University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006
Given and News: Media discourse and the construction of community on national days
Doctoral dissertation, November 2005.
National anniversaries such as independence days demand precise coordination in order to make citizens change their routines to forego work and spend the day at rest or at festivities that provide social focus and spectacle. The complex social construction of national days is taken for granted and operates as a given in the news media, which are the main agents responsible for coordinating these planned disruptions of normal routines. This study examines the language used in the news to construct the rather unnatural idea of national days and to align people in observing them. The data for the study consist of news stories about the Fourth of July in the New York Times, sampled over 150 years and are supplemented by material from other sources and other countries. The study is multidimensional, applying concepts from pragmatics (speech acts, politeness, information structure), systemic functional linguistics (the interpersonal metafunction and the Appraisal framework) and cognitive linguistics (frames, metaphor) as well as journalism and communications to arrive at an interdisciplinary understanding of how resources for meaning are used by writers and readers of the news stories.
The analysis shows that on national anniversaries, nations tend to be metaphorized as persons having birthdays, to whom politeness should be shown. The face of the nation is to be respected in the sense of identifying the nation's interests as one's own (positive face) and speaking of citizen responsibilities rather than rights (negative face). Resources are available for both positive and negative evaluations of events and participants and the newspaper deftly changes footings (Goffman 1981) to demonstrate the required politeness while also heteroglossically allowing for a certain amount of disattention and even protest - within limits, for state holidays are almost never construed as Bakhtinian festivals, as they tend to reaffirm the hierarchy rather than invert it. Celebrations are evaluated mainly for impressiveness, and for the essentially contested quality of appropriateness, which covers norms of predictability, size, audience response, aesthetics, and explicit reference to the past. Events may also be negatively evaluated as dull ("banal") or inauthentic ("hoopla"). Audiences are evaluated chiefly in terms of their enthusiasm, or production of appropriate displays for emotional response, for national days are supposed to be occasions of flooding-out of nationalistic feeling. By making these evaluations, the newspaper reinforces its powerful position as an independent critic, while at the same time playing an active role in the construction and reproduction of emotional order embodied in "the nation's birthday." As an occasion for mobilization and demonstrations of power, national days may be seen to stand to war in the relation of play to fighting (Bateson 1955). Evidence from the newspaper's coverage of recent conflicts is adduced to support this analysis.
In the course of the investigation, methods are developed for analyzing large collections of newspaper content, particularly topical soft news and feature materials that have hitherto been considered less influential and worthy of study than so-called hard news. In his work on evaluation in newspaper stories, White (1998) proposed that the classic hard news story is focused on an event that threatens the social order, but news of holidays and celebrations in general does not fit this pattern, in fact its central event is a reproduction of the social order. Thus in the system of news values (Galtung and Ruge 1965), national holiday news draws on "ground" news values such as continuity and predictability rather than "figure" news values such as negativity and surprise. It is argued that this ground helps form a necessary space for hard news to be seen as important, similar to the way in which the information structure of language is seen to rely on the regular alternation of given and new information (Chafe 1994).
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Last updated 28.08.2006