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Reading News. critical analysis of news: concepts and criteria lecture Sean Phelan. Analysing media content: an overview of research traditions. Can be most easily understood in terms of a broad critical/administrative dichotomy. American administrative tradition

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Reading News

critical analysis of news: concepts and criteria lecture

Sean Phelan


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Analysing media content: an overview of research traditions

Can be most easily understood in terms of a broad critical/administrative dichotomy

  • American administrative tradition

  • Empirical/commercial/practical in orientation

  • Research agenda driven by the advertising needs of early media practitioners (1930s/40s) and the advent of “new” media like radio and television

  • Self image as the “science of human communication” – simple linear/cause & effect models

  • Early content analysis “objective, systematic and quantitative” (Berelson)


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  • “Limited effects” thesis - a reaction to the Frankfurt School (Marxist) “hypodermic” or “magic bullet” thesis of media omnipotence

  • Agenda setting research in the 1970s: the media may not be successful in telling people what to think, but very successful in telling people what to think about

  • Tradition criticised for its neglect of theory and an inadequate conception of power

  • Attacked by critical theorists for its subservience to policy considerations and capitalist values

  • “Hermeneutic of trust” towards the media

  • US tradition still administratively led and largely industry funded


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  • Critical tradition (ideological critique)

  • Role of the media in propagating “dominant ideological definitions and representations” (Hall) now became central.

  • News not a “neutral product” – but “a sequence of socially manufactured messages, which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society” (Eldridge)

  • Drew on qualitative, interpretative methodologies like semiotics

  • Birmingham and Glasgow schools particularly important

  • Drew on various Marxist strands (Frankfurt/Gramsci etc.) - which regard culture as one of the key means of legitimating and inculcating capitalist values

  • “Hermeneutic of suspicion” towards the media

  • “Discourse analysis” a part of that critical tradition




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Ideology

  • A key critical term

  • Shared social systems of belief which incline individuals to act and react in certain ways

  • Does not necessarily work at a conscious level

  • Marxist tradition regards ideology as working at a subconscious or “deep” level - bound to capitalism’s propagation of a “false consciousness” that serves to legitimate or naturalise existing social orders

  • Often used a term of abuse; as a label to tar the “other” with


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  • Ideological critique

  • what Scannell (1998) describes as “depth theory” analysis

  • regards the surface appearance of news texts as potentially unreliable and deceptive

  • maintains that there is an underlying structure (“structuralism”) in the presentation of news stories that, when found or illuminated by theory, will serve to explain their real form and content

  • Marxism

  • Critical tradition that we associate with the 19th century social philosopher Karl Marx.

  • Spawned many variants

  • Common emphasis on the need for a class analysis of society and culture, the dismantling of capitalist structures and positive action on behalf of the oppressed


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  • Hegemony

  • Key concept (Gramsci) in the cultural studies/Marxist lexicon

  • Refers to the ways in which social elites secure and maintain popular consent though their control of key cultural forms and institutions like the mass media.

  • Semiotics

  • Very influential in the field of media research - particularly to the work of the Birmingham school

  • Hall’s encoding/decoding model

  • Semiotics is, most simply put, the study of meaning

  • The study of the signs and symbols (not just linguistic!) used to produce or code socially based meanings.


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  • Signifiers

  • Term used in semiotics to describe the meanings triggerred by particular “signs” and symbols.

  • For example the linguistic “sign” “september 11th” is no longer simply the mark of another date in the calendar, but a “signifier” of the terrorist attacks on America (the “signified”).

  • News Frames

  • Media’s propagation of particular ways of seeing the world

  • The “principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what [news] exists, what [news] happens and what [news] matters” (Gitlin in Allan, 1998: 120)



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Post-modernism

  • Post-modernism, in its broadest sense, is a term used to describe a broad movement in the thought processes of the humanities and social sciences characterized by

  • a questioning, and in some instances rejection, of the modernist “belief” in reason & its unproblematic conception of progress

  • a rejection of all “totalising” discourses or “meta-narratives”, by which it means any philosophies which attempt to offer a “closed”, fully explained systematic critic of the social order (including some strains of Marxism!)

  • an insistence on the need for linguistic reflexivity: that is a heightened consciousness about one’s own language use and the language use of others

  • “Science” versus “science”!


