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Home arrow Communication arrow Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis

Findings from the BP Data

In 2010 texts are primarily news reports and financial reports. By 2012 the text genre types are much more varied, and include news reports, editorial pieces, market reports and arts reviews. This change can be summed up as both a widening of coverage in terms of genre and a shift from primarily descriptive genres towards more evaluative genres. I outline some key findings from the data for the following genres:

  • 1. News reports.
  • 2. Financial reports.
  • 3. Features.
  • 4. Editorials or opinion pieces.
  • 5. Arts reviews.
  • 6. Business or marketing reports.

Genre 1: News Reports

In Chap. 1, I drew upon Fulton, Huisman, Murphet, and Dunn’s (2005: 233) characterisation of the genre news reports as exhibiting a number of language features, including:

  • 1. A high proportion of empirical information.
  • 2. Third-person narration where the narrative voice is externalised and elided.
  • 3. Lack of modality, preponderance of declarative verbs indicating certainty.
  • 4. Use of the inverted pyramid structure.

These typical generic features are largely present in the 2010 BP news reports.

Many of the texts contain a significant use of empirical information, including the detailed naming of people and clear specificity of time and place. At this point in the BP events, one week after the explosion, the news media is still aiming to answer the canonical questions of news reporting: “who, what, when, where and why?” The following text extract is typical in respect of its focus on “the facts”:

The oil is now about 20 miles (32 kilometres) off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, the closest it’s been to land. But it’s still not expected to reach the coast before Friday, if at all.

BP, which was leasing the Deepwater Horizon, said it will begin drilling by Thursday as part of a $100 million effort to take the pressure off the well, which is spewing 42,000gallons (159,000 litres) of crude oil a day.

Company spokesman Robert Wine said it will take up to three months to drill a relief well from another rig recently brought to the site where the Deepwater Horizon sank after the blast. Most of the 126 workers on board escaped; 11 are missing and presumed dead. No cause has been determined. (Carleton Place [Canada], 27.4.2010, my emphasis)

This extract makes use of an accumulation of facts and figures including distances, volumes, temporal expressions, names and titles and employee numbers. In some respects, there is a high degree of specificity. The conversions of miles to kilometres and gallons to litres connote an attention to detail, and signal an orientation towards both national (in this case, Canadian) and international readers. The source of information (“Company spokesman Robert Wine”) is clearly named and titled, and the numbers of missing and surviving employees are given exactly. In support of this objective presentation, the future tense declarative mood is mainly used, indicating firmness of intent. For example, in paragraph 2: “BP...said it will begin drilling” and in paragraph 3, “Robert Wine said it will take up to three months”.

Nevertheless, there is a degree of mitigation in the presentation of facts. Distances are approximate (“about” 20 miles in paragraph 1) and temporal expressions are vague (“before Friday, if at all”, “by Thursday”, “up to three months”, “recently”). This can be plausibly explained by the fact that at this stage in the development of the crisis, information was limited or absent, but I would also suggest that a degree of imprecision can support rather than undermine the representation of an objective reality. Not only does the reader not need to know the exact number of gallons of crude oil being lost by the well, but a figure of, say, 42,367 gallons would invite incredulity and challenge. In fact, the figure of 42,000 gallons, presented with an unmitigated declarative (“is spewing”), was far from a generally agreed figure, being at the lowest end of BP’s declared estimate and less than a tenth of BP’s internal estimates (Bergin, 2011: 171).

Fulton et al.’s reference to the elision of the authorial voice is manifest in a number of forms in the data. Attributed speech is one way of showing that any opinion and judgement within the piece are not the writer’s own and individuals and institutions quoted are usually presented as having a warrant to speak. In 2010, the warrant is either (1) expert status, often technical or environmental, or (2) eyewitness status, as shown in the following data extracts:

  • 1. “That system has been deployed in shallower water, but it has never been deployed at 5000 feet of water, so we have to be careful,” he [Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP Exploration and Production] said. (BreakingNews.ie, 27.4.2010)
  • 2. “We can only hope that they can make that sucker stop very soon,” said Wilton “Tony” Sturges, a retired Florida State University oceanographer. The winds that would push the spill toward Tampa Bay’s beaches do not normally start until midsummer, he noted. (St. Petersburg Times [Florida], 27.4.2010)

Both illustrations are examples of personal opinion, in both cases using modal auxiliaries to signal uncertainty—“we have to be careful” and “we can only hope”—which in this genre is typically expressed through speakers other than the journalist, while the journalist usually uses declaratives, and is sparing with modal expressions.

