To what extent does the language used in the news influence our perspectives of events? In June 2013 The Guardian began publishing articles about global surveillance programmes run by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. A few days later, it was revealed that Edward Snowden, a CIA contractor, had provided The Guardian with the classified data. The story became global news.
In 2015 I published an article with Jonathan Charteris-Black (The Edward Snowden affair: A corpus study of the British press) that looked at how different British news outlets covered the story. We built a corpus of 1145 newspaper articles from 8 different British newspapers that contained over 800,000 words. Three different newspapers were then analysed within this corpus: The Guardian, the Daily Mail and The Sun. This was done by producing a list of the words most frequently used by each newspaper. This keyword list was then compared against the keyword list of the reference corpus (containing all 1145 articles) in order to see which words were used more frequently by each individual paper. These words were then grouped, examined in context, and used as the basis for an analysis of the language and reporting style of each paper.
The analysis showed that the newspapers covered the story in completely different ways. The Guardian keywords, when considered in context, related to the surveillance programmes themselves (data-mining, bulk, collection) as well as the legality (constitutional, law, bill), morality (liberty, oversight, democracy, debate) and the right to publish about state surveillance (journalism, press, reporting). Overall, it was critical of the surveillance and raised questions about the ethics of privacy and security.
The Daily Mail keywords focused on Edward Snowden as an individual, with less reporting on the debate surrounding surveillance. They were grouped according to his life on the run (hotel, flight, unknown, temporary), his personality and personal life (anime, girlish, Lindsay), reporting words (said, told, claimed, according) and naming strategies (fugitive, leaker). Analysis of these words showed how the Daily Mail personalised Edward Snowden and those around him: the keyword Lindsay, for example, refers to his girlfriend, who featured heavily in the coverage.
The Sun was more defensive of surveillance, and criticised the publishing of what it considered sensitive information. The keywords were grouped in terms of potential damaged caused by the publication of classified data (leak, secrets, endanger, lives), the reasons surveillance is necessary (brave, listeners, safety), and the irrelevance of the debate around privacy (fuss, dreary). Other keywords were grouped according to naming strategies, in which the language used created a particular impression, such as Edward Snowden (dropout, geek, traitor), his girlfriend (sexy, lover, seminaked), the state (chiefs, spymaster) and perceived enemies (fanatics, jihadis, maniacs, plotters). The reporting put forward arguments for why surveillance is necessary, and suggested that surveillance is there to keep the public safe.
It’s clear that a reader with little knowledge of the Edward Snowden story would come to a very different understanding of the events depending on which news source they used, or which specific article they read, but why do interpretations of the same story differ so significantly? News is sometimes presented to us as an objective reporting of facts that informs the public about current events, but news is also shaped by the ideologies and viewpoints of the writers and editors, by the perceived expectations of the intended readership, and by the financial considerations of running a successful media company.
The production of news is driven by these factors, in terms of which stories are considered newsworthy, and in terms of the style and language used by journalists. Imagine that these conditions were not present and a writer had the sole intention of presenting news in a truly objective way. Would it be possible to write such an article? In the book Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press, Roger Fowler suggests that some form of perspective is present in all forms of discourse, and that language is an inherently biased medium. This would make writing a neutral report of events difficult, because words themselves come with varying connotations and associations, and invoke different responses depending on who reads them.
The extract below from the Edward Snowden news study shows how this can affect any piece of writing, and that truly neutral word choices can be elusive:
“When writing this article we used the term ‘surveillance’ in an attempt to describe the act of monitoring the public neutrally, yet ‘surveillance’ may activate an Orwellian mental model. Many other words could have been used, such as ‘snooping’, ‘spying’, ‘eavesdropping’, ‘listening’ and ‘investigating’ – all of which have various connotations to different readers depending on their mental models. This shows that it is difficult to avoid conveying an ideology and stance in writing, due to the inherent, and sometimes personal, associations embedded within words.”
The same argument can be applied to the style of this article. Although the research was originally carried out with the intention of being an objective study of the language of the news, as a writer or researcher I bring my own perspective to anything I do. As much as I try to write in a neutral way, it’s entirely possible that my own stance can be discerned from the choice of words I use.
If we accept that neutral reporting is an unachievable ideal, how should we react when reading and interacting with media discourse? Are we doomed to be manipulated and guided toward certain interpretations of events by the inherent subjectivity of news articles? Such a view assumes we play an entirely passive role in reading. In reality, each reader possesses their own critical faculties, their own personal history and their own perspective of the world. Richard Fowler describes the power that readers have to form their own opinions:
“The newspaper does not select events to be reported and then consciously wrap them in value-laden language which the reader passively absorbs, ideology and all. Such a ‘conspiracy theory’ would give the newspaper too much, and the reader, too little, power.”
This does not mean that the power of media to shape our perspective on events can be safely ignored. Instead, it shows that some level of awareness on how narratives are shaped by language can help us become more critical consumers of news. We have the ability to identify ideology, as well as clear examples of bias, and we can determine for ourselves the parts that we agree with and the parts that we think are questionable.