If the problem of the media is the linchpin of the system whereby public consent is obtained for the operations of domination systems currently wreaking havoc on the planet, then enabling the public to see through the legitimating veil with which mass media and mainstream news cloak contemporary social reality is the key to undoing it.  --  If consumers are to become citizens once again, they must, like Dorothy, pluck away the curtain that shrouds the Great and Magnificent Oz and reveal him for the fraud that he is.  --  In his presentation of the introductory chapter of a recent Ph.D. thesis on “the news story as rhetoric,” UFPPC’s Fred Moreau argues that the Appraisal framework that Australian linguists have in recent years developed from M.A.K. Halliday’s Systemic Functional Linguistics offers a powerful tool for accomplishing these tasks....

By Fred Moreau

United for Peace of Pierce County (WA)
January 5, 2005

Contemporary journalistic sources constitute an infinitely valuable resource for learning about today’s world, but in order to adequately understand the information conveyed the reader must see through the veil of conventions that journalists adopt.

It is necessary to understand, for example, that every figure appearing in a news item is forced to play a predefined role such as hero, villain, victim, observer, or analyst, to name a few of the most common ones. The reality described, though, rarely corresponds neatly to such narrative roles.

In a conflict -- soldiers in a battle, to take an archetypal example -- individuals are typically all of these things: heroes (risking their lives for comrades in arms), villains (from the point of view of their enemies), victims (of what has placed them “in harm’s way”), observers (the prospect of death concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Doctor Johnson said), and analysts (as military strategists or tacticians). But journalism is impatient with such complexities, and almost always reduces an individual to a single role.

Critical, emancipatory reading depends on the ability of the reader to challenge or complicate the news item’s assignment of roles.

Linguist M.A.K. Halliday and his colleagues developed Systemic Functional Linguistics in the 1980s and 1990s as an effort to better understand the ways in which language constructs textual personae, manages their relationships, and adopts stances or otherwise evaluates their actions. Prof. James Martin of the Linguistics Dept. of the Univ. of Sydney and a group of associated researchers extended Systemic Functional Linguistic to create what they call the Appraisal framework. The introductory Chapter One of an unpublished 1998 Univ. of Sydney Ph.D. dissertation by P.R.R. White entitled Telling Media Tales: The News Story as Rhetoric, presented below, is a useful introduction to this approach as it applies to contemporary journalism.

Subsequent chapters of White’s thesis are entitled “Theoretical Foundation -- Evaluation and Stance; Text Organization and Generic Structure”; “Inter-Subjective Positioning and the Grammar of Appraisal”; “Appraisal and the Interpersonal Voices of Contemporary Journalism”; “News and Story Telling: Generic Structure”; “News and Argumentation: The Issues Report”; and “Conclusion: The Rhetorical Potential of the News Story.”

White’s thesis promises to deliver “new insights into the paradox of the news item as the supposedly value-free, factual text type which is inscribed, nevertheless, with ideological perspectives and culturally contingent themes.” It richly fulfills that promise. For example, White’s study reveals that it was around 1910 that the obfuscatory scrambling of chronology and causes developed as a characteristic feature of “the modern news item.”

For a more systematic approach to the Appraisal framework, see An Introductory Tour through Appraisal Theory.

By P.R.R. White
[”A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney (May 1998).”]

Cached HTML version
http://www.grammatics.com/appraisal/chpt1_telling-media-tales.doc (MS Word)


The modern mass-media news item is arguably one of the most influential written text types in contemporary society, influencing, as it does, the terms of many political, economic and cultural debates. It is not surprising, therefore, that the textuality of the news report should be well known as a site of contestation between political groupings, ideological positions, media theorists and even text linguistic analyses. News reporting is seen by some as a vital mechanism for the dissemination of information by which an informed and meaningful public discourse may be established and maintained. For others (typically the media itself) it acts to uphold the truth and to defend the rights of the people against the excesses of government and powerful vested interests. Media audiences seem to take a somewhat equivocal position, relying more or less uncritically on the news for much of their understanding of issues and events in the public domain, yet nevertheless viewing journalistic discourse with great suspicion, as often inaccurate, ‘commercialised’, sensationalist and biased. And media theorists, of course, typically regard the news as a mechanism of social control, a discourse which naturalises the regimes of ‘common sense’ which sustain social inequalities and support the interests of various economic and political elites.