The inverted pyramid in Western news reporting is a key marker of the “objective” style, as it is interpreted primarily as emphasising the factual nature of the story, rather than offering evaluations or telling personal stories. This structure is recognisable where key facts are presented in summary first, followed by detail later. In this way, the point of closure comes at the beginning of the piece, rather than at the end (as is generally the case in a narrative structure). This structure is evident in many of the texts, for example:

BP revealed a 135 % rise in first-quarter profit to $5.6 billion (?3.64 billion) today as the oil giant announced it is accelerating its clean-up of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. (The Evening Standard [London], 27.4.2010)

This introductory section flags up the two key topics to be explored in the subsequent article; firstly, the BP first quarter results, with a dense summary of the key points (fact of increase, size of increase, size of profit) and, secondly, the oil spill (new news on the oil spill, acceleration of clean-up efforts).

There is an interesting exception to this typical inverted pyramid structure in the 2010 texts. In the following text (Associated Press Financial Wire, 27.4.2010), there is an example of a narrative structure. It is possible that this strategy was used because the reporting organisation had an exclusive interview with a direct participant in the events, a cook on the rig who was one of the survivors, and this was felt significant enough to warrant an atypical approach. Unlike the inverted pyramid structure, narratives are characterised by a sequential structure, and by choices in lexis, personal reference and evaluative elements that serve the purpose of engagement and entertainment rather than that of information and description. The following extract follows in written form Labov’s (Labov & Waletzky, 1967) spoken narrative structure of abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation and resolution, and thus gives the impression of recounting the story as it was told to the journalist.

Cook on La. oil rig that exploded recalls escape

[headline]

ABSTRACT

Oleander Benton, a cook on an oil rig that exploded off the Louisiana coast, was sitting at a laundry room table with a friend when the lights went out.

ORIENTATION

Then, there was the blast.

The Deepwater Horizon platform shuddered, debris fell from the ceiling and Benton hit the floor, as she had been trained to do. She scrambled through hallways littered with rubble, following a man in a white T-shirt.

"I could not see anything but that man. He just kept

COMPLICATING ACTION

on saying 'Come this way, come that way.' It was like he was coaching me to my lifeboat, because I couldn't see," she said.

EVALUATION

She made it across the sweltering, mud-caked deck to a lifeboat one of 115 people to safely escape the platform after the explosion a week ago.

RESOLUTION

The personal story presented above forms only part of the report. After these paragraphs, the journalist reverts to a more typical news structure with the following statement:

Benton, 52, recalled her tale as crews used a remote sub to try to shut off an underwater oil well that’s gushing 42,000 gallons a day from the site of the wrecked drilling platform.

This extract above marks the transition between the narrative section and the more typical news report section, where facts and figures (“52”, “42,000 gallons a day”) work to portray an objective reality. Thus the narrative section is embedded within a more typical news report structure and language features. Fulton et al. (2005: 146) suggest that the narrative style, when found within or alongside news reports, may have a specific function—that of showcasing the objective style as a contrast:

A narrative model also allows more “attitude” to be expressed: evaluations of behaviour and outcomes are coded into the narrative structure. Using the narrative model for some items therefore can have the effect of positioning the information model as objective and neutral by comparison.

In the same way as the tentativeness noted in the presentation of facts and figures, small shifts away from expected patterns of “objective” style or structure can support rather than undermine the representation of objectivity.

By 2011, news reports do not all primarily focus on the BP Deepwater Horizon events in the way that the 2010 news report texts did. Fewer of the texts in 2011 offer “new news” on Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath, and these include “BP expects to resume Gulf drilling this year” (The Associated Press, 27.4.2011), “Long legal battle ahead over

Macondo” (EI Finance, 27.4.2011) and “GRI research board announces request for proposals for BP’s $500 million Gulf of Mexico research initiative” (ENP Newswire, 27.4.2011). The rest of the news reports refer to the BP events only in passing. “Unemployment falls in 80 pct. of large cities” (The Associated Press, 27.4.2011) is a good news story about the recovery of the economy, but points out that seven of the ten cities with the largest increases in unemployment are in the area most affected by the BP oil spill. Another text, “Rubio: National debt can no longer be ignored” (States News Service, 27.4.2011), reports on a speech made by a Florida senator that includes comments on compensation claims against BP for the effects of the oil spill. In these cases the proportion of each story relating to BP is small, and these texts show how the BP story relates to phenomena that are outside the events themselves.

By 2012, news reports still represent 42 % of texts; however, as was the case in 2011, the BP story is not the focus for the majority of these. An oil spill in Yellowstone (Lewiston Morning Tribune [Idaho], 27.4.2012) has given rise to a need for fish testing; however, specialist laboratories for this work are still backed up with work from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In two reports, Congressman Frank Pallone makes a statement on seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean, which makes reference to the BP oil spill, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defends the Obama administration’s record on energy. However, two years on from the spill, there are two new stories that directly relate to the BP spill: one is the arrest of a BP engineer in connection with the spill and the other concerns challenges to the administration of the compensation payments made by BP to individuals and organisations after the spill.

 
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