correspondent voice and commentator voice (Thomson et al. 2008: 221).

In their typology, Thomson et al. (2008: 224) define objectivity as “a measure of the degree to which the ‘voice’ employed avoids or constrains the use of key attitudinal meanings and modes.” In the coming weeks, I want to explore how this notion of journalistic voice is introduced and used during story meetings and during the actual writing process. How do business reporters entextualize their perspective? Stay tuned to this space for findings and discussion.

References:

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