Within this context, the news item, as text type, is itself the subject of significant disagreement. It is commonplace for the media to represent the news report as the domain of the factual -- as providing a value-free, impartial, objective and unmediated reproduction of reality. Thus Husson and Robert, commenting favourably on the manner of English language news reporting, assert that the professional news reporter is ‘precise and neutral’, eliminates all subjectivity and constructs texts where ‘the only things on show are the raw facts’ (Husson and Robert 1991: 63, my translation). The notion that the news item should be ‘neutral’ and ‘factual’, at least in principle, is sometimes encountered even in the media studies literature. Thus, in exploring the distinction between the supposed ‘neutrality’ of what they term ‘core vocabulary’ and the ‘non-neutral expressive’ vocabulary which they term ‘non-core vocabulary’, Carter and Nash contend that, ‘After all, newspaper reports should ideally report the facts in as core a vocabulary as possible’ (1990: 64).

This position has been widely challenged within the media studies literature since at least the 1930s, with, for example, some early influential analyses coming from the Chicago School of urban sociologists and especially the work of Hughes (1940, 1942). Under this perspective, news is seen as exemplifying and animating social and ideological values. It is conditioned by points of view informed variously by the social subjectivity of reporters, editors and media owners, the economic basis of news reporting as a mass market industry, the established conventions of news coverage as a social process and the role of the media in exercising political and cultural influence.1 Thus Bird & Dardenne, for example, state, ‘As narrative, news is orienting, communal and ritualistic. The orderings and creations in narrative are cultural, not natural; news . . . endows events with artificial boundaries constructing meaningful totalities out of scattered events’ (Bird and Dardenne 1988: 70).

Within the media studies literature which is directed at exploring the textual or genre status of journalistic discourse, the news item has also proved problematic. It is a commonplace for the news item to be classified as narrative, and thereby to be linked to one of the primary modes of story-telling operating in the culture. Thus Adam states, ‘The elementary structure of the narrative sequence is found not only as the basis of the epic, the fable, most novels, works of classical theatre, but also in reportage, the spot news story, oral narration and everyday anecdotes’ (Adam 1992: 12, my translation). In contrast, however, other researchers are careful to distinguish the structure of the news item from that of traditional narratives. Hoey, for example, explicitly classified news items as 'non-narrative', in the context of research into patterns of lexical chaining reported in Patterns of Lexis in Text (Hoey 1991). Similarly, van Dijk states, ‘News Reports in the press are a member of a family of media types that need their own structural analysis. That is, the general properties of discourse they display and the more specific or characteristic structures that distinguish them from other media texts or similar nonmedia texts, such as stories, must be made clear’ (van Dijk 1988: 176).

It is possible these differences emerge from divergent formulations of the nature of the narrative, rather than from different formulations of the nature of the news item. Or perhaps they may point to genre-structure indeterminacy or ambiguity on the part of the news item itself, with the news item displaying certain properties associated with the traditional narrative but lacking others. It is noteworthy in this regard that journalists themselves refer to their texts as ‘stories’ and even ‘yarns’ (thereby indicating a connection with the narrative), but also as ‘reports’ (thereby locating their texts in a ‘factual’ space outside what is usually the domain of the narrative).


1.2.(a). OVERVIEW

The purpose of the thesis is to provide new insights into the distinctive communicative properties of two key sub-types of contemporary news items, those concerned with newsworthy events and those with the pronouncements of newsworthy speakers. It focuses on those two types of text as they operate within the English-language print media, and specifically within what will be termed ‘broadsheet’ publications (see following discussion). In exploring these communicative qualities, the thesis will offer answers to several of the questions raised in the course of the previous section. It will provide a rather different account from that generally available in the literature of the text organisational principles by which these news items are constituted. In so doing, it will set out systematic terms by which the genre status of these two text types may be determined with respect to related genre types operational in the culture. As well, it will provide a comprehensive description of the interpersonal style of these news items, of the fashion of meaning, so to speak, upon which their characteristic textuality relies. Towards this end, the thesis is concerned with the social evaluations which are typically conveyed through news reporting and the way the text positions both authorial voice and readerships with respect to these meanings. By this discussion, the thesis will offer new insights into the paradox of the news item as the supposedly value-free, factual text type which is inscribed, nevertheless, with ideological perspectives and culturally contingent themes.


