To make things simple, I interviewed Dr. Jason Hannan from the department of rhetoric and communication at the University of Winnipeg. He explains the importance of language and rhetoric in democratic society and in news media.
What is rhetoric and discourse analysis?
One specific type of rhetorical criticism is discourse analysis, which developed independently of rhetorical criticism. It became it’s own thing. The people who pioneered it, like Norman Fairclough Teun Van Dijk, and Noam Chomsky, never took courses in rhetoric. So you don’t actually need to study rhetoric to analyse the news.
That’s not to say you can’t use rhetoric to analyse the news, but you don’t need it.
Rhetoric has two components. First, there’s the practice: democratic speech. That’s what politicians, citizens, advocates, and so forth do. And then there’s criticism, something that’s much more recent. Taking a speech or a news article and then looking at it, dissecting it, understanding how it works – that’s a very twentieth century kind of thing.
One of the promising ways of doing discourse analysis is Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model. That’s where you’re not simply interested in what a text has to say, but you look at the political economy of the media. You look at who owns what. So if some company owns the New York Times, and the New York Times consistently does not report on something the parent company has interest in, that should not be a surprise. Any newspaper is going to have a blind spot, subjects they simply will not talk about because it’ll offend advertisers.
There’s a reason why, for example, so much of the news media don’t talk about global warming. Their parent companies are tied to the oil industry. Many newspapers refuse to criticise Hilary Clinton because their parent companies donate to her campaign. Mother Jones, which was a left-wing magazine, is now funded by George Soros, a top contributor to Clinton’s campaign. So you’ll find absolutely zero criticism of Hilary Clinton in Mother Jones.
Knowing who owns what will give you some basis for looking for those kinds of gaps and biases. Depending on what angle you want to look at, whether it’s race, gender, foreign policy, the environment, or whatever, you’ll find patterns of bias in most newspapers.
Understanding Journalism in a Capitalist Society
Q: If you’re taking the approach of discourse criticism where you’re looking at political economy and who owns what, how does that interfere or play with our concepts of journalism? Do you think people realize journalism isn’t unbiased? What do you think is the interplay there?
A: Sales, ratings and accessibility. So if news is too complex and too nuanced, it won’t sell. But if something is simple and black and white, it’ll sell. There’s a reason why, for example, they use stereotypes when they make films depicting the Middle East. Stereotypes sell.
If not, it means trying to undo a stereotype and represent the “other” in a complex way. As far as a producer’s perspective goes, that’s a potential risk of failure. Stereotypes serve as a reliable way of making sure your movie or TV show or magazine will sell.
Q: We’ve talked about avoiding certain subjects of business owners’ interests, but if we could get more nuanced in the way people represent the stories they do tell, how do you think that the capitalist system limits what information we get?
A: The system will neutralize criticisms of the system. That’s why Bernie Sanders hardly got any coverage. When he did, it was mostly bad coverage.
The system is okay with anything that doesn’t threaten it. That’s why now, for example, the representation of queer voices is achieving some acceptance within the system. Take a show like Ellen. She’s openly queer. That show would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. But it’s okay now because what she represents isn’t threatening to the system in any way.
On the other hand, Indigenous communities opposing a pipeline in North Dakota are not going to get very much coverage. It’s a threat to Big Oil. I don’t reduce everything to class and financial power, but it’s a pretty reliable and consistent lens to use when looking for patterns of bias.
Q: So what do you think counts as good coverage?
A: First of all, I’d say not every journalist within the mainstream media is compromised and unreliable. You’ll find journalists from, say, the NYT or the Washington Post, which are for the most part corporate neoliberal rags, who occasionally do good pieces. It’s possible to find good coverage from within mainstream sources.
But I would rely on alternative media. For me, outlets like Democracy Now! are invaluable because they don’t have that same corporate agenda. They serve a public interest, they’re not profit driven. That changes the entire structure of reporting.
I think alternative media are indispensible. It’s possible to rely on mainstream news, but I don’t think we can be blind and uncritically reliant on it. If you rely on mainstream news to understand Hilary Clinton, you’ll come up with the most skewed and distorted understanding of what her campaign is about and who she is. We need to have those critical perspectives.
Another phenomenal resource is The Intercept. They do investigative reporting. Glenn Greenwald works for them. Roger Hodge, a fantastic journalist and author, is the managing editor of The Intercept.
