What happened yesterday? What was on the news? When we did this in 2001, we found an eventful day: the results of elections in Italy and the Basque Country; Israelis using tanks in the Gaza Strip; the announcement of elections in the Philippines. But the class will only mention the Basque Country elections, and will only say who won.
The international news that day dealt with the following ‘stories’ (topics), in the order presented:
The selection and arrangements of stories may be understood as a distribution of importance. It is either 1) a misrepresentation of reality (but did reality have an order of presentation yesterday?) or 2) a feature of ‘audience design’ (Bell). In making a particular selection and arrangement, each channel speaks to a particular audience susceptible to give the same distribution of importance. (Note: This is not quite the same thing as ‘giving people what they want’: people don’t know what they want until it is offered to them; they only know what they don’t want.)
There are events. Events either create information directly (as in a press conference) or are witnessed, directly or indirectly, by information creators. Journalists are usually indirect witnesses, relying on informants closer to the event. The informants may or may not be presented in the story.
All the above channels have many journalists of their own, who find informants of their own. Yet the coverage is not global. There are thus also international news services (AAP Reuters, EFE, Interfax, etc.) that provide the basic information, which is then adapted (“localized”) for the specific audiences that the news channels want to speak to.
All journalism respects the basic structure of presentation: Headline, story, reports (informants).
This is common to all reporting. It is the theory of the so-called triangle, where the most recent/important item is given first, followed by the next, and so on until we get to the longer stretches of background information.
Reporting is thus like telling a narrative in reverse: here you give the end first... there is no suspense.
This is so that the reader can stop when they have read enough. There is no use of narrative suspense to make them read to the end.
Some parts of the genre are fairly strict, and two newspapers aimed at a similar market will produce remarkably similar journalism (cf. The Times and The Guardian). For example:
Headlines observe strict conventions: Usually a noun phrase, as short as possible, with the verb – if there is one - in the present tense, even though the event is logically in the past. Why should this be so?
Sub-headlines or “leaders” then develop the story, going from the general to the specific. The development can be understood in terms of Overview and Position, where the first task is to give a view of the whole, and the second is to locate the writer’s position (and therefore the readers!).
Sentence length and vocabulary frequency is strictly controlled, ensuring that each publication is pitched at the difficulty level of its target audience. The more upmarket newspapers (“broadsheets”) use long sentences and have a low type-token ratio; the downmarket papers (“tabloids”) use short sentences and have a high type-token ratio.
The news on television
When journalism moves to television, the main constraint becomes time. The units of time are iconically marked as switched between spaces. The units are thus visual.
In the organization of space, there is a centre (the ‘anchorman/woman/couple’) and a triple periphery: interviewed experts, external reporters, informants.
The linguistic I-here-now (organizing persons, space and time deictics) is that of the anchor. Yet the anchor never says ‘I’ (at best there is a collective ‘we’). SkyNews, however, allows the anchor an off-news personality, when personal opinions are given and exchanged between the male and female presenter.
The presenter of the information is not the source. There is a chain of reworking, covered over by the sole presenter who knows all. Nevertheless, on the BBC and CNN, behind the presenter there is an image of the rewriting process in action (people moving between computers). This background production process would seem not to be presented in cases where the anchors assume individual personalities.
As one moves from the anchor to the periphery, there is an apparent movement from objective truth to opinion. Modals are on the periphery. The dominant tense at the centre is the present perfect and past; progressives and futures are more for the peripheries.
There are virtually no discourse markers to connect the propositions (‘thus’, ‘then’, etc.). Such connections are more common on the peripheries.
The centre is the place of the written; as one goes to the peripheries the discourse becomes more overtly spoken. The anchor will have a piece of paper in front of them, glanced down at for numbers, dates, and occasionally for little-known names.
Who is the second person? Attempts are made to introduce ‘you the viewer’ into television discourse (Sky interactive, phone-in questions, etc.), but these do not affect the space of the news. The second person only exists as an arrangement of text parts.