The thesis will demonstrate that the contemporary news item is a distinctive text type, both interpersonally and structurally. My purpose is to explore the potential communicative consequences associated with these two dimensions of the news item’s textuality. I am concerned with the relationship between certain semantic and text organisational patterns found generally across news items and the resultant potential of such texts to construe particular types of meaning, and to construct particular relationships between writer, reader and the values conveyed by the text. I address how these recurrent, characteristic patterns of text organisation and lexical choice may influence readers, how they may position readers to accept a text’s propositions, to accede to its presuppositions or to endorse the particular view of the social order upon which it relies. The concern, therefore, is with what I will term ‘rhetorical potential’. Here ‘rhetorical’ is used in the broad sense to reference not a narrow notion of ‘argumentation’, but more generally to reference the potential of all texts, whether explicitly argumentative or not, to influence, reinforce or to challenge reader/listener’s assumptions, beliefs, emotions, attitudes and so on. I am concerned with the rhetorical potential of the general patterns of textuality operating across news items, rather than with the semantics of individual reports, though, of course, I reference individual texts in the course of the discussion.

I must stress that the interest is in potential rhetorical effects. The actual communicative effect of any given linguistic value is, of course, variably determined by factors at work in the reading/interpreting process, a point which has been widely canvassed within Reception Theory. (See, for example, Holub 1984. For a discussion of the possible diversity of reader interpretation in the context of media texts see Carter and Nash 1990: 57 and Fairclough 1995: 16.) These factors include the interests of the reader, their social background, their ideological stance, their knowledge of the field, the intertextual context in which they locate the current text and so on. Accordingly, we must avoid necessarily ascribing a single communicative effect to a given linguistic value or a unitary reading to a given text. This is not, of course, to suggest that any and all readings are equally likely or equally available. Texts are typically structured so as to favour either a single, or at least a certain array of readings while disfavouring or suppressing others. That is, texts work to establish a particular reading position by which the material they present will be understood and evaluated. (The issue of reading position will be considered further in chapter 3. See also Fairclough 1989: 77-108 and Martin 1995a). It is the analyst’s task to plausibly identify and explain such preferences. There is always the possibility, however, that an individual reader will ignore or actively resist such a preference and, of course, a given text or a specific linguistic value may have qualities which render it particularly susceptible to multiple, divergent readings. Thus, in describing the rhetorical potential of the news item as a text type, we explore the communicative effects facilitated by its textual organisation and semantic preferences, while always allowing that individual readers may resist or be immune to such effects.


There is a great diversity of literature devoted to describing the language of the news report. The literature varies widely with respect to scope, with respect to the linguistic framework in which it is couched and with respect to explanatory objective. There are stylistic studies which attempt to discover certain salient features of lexis or grammatical structure which might act as markers of journalistic language (for example, Crystal and Davy 1969). There are sociolinguistic studies which seek to correlate variation in some syntactic feature, operating across the texts of different media outlets, with social categories such as class (for example, Rydén 1975, Jucker 1992, Bell 1984, Bell 1991). There are studies which more directly explore recurrent patterns of meaning in media texts so as to explain some aspect of what I have termed the rhetorical potential of news reporting. Perhaps most notable in this regard is Fairclough’s groundbreaking examination (1992, 1995) of the way that media texts systematically reference and assimilate other texts and other discourses.

