1.1.1 Print journalism and applied linguistics

9 05 2009

***This is an outdated version. Please do not cite or reproduce in any way.***

Newspapers occupy a prominent position in the news media ecology. This is due to the fact that (i) newspapers are one of the oldest and most widespread forms of mass media; (ii) newspapers traditionally employ more journalists than other news media; and (iii) the professional values for which newspapers stand are seen as industry-wide standards of journalistic practice[1]. Over the years, much ink has been spilled over the values that the press subscribe to (and debates over standards of quality and ethics still rage, as will be shown), but by and large, the principles that Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel spell out in The Elements of Journalism are widely recognized as elementary. These nine elements are:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Without going into an elaborate analysis of what notions like ‘truth’, ‘verification’ or ‘independence’ refer to, there are two points I would like to make. First, the authors seem to equate these principles to a demand “that spawned the free press in the first place” (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2007, emphasis added), thus framing their elements explicitly in a professional ideology of print journalism. Second, note that the realization of the goals, guidelines and rights expressed in the nine elements crucially rely on the semiotic functions of discourse and language. For instance, ‘a discipline of verification’ can only manifest itself in specific discursive practices: getting the names right, double-checking information, qualifying unproven claims and consulting multiple sources and, crucially, in the way some of these practices are linguistically encoded. Consider the examples in (1) and (2).

(1) In a statement released earlier today…
(2) Analysts expect the share price to tumble.

The adverbial clause in example (1) shows how the journalist knows about the information presented. It marks the basis of his or her knowledge by spatiotemporal (‘released earlier today’) attribution to a source text (‘a statement’). However, it does not say anything about how reliable the journalist thinks the information is. This is somewhat different in example (2). In this sentence, the source of information is an undefined third party (‘Analysts’) while the basis of knowledge is inferred (‘expect’). The difference lies in the degree of probability expressed by the expected outcome which, in turn, is attributed to experts.

So then, as far as ‘a discipline of verification’ is concerned, the linguistic means with which journalists ground truth claims and establish authority give us an answer to three questions readers may ask of news texts: ‘says who?’, ‘how does the speaker/author know?’ and ‘how certain is s/he?’. These dimensions of authorship, evidentiality and epistemic modality respectively, illustrate the centrality of discourse to print journalism.

This is by no means a novel observation. The instrumental relation between language and (news) media has produced established research traditions in critical discourse analysis, conversation analysis, corpus linguistics, sociolinguistics, text linguistics and linguistic anthropology (for an overview, see Cotter 2001). Summarizing a large body of literature then, these systematic and detailed studies argue that meaning-making is a social activity, based on negotiating shared knowledge and constructing versions of events which could always also be told in other ways (Fairclough 1995; Koller 2005; Bhatia 2006; Wodak 2006; Doolin 2007). They have pointed to ways in which news texts make particular worldviews seem commonsense and unquestionable (Kress & Trew 1978; Blommaert & Verschueren 1998; van Dijk 1998; Briggs 2005), how they engender social identities (Spitulnik 1999; Talbot 2007) and canonize ways of speaking (Peterson 2005; Higgins 2007). This body of literature has also yielded important insights into the structure (Bell 1991; Bell & Garrett 1998), epistemology (Peterson 2001; Khalil 2006; Hsieh 2008; Thomson, White & Kitley 2008; Thorsen 2008) and function (Fairclough 1995; Richardson 2007) of news texts and has described micro level, interactional aspects such as the mechanics of turn-taking, repair and positioning in news interviews (Clayman & Heritage 2002; Montgomery 2008; Weizman 2009).

Although these insights lay the theoretical foundations for my study, investigations of media-language-in-use have tended to remain ‘unpeopled’ and text-based, with little focused attention paid to production processes. This analytical blind spot was first observed by Jef Verschueren, who in 1985 wrote that discourse analysis of journalism tends to ignore the “structural and functional properties of the news gathering and reporting process” (1985: vii). More recently, Greg Philo (Philo 2007: 185) has argued that purely text-based discourse analysis

encounters a series of problems specifically in its ability to show: (1) the origins of competing discourses and how they relate to different social interests; (2) the diversity of social accounts compared to what is present (and absent) in a specific text; (3) the impact of external factors such as professional ideologies on the manner in which the discourses are represented; and (4) what the text actually means to different parts of the audience.

Responding to these criticisms, Fürsich (Fürsich 2009: 242) notes that even though production studies can avoid “embarrassing mistakes” in researchers’ interpretations of media discourse

this type of analysis […] can establish a one-sided causality between production and text -especially when the analysis stays close to the actual producers of the media product.

My own efforts navigate a middle ground between these two positions. I retain the text as a nexus of investigation, but by illuminating the journalistic practices involved in the process of news production, I hope to provide a new layer of understanding to the analysis and interpretation of news texts vis-à-vis the mediating labors of journalists. This brings me to my second pair of qualifiers: news production and ethnography.

[1] For instance, in his case study of online journalism in Catalan newsrooms, David Domingo (2008) found that online journalists frame their working routines in a professional ethos of print journalism.



2 responses

7 06 2009
1.1 Delineating the field and lines of inquiry « Tom Van Hout

[…] my field of inquiry and the analytical perspectives I adopt. To this end, I will use three pairs: print journalism and applied linguistics (1.1.1.), news production and ethnography (1.1.2) and lastly, economic journalism and […]

21 11 2010

I am interested in reading more articles about how applied linguistics and journalism interact. Can you suggest any articles?


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