Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Media discourse

Attitudes towards confessional and sexual minorities in the discourse of the media in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland from a historical perspective

Key reading: Coleman & Ross 2010, Machin & van Leeuwen 2007, Richardson 2007, Fairclough 1995, Fowler 1991, Van Dijk 1983 (van Ginneken 2003)
Chapters: Thornborrow 2004, Cotter 2008

This project investigates data coming from the discourse of the media, which include the printed press, television, radio and the Internet. Most critical approaches to discourse analysis of the media recognize and emphasize their role in creating certain perceptions of the world that reinforce the positions of particular social groups:
“The mass media have become one of the principal means through which we gain access to a large part of our information about the world, as well as to much of our entertainment. Because of this, they are a powerful site for the production and circulation of social meanings, i.e. to a great extent the media decide the significance of things that happen in the world for any given culture, society or social group. The language used by the media to represent particular social and political groups, and to describe newsworthy events, tends to provide the dominant ways available for the rest of us to talk about those groups and events” (Thornborrow 2004: 56).

The following brief overview of approaches to media discourse has been adapted from Cotter (2008).

Two vantage points for approaching media texts:
(1) that of discourse structure or linguistic function.
- Bakhtin's notions of voicing (1986),
- Goffman's concept of framing (1981),
- Bell's work on narrative structure and style (1991, 1994, 1998), and
- Tannen's positioning of the media as agonists and instigators of polarized public debate (1998)
have led to valuable insights into discourse structure, function, and effect – and have characterized the very significant role the media play in the shaping of public, as well as media, discourse.

(2) according to its impact as ideology-bearing discourse.
In this view, the interdisciplinary framework of critical discourse analysis (CDA), including
- Fairclough's deployment of social theory and intertextuality in the illumination of discourse practice (1992, 1995),
- Fowler's critical scan of social practice and language in the news (1991), and
- van Dijk's work on the relation of societal structures and discourse structures, particularly as this relation implicates racism (1991)
has created the foundations of the field of media discourse studies thus far.

Either view assumes an emergent, dynamic mechanism that results in the unique display of media discourse over time, culture, and context.

This project adopts the second vantage point. For an example of analysis of spoken media discourse departing from the first vantage point, see O’Keeffe 2006. 

Thus, here, media discourse is examined for its ideology-bearing properties, for “the power of the media to shape governments and parties, to transform the suffering of the South (rooted in exploitation by the North) into the entertainment of the North, to beam the popular culture of North America and western Europe into Indian agricultural communities which still depend upon bullock-power. The power to influence knowledge, beliefs, values, social relations, social identities” (Fairclough 1995: 2).
“Many journalists and most audiences tend to assume that the media are nothing more than a mere “window” on the world, or a “mirror” of the world, and that it is usually rather obvious which events are objectively important and which are not, or even which events the public feels are subjectively important and which not. This is not the case. News is, just like other forms of knowledge, a social product” (van Ginneken 2003: 55).
No matter if they are aware of it or not, “the vast majority of influential journalists are being recruited from a very small segment of society – like the rest of the global elite. Their age and gender, their ethnic group and social class, do not correspond to a “representative sample” of the world’s population. Also, they often have a similar education and career, and acquire similar views about the nature of their trade” (van Ginneken 2003: 57).
This means that dominant group members “get a lot more speech than others” (Gelber 2002: 86), that “the media is also a field that is constituted by processes of social distinction and strategies of class control” (Myles 2010: 12). Coleman & Ross remind us that the public is “always a product of representation”, unable to represent itself. There is a paradox here, as we have just seen that media producers do not constitute a representative sample of the society (=public). As a result, “the public is invoked through processes of mediation that are dominated by political, institutional, economic, and cultural forces” (Coleman & Ross 2010: 3). “The public’s voice is far from being entirely absent from the contemporary media, but where it does appear it is highly managed, bounded all round by a journalistic lens which frames our/their words in particular ways” (p. 45).

Van Ginneken presents the following list of questions that could be helpful in analyzing media discourse (2003: 56-59):
1. What is news? What is considered “nothing new”?
2. What are the most influential media?
3. Who become journalists, and how do they work?
4. Who is speaking in and through the news, and what are the major sources?
(politics of loud and whispering voices)
5. When does something become news?
(related to the implicit construction of historical continuities and rupture points)
6. Where does the news come from? (social geography of news flows)
7. How is reality described to us?
8. How is the world shown to us?
9. What are the effects of such media reports?
These questions could be used as a checklist for analyzing media discourse as a sociocultural practice, along with its “economic, political (concerned with issues of power and ideology), and cultural (concerned with questions of value and identity” aspects (Fairclough 1996: 62).

When it comes to the analysis of media texts, Fairclough explains which features may be investigated in the search for answers to the question of “how the mass media affect and are affected by power relations within the social system, including relations of class, gender, and ethnicity, and relations between particular groups like politicians or scientists and the mass of the population. (…) Representations, identities and relations are of relevance to answering this question: the ideological work of media language includes particular ways of representing the world (e.g. particular representations of Arabs, or of the economy), particular constructions of social identities (e.g. the construction in particular ways of the scientific experts who feature on radio or television programmes), and particular constructions of social relations (e.g. the construction of relations between politicians and the public as simulated relations between people in a shared lifeworld” (1995: 12). Methodologies of critical and historical discourse analysis listed earlier give us specific tools for investigating these features.

Another important point to make about media discourse is that “the analysis of media language should be recognized as an important element within research on contemporary processes of social and cultural change” (Fairclough 1995: 2). Undeniably, the concept of sociocultural change is relevant to studying sexual minorities. Kuhar writes that "traditional patterns of everyday life, while trying to resist these changes, are giving way to new modes of living, new lifestyles and—maybe most importantly—new identities" (2007: 35); against this backdrop, "each coming out story of a single non-heterosexual person calls into question not only the heteronormative suppositions of people one comes out to, but also the heteronormativity of society and its institutions" (p. 36). On the other hand, "the anxieties regarding visibility of homosexuals can be viewed as responses to processes of social and cultural change" (Gruszczynska 2007: 107).

Also the development and change of media discourse are a part and a reflection of larger sociocultural processes. An example could be the tension between information and entertainment – media discourse genres that used to be separate but are now gradually merging together into a sort of “infotainment”. Conversationalization of media discourse, bridging the gap between public production and private consumption of the media (Fairclough 1995: 10), is a symptom of tension between the public and private domains, already mentioned here.
This tension is associated with another indicator of social change, namely the tension between collectivism and individualism, typical of “post-modern” societies. Both tensions are reflected in the development of computer technologies. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, may be seen as hybrid, public-private platforms of media discourse. They also enable individuals to form networks that do not depend on spatial proximity or face-to-face interaction, but that still contribute to their social capital (“networked individualism”, Coleman & Ross 2010: 104).
This hybridity of Internet discourse is also relevant for sexual minorities - it combines "the connected sociality of public space with the anonymity of the closet" (Woodland 2000: 418). For more, see Gruszczynska 2007.

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