These various studies provide useful insights, of greater or lesser scope, into aspects of journalistic language use. However, none of the studies attempts to develop an account of rhetorical potential by means of a close, detailed and, most importantly, comprehensive analysis of recurrent patterns of grammar and lexis. It is my purpose in the thesis to provide such an account through application of the descriptive tools provided by Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). (Halliday 1985/1994, see the next chapter for an overview of the theoretical framework). I will demonstrate that such an analysis provides novel insights into the distinctive features of the news report and, thereby, a new understanding of the rhetorical functionality of news reporting habits of language.

SFL descriptions analyse language as a social process by which three dimensions of meanings are simultaneously mobilised -- meanings which locate the interlocutors in a social order (interpersonal), meanings which construe an external reality (ideational) and meanings by which these interpersonal and ideational meanings are organised in the unfolding text (textual). The account of news reporting textuality developed in the thesis references all three dimensions. Within this, several chapters pay special attention to the interpersonal dimension (resources for construing the social roles, relationships and attitudes of interlocutors). This focus follows naturally from the concern with rhetorical potential, since interpersonal stance and positioning are fundamental to the potential of texts to influence readerships and to reinforce or inscribe social values.

Although the textual analysis is grounded in the SFL framework, preparatory research revealed that aspects of SFL theory were not sufficiently elaborated to map certain interpersonal distinctions which proved fundamental to the interpersonal style of contemporary news reporting. It was necessary, therefore, to develop the theory towards this end. I was assisted in this regard by the fact that several other researchers working within the SFL paradigm were also interested at the time in extending the theory’s model of the interpersonal. Many of these researchers were involved in literacy-related research for the ‘Write It Right’ project of the Australian Federal Government’s Disadvantaged Schools Program. (For an overview see Iedema, Feez, and White 1994 and Christie and Martin 1997.) The theory of the interpersonal adopted here, therefore, makes use of the ‘Write It Right’ work, some other recent SFL work (especially Fuller 1995), as well as subsequent developments. (The provenance of the various theoretical innovations will be specified more precisely in following chapters.)

The theoretical innovation advanced along three broad fronts. Most critically, a need was discovered to map more precisely the attitudinal values by which texts apply social norms to evaluate human behaviour and the constitution and status of objects and entities. Consequently, two new dimensions of interpersonal meaning were proposed, termed judgement and appreciation, which, along with affect, are seen as acting to construe social evaluation. (See Iedema et al. 1994, White 1997 and Martin in press). The three dimensions of evaluation -- judgement, appreciation and affect -- were grouped together under the heading of attitude.

In addition, news reporting was found to be highly strategic in the use it makes of resources for positioning the authorial voice with respect to the various propositions and proposals conveyed by a text. These resources include modality, reported speech, certain modal adjuncts, negation, concessive conjunctions, and so on. A need, therefore, was discovered both to provide a comprehensive account of these resources and to develop an understanding of the valeur relationships between the values -- an understanding of the way different choices of values from the system have different consequences for rhetorical potential. Towards this end, I developed a framework informed by Bakhtin’s theory of intertextuality (1973, 1981) and by both Lemke (1992) and Fairclough’s interpretation (1992) of that theory. By this approach I was able to map the consequences of choices from this system for the way a text engages with the various alternative social positions operating in the culture, and which are put at risk by a text’s meanings. The resources are grouped together under the heading of engagement.

Finally, a need was identified to develop descriptions of values by which speakers raise or lower the interpersonal impact, force or volume of their utterances. A number of accounts of these values exist in the literature (for example Labov 1984) but none seemed capable of accounting for the rhetorically strategic way news reporting texts favour certain sub-classes of these intensifiers while avoiding others. Accordingly, a more elaborated account of the valeur relationships between different modes of intensification has been developed under the heading, graduation.

A key outcome of the research was the discovery that there are three different interpersonal modes or styles which act consistently to determine lexico-grammatical choices and hence meanings in media texts. The modes are revealed through various patterns of preference for key values of attitude, engagement and graduation and by patterns of co-occurrence between these values. The three modes, termed ‘voices’, were found variously to associate most typically (though not universally) with general reporter news texts, with the analysis pieces of rounds reporters and other expert journalists, and with the commentaries of columnists and other high status writers. It will be shown that the distinctive rhetorical properties of news reporting texts are substantially conditioned by the particular preferences the language of news reporting displays for certain values of attitude, engagement and graduation.

