Home Communication Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis
Findings from the BP Data
Discourse 1: Objective Factuality
In 2010 the dominant text genres were the news report and the financial report, and I have shown in analysis that the texts within these genres largely conformed to genre type in the ways they use language to give an impression of objective factuality, which I suggest was the dominant discourse in the 2010 texts.
Several of the individual analyses described above indicate prototypical features of the representation of “objective reality”: the prevalence of facts and figures, a use of modality attributed to reported voices, the marshalling (and repetition) of supporting statements from a limited number of sources perceived as credible and metonymic usages that replace people with institutions as social actors. The typical structure of these reports is the inverted pyramid structure, which is one of the conventional markers signalling objective reporting. Alongside these expected stylistic and structural language features are others that are less characteristic of the prototypically “objective” news report. Some are explicable in the context that my selected news texts appeared very early in the course of events. There is evidence of uncertainty in naming choices for the events, and the categorisation of the oil spill amongst world events is as yet tentative. Facts and figures are sometimes unspecific. While modal expressions are generally a feature of quoted sources in the texts, other instances of modality can be seen in authorial voices, serving to qualify the unmodalised declarative mood which is typical of the news report genre, and indicating the level of uncertainty surrounding the events at this stage. This is evident in the metaphors used to describe the spill and the weather, which represent these as uncontrollable forces. There is occasional use of a narrative or storytelling structure, which is less typical of “factual” reports. While these features would be unusual in quantity for news report writing, in the frequency in which they occur I judge them to be further indicators of an objective—realistic presentation, in that they indicate an acknowledgement of a messy and uncertain reality that accords with readers’ experience. An excess of certainty and an entirely declarative style would be neither credible nor easily readable.
In describing the “factuality” of news as a construct, I accept that representations of “fact” are ideologically grounded. In aggregate, these result in versions of news stories that are aligned variously to the interests of media organisations, readers, other journalists and (sometimes) participants in the story. Where these interests are in conflict, there can be a struggle for control over the information presented. In the 2010 texts there is direct evidence from my texts of BP’s attempts to control both the content and expression of information via impersonal linguistic constructions in press releases, interspersed with personal (non-metonymic) communications from CEO Tony Hayward. Alternative voices, such as environmental and anti-globalisation interests, have a limited or mitigated presence in 2010, as there is considerable uncertainty about the scale, reach and duration of the spill.
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