Literary Linguistics and the media
Literary Linguistics is an invaluable tool for analyzing the media, enabling us to uncover the often hidden bias and persuasive techniques that work to alter the readers’ perceptions. Even if a writer consciously intends to be objective, they will still have a perspective on a story that cannot help but influence their choice of linguistic devices. As we are living in a world of apparently “fake news”, the ability to judge and evaluate journalism for ourselves is becoming increasingly important. This page will give you a literary linguistic toolkit to critically examine the journalism you encounter every day.
When reading a newspaper article, you must always try to remember that everything about that text has been constructed and chosen to create a specific response from the reader, from influencing the audiences’ political beliefs to suggesting who is the guilty party in a crime.
In Literary Linguistics, some things that we ask of news articles are:
- What comes first in the article and why? Newspaper articles tend to follow an inverted pyramid structure, where the most important information of the story comes first. The writer is therefore foregrounding (putting in a prominent position) the material they believe is the most important for their reader to see.
- Are the events of the story narrated in the order that they occurred? An article may sometimes deviate from the chronological order of events so that parts of the story are hidden later in the text to make them less significant.
- Does the text use direct speech quotations or simply reported speech? This can impact if we believe the source, with direct quotations typically being more reliable.
- Who are the main actors in the text and how are they presented? The presentation of people in a story can also have huge impacts on the reader. For example, in passive sentences, such as “Bill was kicked”, the person who kicked Bill is never mentioned. This removes blame from an individual person. In active sentences, on the other hand, e.g. “John kicked Bill”, it is clear that John is fully to blame for this action. Removing an active agent from a sentence can therefore prevent a reader holding another person responsible for their actions.
To put these techniques into practice, we can look at the opening of this Guardian article which followed Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Sean Spicer has recently become the US government’s Press Secretary, and this piece is focused on one of his first addresses to the media.
The opening of this article, then, is clearly using techniques to alter the reader’s perception of Sean Spicer and the Trump establishment. Spicer becomes part of the military opposition in a “war”, where “us”, the reader, must fight back. Using the active voice, the writer demonstrates that Spicer’s actions are purposeful; he is the active agent in the sentence and he is therefore worthy of blame. The description of Spicer as “brash” and offensive is significantly foregrounded at the beginning of the article as the most important aspect of the text, which shows this is what the writer wants the reader to remember.
Ever wondered about the persuasive strategies and techniques employed in political speeches? A Literary Linguistic analysis of the features used in political speeches can illuminate the effects of such strategies and techniques to anyone, in addition to providing a more general understanding of how speeches are organised!
You may now wonder how to go about finding the persuasive strategies and techniques. Here are some areas to look at:
- The entirety of the speech: What does it appear to be trying to achieve/do?
- The approach For example: is a ‘forensic approach’ undertaken, with the speaker relying heavily on facts and figures to support their points and proposals?
- Does the speaker share a sense of themselves with their audience during the speech? Do they include any personal stories, jokes, or ‘relatable’ experiences?
- How does the speaker use pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘we’, and ‘they’?
- Is the speech concerned with proposing a vision or attacking any opposition?
- Does the speaker make any reference to the history of their party or any reference to tradition?
Throughout the rest of this section, we will look at the above areas in a political speech, using Theresa May’s January Brexit address as an example.
The whole speech
Theresa May’s speech is concerned with articulating her vision for Brexit, in outlining this this she has to address and circumvent the problems Brexit currently poses for both the party and the public, such as its divisive nature in society.
Rather than taking a forensic approach, Theresa’s speech is heavily reliant on the grand style. The grand style is a style of persuasive communication, also known as rhetoric, believed to be especially moving and convincing.
The use of this style enables Theresa to display her knowledge of persuasive communication, thereby asserting the legitimacy of her newly attained position in an establishment that employs such techniques.
Sense of the speaker
The way a speaker attempts to share a sense of themselves with their audience reveals how they want to be viewed. Humorous anecdotes, for instance, are often used by politicians to alter the public perception of them. They can reduce the distance between a speaker and their audience, in order to make them appear less stiff and more human.
Theresa does not adopt this approach in her January speech. She crafts her own image in a different way.
In doing this she this presents herself and her actions positively, likely in an attempt to legitimize her accession to the position of Prime Minister. As an unelected leader it is important for Theresa to repeatedly suggest she is a suitable candidate for the role she has gained.
Pronouns are interesting to look at as they are often the means by which relationships are signaled and groups are constructed.
History and tradition
The aforementioned stylistic techniques can be used to decode any speech. By examining speeches in relation to the above areas and techniques you can begin to understand what a politician is aiming to do and the meaning behind their rhetoric.
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