Incidentally, Hodge wrote a critical book from a left wing perspective on Obama called The Mendacity of Hope. It’s about how Obama’s liberalism is the emptiest signifier imaginable. He uses these words like hope and change, which don’t actually mean anything. He even said in The Audacity of Hope that he’s basically like a blank slate onto which liberals project whatever kind of fantasy they want. He’s there to fulfill their fantasy.
Another excellent source of news would be foreign news media, such as Al-Jazeera. They will tell you things about what’s going on in the Middle East that you’d never hear from the New York Times.
You must have a diversity of sources. Regardless of the source, it’s always a good rule of thumb to ask, “Who do they serve?”
The Power of Language
Q: What is the power of language? People throw words around like it’s no one’s business, and we say words without thinking about them half the time, and it impacts people around them. So, to what extent does language have power?
A: We are creatures of speech. We have our consciousness and our mode of being, values, religions, worldviews, and history in speech. Everything we say or do revolves around concepts and language.
The very fact that we’re sitting here, that you ordered water and I ordered tea, the fact that we’re reflecting on sources of information about the world — none of this would be possible without speech. Language makes who we are and what we’re doing possible.
But speech is a double-edged sword. It can be used for empowerment, but also disempowerment; for good and for harm.
We use language to write laws, carry on traditions, create institutions, and officiate weddings. At the same time, speech can hurt. As children we’re taught this false idea that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” That’s obviously bullshit. Words can hurt you and me.
There’s something called dignity. Words can be an assault on dignity. Sexist and racist language, or any kind of abusive language that belittles a person’s identity, can take a toll on a person’s well-being. It can affect their self-conception. And that all begins at childhood. Children see themselves as their parents see them. If parent use positive words towards their child, they’ll grow up with a positive sense of self. If parents swear at their children and tell them they’re stupid, they’ll grow up believing they’re stupid.
So, words matter. Our identities, our self-awareness, our self-conceptions, our self-esteem, it revolves around language.
Q: Okay, so when it comes to news, paying attention to language must be pretty important, right? Do you think, when it comes to news and public discourse, it’s important that people take the time to consider language?
A: I’m sure some people naively think if a journalist reports on some event, they’re getting the full picture; that they’re receiving as clear and objective a description as there could be.
But here, two points. First, the thing about newspapers is that they generally don’t go for nuanced language. So, they typically aim for an eighth grade reading level. Some, like Fox News or CNN will go for something more on a second grade level. How much complexity and reflection and awareness can you possibly have in that kind of simplistic and elementary level of representation?
Second, as I said, we use language to represent something like this teacup in front of us, and we can talk about it through whatever concepts we have. I can describe as being metallic and having this or that physical property. That’s a description of a physical object.
But the news represents social events. Events are not like a teacup. They’re created by language and they come packaged in language. So the way we read them and represent them will come through language. So, for example, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s referred to the Taliban as “freedom fighters.” Now, they’re called “terrorists.” So what are they?
They’re a complex story, and you can use words to represent them in this direction or in that direction. So if somebody is watching a news report about the Taliban and they’re called “freedom fighters” or “terrorists,” you can’t just accept without questioning it.
We need a level of critical, second-order awareness, so you don’t take everything at face value. You don’t treat what the news reports about events as straightforward truth, like opening an unclouded window onto an event.
Ethics of Journalism
Q: Do you think there’s any moral or ethical imperative for news to provide as close to unbiased, fair and balanced coverage as possible?
A: When we say “the news”, we have to ask, “News written for whom?” The Wall Street Journal doesn’t serve the public interest. The WSJ, The Economist, and other business magazines serve a community — the business community. So their imperative, and it’s not an inherently ethical one — it’s a practical one — is to provide accurate news that’s useful for the business world. To the extent that they report on foreign affairs, you’ll find some really accurate reporting, because business and investment rely on that accurate reporting. But when you’re talking about, let’s say the CBC, BBC or PBS, their ostensible function is the public interest, though they’re still subject to political and financial pressures. So moral imperatives aside, their function is to provide news that serves the public in general. That’s why they’re called public broadcasting.
Dr. Jason Hannan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications at the University of Winnipeg. His research interests include rhetoric and political theory, bioethics and medical humanities, and posthumanism and critical animal studies. He is the editor of Philosophical Profiles in the Theory of Communication (Peter Lang, 2012) and Truth in the Public Sphere (Lexington, forthcoming). In addition to teaching and research, he is also an animal rights and environmental activist.