It should be noted at this point that work on interpersonal positioning by Biber (1988) and Biber & Finegan (1989) has some similarities with the research project briefly previewed above. As well, Biber and Finegan applied their model of ‘styles of stance’ to an analysis of media texts, though their project was not designed specifically to explaining the communicative properties of journalistic discourse. Biber and Finegan’s model of the interpersonal, however, was significantly different from that adopted in the current work, and for this and other reasons, their findings are very different from those set out here. These matters will be explored more thoroughly in the course of a review of Biber and Finegan’s work in the next chapter.


The two most widely influential analyses of the text organisational properties of the news item are those provided by the journalistic vocational training literature and van Dijk’s account set out in News and Discourse (1988) and taken up and developed subsequently by Bell (1991, 1998). I will review both approaches in following chapters.

Both the journalistic training literature and van Dijk and Bell, however, have rather different objectives from that of this thesis. The training textbooks, of course, seek simply to equip trainees to produce texts of the required format. Van Dijk’s primary orientation is a cognitive one -- he is concerned with developing a model of the process of interpretation by which texts, including media texts, are understood. His theoretical framework is very different from the one adopted here and as a consequence his findings are different in some important respects from those of the current work.

In contrast, the current work seeks to develop an account of textual organisation by reference to a detailed analysis of linguistic features and thereby to discover the rhetorical purposes which that organisation might serve. As a consequence, the analysis discovers several key patterns of ideational, interpersonal and textual meanings which, it will be argued, are fundamental to the overall rhetorical potential of the news item. It will be demonstrated that without reference to these, it is not possible to present a full account of the textual architecture of the modern news item, nor to fully understand its socio-semiotic functionality.


Mass media discourse is constituted of a great diversity of text types. Within this, it is always necessary to consider the possibility of variation according to shifts in medium (print, radio, television, the WEB), in media organisation, in journalistic sub-domains (news, sport, finance etc) and, of course, according to shifts in language and other cultural determiners. In order to make the subject matter more manageable, I have, largely confined the study to a specific domain -- English-language, print-media news coverage from what I will term ‘broadsheet’ publications.

The term ‘broadsheet’, in contradistinction to ‘tabloid’, is typically used to reference those publications which characterise themselves as ‘up-market’, as ‘the quality press’ or as ‘journals of record’. In the English-speaking world ‘broadsheets’ are typically targeted mainly at a middle-class market while the ‘tabloids’ target more working-class readers. (For an extended discussion of these terms and their association with readership profiles, see Jucker 1992.) One of the findings of the initial research for this project was that the so-called ‘tabloids’ frequently differed from the so-called ‘broadsheets’ in terms of the interpersonal mode or voice of their general reporter news texts. The constraints on interpersonal values operational in the reporter voice of ‘broadsheets’ such as The Times, The Sydney Morning Herald or The New York Times either do not apply, or are less consistently applied in the tabloids such as The Sun (UK) or The New York Post. For the sake of the current work, I use the term ‘broadsheet’ to reference those publications which apply the conventions with respect to journalistic voice and interpersonal style which operate in newspapers such as The Times and The New York Times. With just a few exceptions, my use of the term matches that of general community usage.

I have chosen to focus primarily on these ‘broadsheet’ texts for several practical and one theoretically informed reason. The practical reasons include the fact that ‘broadsheet’ publications are more readily available on the WEB and so data collection is made easier, and because my own professional experience is in ‘broadsheets’ rather than ‘tabloids’. The ‘broadsheets’ are of interest theoretically in that, unlike the ‘tabloids’, they aspire to be ‘journals of record’ for the community in general, to reach as broad a market as possible, even while favouring middle-class over working-class perspectives. The reasons why such an aspiration should be of interest theoretically will be made clear in later discussion.

