1.2 Theoretical orientation

13 05 2009

***This is an outdated version. Please do not cite or reproduce in any way.***

This study of journalists’ discursive practices as they discover, source, negotiate and write economic news aligns theoretically with Linguistic Ethnography (LE), an umbrella term denoting a developing, primarily UK based brand of social science. This emerging intellectual space is theoretically eclectic, building on more established research traditions such as interactional sociolinguistics (Roberts, Davies & Jupp 1992; Sarangi & Roberts 1999) and American linguistic anthropology (Briggs & Bauman 1992; Duranti 1997; Spitulnik 2002; Bucholtz & Hall 2004) but positioning itself squarely in the post-structuralist paradigm associated with Zygmunt Bauman, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin.

1.2.1 Linguistic ethnography

As the name suggests, LE is a blend of linguistics and ethnography. This means that LE advocates a particular epistemological perspective; namely, a social constructionist view on language in society. Most broadly, LE holds that (Rampton et al. 2004: 2):

language and the social world are mutually shaping, and that close analysis of situated language use can provide both fundamental and distinctive insights into the mechanisms and dynamics of social and cultural production in everyday activity.

Similar to other forms of contemporary sociolinguistics and applied linguistics, LE is built on the assumption that discourse is a social construct: it is talk and text embedded in particular social practices. Put differently, telling a joke at the start of an editorial meeting, taking a telephone call from a press officer, writing a feature story are socially and historically specific activities which reproduce and create anew the social worlds journalists inhabit.

Two important remarks are in order here. First, the term discourse points to a focus on language in use, namely, what people actually do when they use language. Such a functional approach to discourse is characteristic of theory formation in linguistic pragmatics (e.g. Verschueren 1999) and opposes a formalist approach to discourse; a view of language as an abstract system of linguistic forms and structures (phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, syntax and meaning). LE aligns with a functionalist view on language and employs the technical vocabularies and fine-grained analytical procedures of inter alia, Goffmanian conversation analysis and linguistic anthropology.

Second, the embeddedness of discourse firmly cements the analysis of text and talk in context. This may sound trivial, but it is anything but. The social situatedness of discourse in “an ever-widening set of factors that accompany language in use” (Gee 2003: 28) is a defining characteristic of meaning-making. It is the ‘stuff’ that determines how we interpret what is and can be said in a particular context. For the sake of illustration, imagine a context in which newsroom staff gather around a conference table to review stories for next day’s paper. If another colleague joins the meeting and says “I come in peace”, then it is possible that this utterance will be interpreted as a humorous attempt at breaking the ice. The point I am trying to make is this:

language-in-use is always part and parcel of, and partially constitutive of, specific social practices […] Social practices are (partially) routine activities through which people carry out (partially) shared goals based on (partially) shared (conscious or unconscious) knowledge of the various roles or positions people can fill within these activities.

(Gee 2003: 33)

It is exactly the routine activities, goals and knowledges of business reporters working for a quality daily newspaper in Belgium that this book sets out to describe, the underlying rationale being that the social world these reporters inhabit is constitutive of and constituted by specific ways of knowing, competences, aesthetics, rituals and technologies privileged at my research site and thus emblematic of doing business journalism there.

Attending to these local rationalities and trying to do justice to them in my analyses brings the added value of ethnography (Hammersley & Atkinson 1983; Burawoy et al. 1991; Hymes 1996; Willis & Trondman 2000; Fabian 2001) into focus. Seeking to produce situated knowledge about business reporters’ way of doing things – their tacit knowledge, professional concerns, implicit hierarchies and the like – I spent six months observing, collecting data, conducting interviews and making notes at the economics newsdesk.

The results are presented in the form of case studies, i.e. micro-level analyses of social action, and in reflections on my own role in this research process (see 1.4) which, taken together, highlight (i) patterns and systematicity in journalists’ newsmaking practices and (ii) the depth and evolution of my own knowledge archive, i.e. how I learned to see what I will describe as trajectories. Crucially, what ethnography has provided me with is best described as a number of sensitising concepts

“suggest[ing] directions along which to look” rather than […] ‘definitive’ constructs “provid[ing] prescriptions of what to see”

(Blumer 1969: 148, cited in Rampton et al. 2004: 2)

For example, my original point of departure was the metapragmatic notion of preformulation (Jacobs 1999). Somewhat naïvely, I expected to ‘discover’ how journalists drew on press releases simply by looking and asking. To this day, I have yet to meet the first journalist who openly admits to ‘churning’ news from press releases. In a way, it could be argued that reliance on preformulated source texts is journalism’s best kept secret. Instead, what I kept seeing over and over again in the newsroom was not a textual process but rather a contextual process. I did not observe journalists responding to the textual characteristics that define for instance, press releases, I saw how they appropriated (‘enacted’) and recontextualized press releases in various settings: conducting telephone interviews, chatting with colleagues, debating the newsworthiness of a story. In other words, what drew my attention was their intertextual performance (Peterson 2005), As a result, I have drawn extensively on anthropological notions of performance, genre and intertextuality (Bauman & Briggs 1990; Briggs & Bauman 1992; Silverstein & Urban 1996).

1.2.2 Transcontextual analysis

The analytical mode adopted in this book finds its cue in what Jan Blommaert describes as a “forgotten context” in discourse analysis (Blommaert 2005: 58), namely text trajectories[1]; the circulation of text and talk between (institutional) contexts[2]. In essence, text trajectories are discursive transformations that materialize in social action. New media practices such as blogging are a case in point. Imagine a teenager watching a YouTube compilation of boating accidents. She may post a comment on the YouTube webpage about how funny the video is (‘ROFL’), embed the video file on her own blog (‘Never go on deck barefooted’) and post a link on her FaceBook profile page (‘Boating accidents! Check it!’). Each time the video is reproduced (i.e. ‘recontextualized’), a new layer of meaning, however minor, is added. This shifting of discourse across contexts gives shape to a text trajectory from its original context to its target context. Analytically, this shifting of discourse across contexts can be traced, hence the term transcontextual analysis.

The notion of text trajectories has been applied to study inequality in asylum procedures (Maryns 2006) and in processes of social categorization (Mehan 1996; Briggs 1997). I will use text trajectories as an inroad into the institutional process of news production. As I “follow the story” (Boyer & Hannerz 2006) from its entry in the newsroom through the review process during a story meeting and the writing process up to the point the story is filed for copy-editing, I attempt to document and trace

  1. journalistic entextualization processes (e.g. how different story frames are channeled into a news text and how different genres affect these processes);
  2. the broader historical trajectories of news discourse (what I will theorize as the inception and enactment of news);
  3. news practitioner’s cultural, linguistic and technological resources;
  4. how institutional norms, expectations, roles and hierarchies constrain news discourse;
  5. how and where journalists add informational value to news texts.

[1] The idea of transcontextual analysis was first brought to my attention during a workshop on linguistic ethnography at the University of Oxford during the summer of 2008.

[2] Context does not refer to a pre-existing, observable fact, but rather to an understanding of context as entextualization, thus linking discourse to social structure.

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