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The interdisciplinary study of news as discourse

Teun A. van Dijk


This chapter presents a discourse-analytical approach to the media. Discourse analysis emphasizes the obvious, but as yet not fully explored fact that media messages are specific types of text and talk. The theories and methods of the new interdisciplinary field of discourse analysis may be brought to bear in a more systematic and explicit account of the structures of media messages. Since discourse analysis is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, it is also able to relate this structural account to various properties of the cognitive and sociocultural context. Because the other chapters of this book pay detailed attention to the production, reception, uses, and sociocultural functions of media discourse, the present chapter only briefly deals with such a broader study of those aspects of mass communication.

Discourse analysis emerged as a new transdisciplinary field of study between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s in such disciplines as anthropology, ethnography, microsociology, cognitive and social psychology, poetics, rhetoric, stylistics, linguistics, semiotics, and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences interested in the systematic study of the structures, functions, and processing of text and talk (for details, see the contributions in van Dijk, 1985b; also Chapter 1 in this volume and Chapter 6 on earlier and related forms of textual analysis of media discourses). In order to limit discussion of the vast domain of discourse analytical media research, I shall focus on the study of news in the press. For further theoretical details, and for extensive applications in the study of various cases of press coverage, the reader is referred to van Dijk (1985b; 1988a; 1988b).

Although the discourse approach in mass media research has now become more or less accepted as an alternative or addition to classical content analyses (Krippendorff, 1980), the number of systematic discourse studies of mass media messages is still limited. The applications of discourse analysis in media research are as varied as the very fields of discourse studies and mass communication themselves. Much work has a linguistic orientation, such as the early stylistic studies of Leech (1966) and Crystal and Davy (1969), and the later critical linguistics approach of Fowler et al. (1979), Fowler (1991), Kress (1985), and Chilton (1985; 1988), among others. Much of this work, as well as recent work on social semiotics (Hodge and Kress, 1988) has been influenced by Halliday?s systemic grammar (Halliday, 1978; 1985).

Better known in mass communication research, and equally diverse in orientation, is the critical work of the Glasgow University Media Group (1976; 1980) on the media representation of industrial disputes, the contributions in Davis and Walton (1983), and the cultural studies approach of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Hall et al., 1980). While also dealing with language, discourse, and images, these approaches are not part of linguistics proper, but pay special attention to ideological and political dimensions of media messages. Despite the theoretical and ideological diversity of these and other current approaches, we witness increasing integration of linguistic, semiotic, and discourse-analytical approaches (van Dijk, 1985a; Hartley, 1982).

It is striking that most of this work has been done in the UK (and now also in Australia). Until recently, there was little linguistic or discourse-analytical work on the media in the USA, where most media studies were either anecdotal or focused on sociopolitical issues (see, however, Geis, 1987). The same holds for France, despite its early semiotic studies of some genres of media discourse (Barthes, 1973). Research in Germany is generally inspired by various approaches in text linguistics (Luger, 1983; Strassner, 1975; 1982) and its later developments across the boundaries with other disciplines, including semiotics and psychology (Bentele, 1981; Schmitz, 1990). In Austria, critical media research from an interdisciplinary discourse-analytical perspective is carried out especially by Ruth Wodak and her associates (see her study of the anti-Semitic discourse, also in the press, accompanying the election of Waldheim: Wodak et al., 1990).

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