As indicated above, my primary objects of study are news items which document newsworthy events or the pronouncements of newsworthy sources. In journalistic parlance these types of stories are often known as ‘hard news’. The term acts, firstly, to distinguish such reports from what are know as ‘human interest’ or ‘colour stories’. It acts, secondly, to distinguish these reports from the feature articles which, for example, might provide analysis or backgrounding, and from commentary articles which explicitly evaluate and develop arguments. I will adopt this sense of the term for use in the later discussion. Although my primary concern is with these ‘hard news’ items, it will be necessary at various points to consider aspects of the textuality of other news coverage text types (features and commentary, for example) in order to understand the functionality of the news item within the totality of news coverage as a social practice.


The discussion in the following chapters will demonstrate various grounds by which modern ‘hard news’ reports constitute a distinctive, idiosyncratic text type with respect to the network of simultaneous genre types operating synchronically in the culture. The event-based news item, with its grounding in some sequence of actions, appears, as discussed above, to have some significant connection with the broad category of texts which has been termed ‘story’ or ‘narrative’. Yet the structuring of these event-based news items ignores what appears to be a fundamental socio-semiotic convention or principle of story-telling -- that there is a communicative imperative to ground story-telling texts in chronological sequence, in the causal and temporal succession of the action with which the text is concerned. That is to say, the structure of modern news items of the type under consideration does not act to provide the clear map of chronological succession which is typical of the narrative text -- the items are not organised around the unfolding of the sequence of events in time.

In this, therefore, the modern news item stands apart from related genres operating concurrently in the culture. A study of news reporting from past eras reveals that, in addition, the modern news item also stands apart from its own journalistic precursors. (See, for example, Bell 1991, Schudson 1978, 1982 .) Until around the end of the 19th century, event-based stories were like other story-telling genres in that their structure was designed to directly map chronological and causal sequence. In this respect, at least, they were unproblematically narratives. When the modern news item is thus viewed diachronically, it is discovered to represent a radical transformation in text organisational conventions as they operated previously. Accordingly, its idiosyncratic status with respect to genre is further emphasised.

A further historical study reveals that the modern pronouncement-based news item is likewise the product of a radical transformation in text compositional practices. The reports that we encounter today have developed from a very different mode of textuality under which the reporter’s task was essentially that of stenographer. Reports were comprised essentially of transcripts of debates, speeches, letters and announcement with the reporter providing only the most minimal introduction or framing -- sometimes just a few words.

Where appropriate in the course of the following discussion, therefore, the diachronic perspective will be introduced alongside that of the synchronic. The view of the past will necessarily be brief and in some cases relatively informal. I will certainly not offer a comprehensive description of past journalistic modes nor an account of the process by which modern conventions of journalism came into being. In most cases, I have had to base the comparison on just a few carefully chosen texts from late 19th century and early 20th century newspapers. The point of introducing the historical comparison is the better to cast into relief the current characteristic properties of modern news reporting textuality. The historical comparison compels us to question what social conditions or communicative objectives might have provoked such an innovation in the order of journalistic discourse. By demonstrating the degree to which contemporary news reporting genres represent significant departures from past practice, we can more readily demonstrate the arbitrary nature of contemporary modes in the sense that they are not fixed or predetermined, but vary in response to the social changes which accompany the flow of history.

For the sake of convenience, I will use the term ‘pre-modern’ to reference journalism up until 1910. The choice of the date is relatively arbitrary, except that there is significant agreement among media historians that it was around this time that the conventions of news reporting were undergoing the changes which were to result in the modes of media textuality we know today, or at least that the changes which had been underway for perhaps the previous decade reached critical mass around this time. (See, for example, Schudson 1978, Schiller 1981 or Curran and Seaton 1991.)

1.6. ORGANISATION OF THE DISCUSSION The structure of the thesis is as follows:

Chapter 1 (Introduction) – Describing the communicative functionality of the news item
Chapter 2 – Theoretical foundations
Chapter 3 – Appraisal, theorising the language of evaluation and inter-subjective positioning
Chapter 4 – The interpersonal styles of journalism
Chapter 5 – The event-based news item
Chapter 6 – The pronouncement-based news item
Chapter 7 (Conclusion) – Naturalising ideology and the news item as rhetorical device