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Critical theory

  • Refers to those paradigms/disciplines/theories of social analysis that oppose existing paradigms/disciplines/theories because of what a critical perspective would regard as their uncritical acceptance of existing social structures, conventions and inequalities.

  • Some of the more influential critical theorists of recent decades include Foucault, Habermas and Bourdieu

  • The term nevertheless has its ironies

  • Is it a brand “label” of its own?

  • Can “uncritical” orthodoxy become as staid and unreflexive as the orthodoxy it sets out to challenge?

  • Need for a critique of the critical!


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  • Discourse

  • Widely used term in the humanities and social sciences

  • A variety of definitions (see Foucault)

  • Can be understood as the social process of creating meaning through the use of language and other symbolic forms

  • Polysemy

  • Post modernist tenet which looks on texts as having multiple meanings - not just simple bearers of a singular and transparent meaning (i.e. open to multiple ‘readings’)

  • Sign no longer seen as the fixed & unproblematic signifier of a particular signified

  • For example, Gandhi no longer simply the signifier of non-violent protest but a signifier of apple computers!!!

  • Floating signifiers and post-mod circularity


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  • Rhetoric

  • Sometimes used in a limited sense to refer to the style and organisation of a text only

  • Broader definition: “the use of words and symbols to form attitudes or to induce actions in others” (See Burke).

  • Rhetoric as “persuasion” (Aristotle) and rhetoric as “identification” (Burke)

  • Like ideology, often functions as a derogatory term in popular discourse

  • Hermeneutics

  • Originally used to describe the work of biblical scholars

  • Simply means interpretation or the act of interpreting


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  • The “other”

  • Term used by Lacan in Psychoanalysis

  • Can be looked as the opposite/or shadow that informs the construction of a particular ideological attitude or disposition.

  • Thus, for example, while being a nationalist in Northern Ireland might involve one’s attachment to particular symbols (say the tricolour) or linguistic “signs” (the “six counties), the nationalist attitude is also partly constructed through its “otherness” from the rival unionist tradition.

  • Bound to questions of identity - a key post-mod concern

  • Texts

  • Not simply a reference to written texts only

  • Polyphonic texts from a whole range of media



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  • Critical linguistics

  • Based on the principles of systemic functional linguistics

  • Maintains that there is a causal relationship between semantic structures/language use and our cognition/mental experience of the world

  • Assumes, as a working principle, that each particular form of linguistic expression in a text – wording, syntactic option, etc. – has its reason(s) (See Fowler, 1991: 4)

  • Criticised early ideological critique for its lack of textual analysis

  • Sets out to show the “ideological” in various ways


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  • Discourse Analysis

  • commonly used name to describe what is an amalgam of, inter alia, critical linguistics, sociolinguistics and semiotics

  • Also known as critical discourse analysis

  • As with the term discourse itself, DA has been conceived of in a number of different ways, most of which suggest in-depth textual analysis

  • Fairclough’s definition a wide sociological one, appropriate to this module: “the attempt to show systematic links between texts, institutional discourse practices, and sociocultural practices” (Fairclough, 1995: 17)

  • Discourse structure

  • the narrative or event structure of a news text, encapsulated in the journalist’s shorthand of ‘five Ws and a H : who, what, when, where, why, how. (See Bell, 1998)



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  • Agency analysis of news

  • Basically concerned with the way in which the agents/agency behind particular actions are emphasied/de-emphasised

  • A combination of “who” & “how” questions

  • Particularly important in newspaper headlines

  • Contrast, for example, the headline (1) Argentinean police forces kill 20 protesters with (2) 20 dead in Argentina

  • Or (1) 'Arafat is our bin Laden,' Israeli says amid fighting” (USA Today Headline) (2) “Three Killed as Israelis Move Into Two West Bank Towns” (New York Times Headline)”


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  • Disclaimers of news

  • Ideologically significant “semantic moves” (Van Dijk, 1998), where one clause/sentence expresses a proposition that is then rebutted by the next clause/sentence

  • “I have nothing against blacks, but….”

  • “Of course I abhor and reject violence in all its form, but I nevertheless feel our Government has the right to use any means it chooses to defend itself”


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  • Lexical sets of news

  • The cognitive structures or mental map suggested by the combination of particular vocabulary.

  • For example, a lexical set of the phrases “ the six counties”, “the Dublin government” and the “unionist veto” might suggest the ideology of Irish republicanism.

