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Language, Society and Power Week 4 – Language and the media

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Rachael-Anne Knight, 2003, University of Surrey – Roehampton

Language, Society and Power, Week 3

Language, Society and Power

Week 4 – Language and the media

Aims: To understand how the language used in the media affects our knowledge and interpretation of events

1The media

The term media, of course, refers to newspapers, radio, television and the internet. These media tell us what is going on in the world. It’s important to remember that they are usually the only way we have to access information about the world around us. For example, it’s not feasible to go to a war zone to find out what’s happening for yourself. This means that the media have power to influence the way we perceive events. In this session we consider the ways the media can influence us.

1.1Features of Newspapers

1.1.1Order, type and length of articles

Papers can often be grouped by the stories that are included and the order in which they are presented. For example, is the paper concerned with events at home or worldwide? Is the focus on ordinary people and situations or celebrities? Is there one main story or a broader coverage? Are all the article quite long or are there some very short pieces as well? Within articles, how long are the paragraphs and sentences?


What kind size font and typeface is used for the paper’s name? Are their any crests or slogans? What colours are used? All these factors help to identify the paper to its readership and new papers take advantage of these features to denote the camp they fall into. It is unclear if there is anything inherently meaningful about the different features or if they have gained their meanings from long association with certain papers.


Not all sections of the media will want to represent things in the same way. Different newspapers or television channels may have their own agenda, which will affect the way events are reported.
We will look at two news reports of the recent explosion in Gaza. Although superficially very similar the emphasis of the two reports in subtly different. The Reuters report emphasizes the personal horror and destruction of the incident whilst the Sky report focuses more on the nationality of the dead and the intentional nature of the act. In what follows, numbers in parentheses relate to paragraph numbers in the reports.

      1. Vocabulary


The use of prepositions, conjunctions and time adverbials can be used to indicate causal links between separate events. For example a newspaper may chose to say “Event 1 after Event 2”. Even though the order in time is accurate, constructions such as this give the impression that the two events are causally related. In the final line (7) of the Reuters news report the sentence “Israeli tanks appeared to be moving towards the area after the blast”; we understand this to mean that they were going there because of the blast. Also, they report (2) that “blood and wreckage were splattered metres away and a blacks shoe lay on the ground”. Again this suggests that the shoe is there because of the explosion i.e. that it has come from a dead person.


The Reuters report describes the dead as “security men” (1) whilst the Sky report call then “security guards” (1). These different terms reflect the focus of the two articles. Reuters focus on the human element whilst Sky focus on the relationship between the Americans and the situation in Gaza. They are also described as “victims” (1) by Sky, suggesting that this was an intentional act.

Reuters report that Wolf was not in the “region” (2) at the time whilst Sky reports that he was not in the “convoy” (1). The Sky report makes it seem that Wolf was possibly in more danger than he actually was. Reuters say that this is the first time “US officials” (1) or “US diplomats” (3) have been attacked whilst Sky stress that the first time “US targets” (3) have been attacked, suggesting that the current situation has wider implications for US interests.
Reuters report that the car destroyed was a “silver Cherokee jeep” (2) whilst Sky describe it as a “silver Jeep Cherokee” (2). Although this is a very small change the Sky report capitalises the name of the vehicle, and moves the word “Jeep” close to the beginning of a paragraph, possibly to highlight the nationality of those inside.
Adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives used can give different information. For example in the Sky report the nationality of the citizens is emphasized by use of the phrase “Four American security guards” (1) compared to Reuters “four security men” (1). The use of the term American here at the very start of the report emphasises the nationality of the dead.

Reuters report a “large crater” (2) and that the jeep was “completely destroyed” (2) while Sky say only that it was destroyed and that a crater was left (2). The Reuters report seems to emphasize the scale of the tragedy.

The choice of verbs can also be crucial to the representation of events. In the Reuters report we are informed that this “was” (3) the first attack while Sky use the present tense and write “is” (3). The Sky version may make the reader expect more attacks.


Processes and participants

Using Fairclough’s (1989) terminology the headlines both describe actions as actions have two participants, an agent and a patient. In the Sky report the bombers are the agent and the US convoy is the patient. In the second clause of the Reuters report we still have an action but the agent (the Gaza blast) is inanimate. This means that agency is unclear. Agency is attributed to the blast but of course would be more properly assigned to the people who caused the blast. Reuters are being careful to not say that this was an intentional act. Using Simpson’s terminology, a structure with an inanimate actor is an event rather than an action (1993).

Active and passive

Agentless passives can also be used to leave out agency. For example in the Reuters sentence “Roadside bombs have frequently been detonated against Israeli troops” (6) we are not told who has done the detonating. We get the same effect in “the first time… US diplomats had been targeted” (3).

1.2.2Larger scale features of the text

The Reuters article relates the incident to what happened before (1) and after (7) the event. It summarises the recent situation in Gaza and gives a picture of the scene after the blast.

1.2.3Information sources

Different papers may talk to different witnesses to make their point. The Reuters report uses many different sources and names its reporter. The first source is the Israeli Radio station (1 and 5). The second are the US officials who report Wolf was not involved (2). The Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Quire is paraphrased (3). Ahmed Samir a local-man who heard the police arrive and (we assume) saw the detonator wire stretched across the road (4). A US spokesman confirms the convoy was American (5). Khaled Abu Nour witnessed the explosion and gives an eyewitness account (6). Palestinian medics report that bodies were brought to Shifa hospital (7), and someone from the Soroka hospital reports that a victim is being brought back there (7). Finally Palestinian security officials tell us about the Israeli tanks moving to the area (7).
The Sky report also references the radio station (1), the Prime Minister (4) and the report of Khaled Abu Nor (2), although he is not named. It is difficult to tell if the US embassy source in (1) is the same as that used in the Reuters report.
By its copious use of named sources the Reuters report is made to seem more authoritative and factual than the Sky report.

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