Thursday, January 06, 2011

Getting the News


Cops: Man sets fires, kills self
ATHENS -- A 49-year-old Athens man was found dead Thursday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he set fire to a home he shared with his mother at 330 Valley Road, according to the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
--Daily Mail (Doron Tyler Antrim), 12/17/10)


Man burns house, kills self
ATHENS -- A man whose mother was about to evict him from the house they shared set fire to the structure early Thursday, fled and then killed himself with a single gunshot to the head, according to the Greene County sheriff.
--Daily Freeman (Ann Gibbons), 12/17/10


Those two versions of opening treatments of the same local event, published in two local newspapers, offer instructive contrasts, and similarities, in news discourse. Among their noteworthy features:


Both of those openings (known in the trade as ledes) exemplify a form of sentence that is peculiar to news media prose. As compared with everyday speech, the sentence is akin to putting the cart before the horse. Its quintessential form can be represented as

Stuffffffffffffffff happened, Bloggs said.

That sequence of parts reverses what commonly occurs when the same information is delivered in everyday form, namely, as “Bloggs said that X happened.” The journalistic reversal of common narrative speech imparts rhetorical effects. Among them:

First, respondents are misled, momentarily, about the nature of the event that is being reported. The event, in our two cases, is not a death, a suicide, an act of arson, or a combination of the foregoing. The event is a speech act. The reporter is claiming to transmit what a source has said about what apparently happened--a death, a fire, and related events--in Athens NY. The news report is words about words (about deeds). The reporter does not pretend otherwise. But by means of Lagged Attribution--putting the content of the descriptive verbiage before naming the source--the reporter blurs the difference.

Second, the Lagged Attribution device loads the content of reported verbiage with credibility. Indeed, the attributional note appears to be parenthetical. Respondents are given not only a version of what a source has described, but also a nudge in the direction of crediting the purported description with accuracy.

If the reporter had said “According to a sheriff’s deputy, a man whose mother was about to evict him from the house they shared set fire to the structure early Thursday…,” respondents would expect more information about the deputy—who he is, where and why he spoke, what else he said—before focusing on details of his putative report.


Reinforcing the deception that is encouraged by Lagged Attribution, on many occasions, in many news organs, is a headline that expresses directly (though in the present tense) what is recounted in the lede—except for the attributional note. In other words, the headline conceals the fact that the ensuing story is a report of a report.

That concealment is exemplified in our second headline, in contrast to the first. The first headline announces (“COPS:…”) that the event covered in the ensuing report is, most immediately, a police report. The second headline declares that a man has burned a house and killed himself. It falsifies what actually is provided in the story. (The published Daily Mail headline, quoted above, was preceded by an on-site attribution-less headline: “NEW: Athens man dead after blaze at home”).

Attribution-suppressing headlines infest print journalism. Rare indeed is the headline that explicitly  signals a speech act report (“COPS: FRANKIE SHOT JOHNNY”; “FRANKIE SHOT JOHNNY—COPS”; “FRANKIE CONFESSES”). And yet the overwhelming majority of news stories consist of accounts (more or less accurate) of accounts (more or less accurate) of events.


Our two cited headlines differ, then, with regard to the kind of event they announce. They introduce opening sentences that are alike in form (Lagged Attribution) and are similar in the substance of their main clauses. Those ledes differ, however, in how they identify the maker of the reported speech act. In the second passage, the speaker is identified as the sheriff of Greene County. In the first passage, the speaker is identified—well, depicted?--as the Greene County

sheriff’s office.

The latter version of who spoke provides a minor (as in minimally deceiving) example of a practice that in mainstream news verbiage is pervasive. Thus, readers of one issue of TheDaily Mail were invited, under the heading “Greene Police Blotter” (12/17/10) to take note of six police actions, each consisting of a charge lodged against a named individual by “state police” or by “the Catskill Police Department.”

Those quaint versions of real-world events, with all their metaphysical implications, are not peculiar to provincial, low-budget news organs. Neither are their chosen subjects, their choices of vocalizing agents, confined to offices or departments. Through all channels of news, day and night, recipients are invited to take note of what the White House, China, the Senate, or General Motors (as well as General McChrystal) said yesterday. Recipients of mainstream news are invited to apprehend, so to speak, that “Greene County is currently developing a Housing Action Plan that will quantify and assess the county’s current housing market,” that “Wall Street retreated Tuesday after…disappointing [company] reports,” that “the Federal Reserve voiced concern about the slumping economy,” that “Denmark Says It Secretly Flew Iraqi Employees Out of Iraq” while “Italy Says Group Uses Mosque As Terror Camp.”

Such declarations are manifestly counter-factual. They may be construed as metaphorical treatments of actual events. On some occasions, for some recipients, they operate so as to serve as informative condensations. That would be the best of their many rhetorical functions.

[SOURCES. The foregoing exercise in rhetorical analysis of news discourse draws upon work in the pragmatics branch of linguistics. Interested readers can dip into that subject by Googling the terms invited inference, implicature and relevance theory as well as rhetorical analysis]