Negotiating roles in the news interview

2 03 2009

The first job I ever landed in academia was in content management. Commissioned by John Benjamins Publishing Company, the Bibliography of Pragmatics (BoP) is an ambitious (43,500 database records!) but, alas, commercially unsuccessful reference tool for the field of pragmatics, i.e. the cognitive, social, and cultural study of language-in-use. My job was to write entries based on peer-reviewed research drawn from the various traditions that pragmatics encompasses.

I left the BoP position to pursue a research career in applied linguistics, first specializing in educational linguistics, later in discourse analysis and currently in linguistic ethnography. What I took away from my time as IPrA bibliographer was an appreciation of and interest in the various subdisciplines of pragmatics. From time to time, I give back to IPrA by writing ‘book notices’, i.e. short, descriptive reports on monographs and edited volumes for their journal, Pragmatics.

Here’s my latest contribution, a notice of Elda Weizman’s Positioning in Media Dialogue, which offers an empirical account of how interviewers and interviewees negotiate their social personae (e.g. expert on mobility) and interactional roles (interviewer vs interviewee) during television news interviews.

Positioning in Media dialogue by Elda Weizman. Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2008, x + 206 p. Hardback. € 99. (ISBN: 978 90 272 1020 3)

In the third volume of Benjamins’ Dialogue Studies, Elda Weizman presents an empirical study of the discursive practice of ‘positioning’ in television news interviews. The rationale for the study is this: as a genre of dialogic, mediated interaction, news interviews are organized around a normative division of explicit and implicit roles and identities. Weizman examines how these roles are negotiated and enacted interactionally and referred to in meta-talk.

The three chapters in Part I spell out Weizman’s theoretical framework. In Chapter 1, the author outlines her orientation vis-à-vis conversation analysis, media studies, pragmatics and social psychology and describes the two sets of Hebrew data she draws on: first, a corpus of dyadic and multi-party news interviews broadcast on Israeli television and second, meta-comments by Israeli public figures, journalists and politicians. Chapter 2 illustrates how positioning is discursively accomplished, how it relates to Goffman’s notions of ‘role’ and ‘identity’ and how social and interactional role types are at work in news interviews. Elaborating on the division of labor between role types, Chapter 3 argues that both role types are open to strategies of ‘challenge’, initiated either by the interviewer or by the interviewee.

The opening chapter in Part II makes a case for distinguishing between institutionalized ‘discourse norms’ and interlocutors’ ‘normative expectations’. These expectations are often broken in interaction, but hardly ever recognized or repaired. Chapter 5 zooms in on the discusive practices of irony and reports on how interviewers and interviewees employ and interpret these practices to negotiate, challenge and reframe their discursive roles and identities. Chapter 6 revisits a classic research topic in pragmatics: address forms. Drawing on a quantitative and qualitative analysis, Weizman argues that “in the Israeli context, terms of address are used strategically to locally frame speakers’ positioning in terms of their interactional as well as social roles” (p108).

In Part III of the book, Weizman offers 3 case studies which highlight the role of dynamic co-construction in the news interview. Chapter 7 looks at a case of adversarial news interviewing and finds that individual antagonism is buttressed by collective cooperation, i.e. the implicit understanding that both interviewer and interviewee are here “to play a game and put on a show” (p151). The case study in Chapter 8 deals with the contingency and interactivity involved in role-perceptions during a political news interview. Chapter 9 lastly, elaborates on the complex interrelatedness of self- and other-positionings and reciprocal challenges that shape and are shaped by the interview context.

In the conclusion, Weizman reflects on some of her methodological choices and theoretical viewpoints and underlines the discursive subtlety and complexity of negotiating roles in mediated public discourse.


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