  • Particularly helpful in understanding the structure of opinion pieces and the “mental map” of the author

  • Metonym

  • Essentialist reasoning/use of the “part” to represent the “whole”

  • 50 people rioting in Nigeria subsequently reported as “Nigerian riots”.


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  • Modality of news

  • Term used to describe a writer’s attitude (“what the government must do is….”)

  • Can also be used to describe the performative style of a TV and radio pundit

  • Important element in editorials and opinion pieces

  • Posture of certainty


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  • Nominalisation of news

  • Clause transformation whereby predicates (i.e. verbs and adjectives) are syntactically realised as nouns.

  • An important journalistic device, understandably used to both summarise stories and cope with practical space restrictions.

  • However, a critical reading would emphasise nominalisation’s inherent tendency towards metonymic reasoning

  • For example, a small crowd of 30 Palestinians (and mainly children) “celebrating” the WTC attacks are forever immortalised as Palestinian “celebrations”.

  • Also lend itself towards dehumanisation and abstraction.

  • For example, the hundreds of homeless people (& hundreds of individual stories!) on the streets of Dublin become abstracted as the problem of “homelessness”.


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  • Noun phrases of news

  • Phrases that function as an extension of nouns – for example “the Arab mindset” is a noun phrase.

  • Can have all sorts of simple or complex noun phrase structures

  • 2 types are particularly common in news reporting:

  • Definite article + modifier + head (for example, “the Sheedy affair”) and

  • Definite article + head + modifier (“the threat of GM foods”)

  • The “head” is the term used by critical linguists to refer to the “it” of the noun phrase (see Fowler, 1991): what a critical analysis would suggest is the “it” of a more long term narrative

  • “Modifier” the part used to semantically qualify the head (ibid: 1991)


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  • Overlexicalisation of news

  • Term used to describe highly expressive and exaggerated use of language.

  • Common rhetorical device employed by newspaper columnists and TV pundits, sometimes for comic effect, sometimes to effect indignation:

  • “the sick, selfish and uncaring dogma of free market dogmatists”,

  • “Castro loving, champagne socialists who want more money for the poverty industry ”


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  • Transitivity variance of news

  • Concerned with the different kind of processes designated by verbs.

  • For example, the sentence “Pat hit the dog” designates a kind of action which has an effect on another entity, “the dog”, whereas the sentence “Tom ran” refers to an action which effects only the actor “Tom”.

  • Transitivity as the foundation of representation, in that it shows us how the construction of different clauses will analyse the same events and situations in ideologically different says.

  • For instance, contrast the different ideological interpretation of the same event in these contrasting newspaper headlines:

  • “Labour wins bitter election” with (2) “Labour wins”

  • “Israel kills 10 Palestinians including 5 children” with “Israeli army kills Palestinian militants”

  • Transitivity variance can be studied in all sorts of complex ways, but watch out in particular for details of (a) participant 1 (2) predicate (3) participant 2 (4) circumstances


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  • Syntactic analysis of news

  • concerned with the position and sequence of elements within a clause - what critical linguists call clause transformation.

  • One particularly important kind of transformation involves the use of the active and passive voice

  • Critical linguists would argue that while two clauses might share the same propositional meaning, differing only in syntactic ordering, the choices are nevertheless of ideological importance.

  • For example, contrast the headline (1) Garda shot man from 9 inches with (2) Man shot from 9 inches by Garda.

  • A critical linguist might argue that clause 1 emphasises a story about a Garda who has killed, while clause 2 emphasises a story about a man who has been shot


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  • Universalisation of news

  • Abstraction device

  • Rhetorical strategies that favour generalisations over particulars.

  • Universalising rhetoric lends itself to all sorts of ideological uses and effects

  • For example, the American “war on terrorism” becomes the Russian/Israeli/Chinese/Indian “war[s] on terrorism”

  • Catchy universalising phrase – itself an abstraction, that conceals the local “particularities” of each of the different conflicts


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  • Review of news

  • critical/administrative dichotomy

  • surface analysis versus depth analysis?

  • discourse analysis and the “showing” of ideology

  • Provisos

  • Is there always a “deep” explanation?

  • Critical readings by no means exclusively Marxist

  • Critical and administrative traditions/methods not always mutually exclusive

  • Need for quantitative & qualitative content analysis

  • Critical tools of little use without some understanding of a the circumstances of a news story

  • Focus in on the most ideologically significant aspects


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