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Sumanariu F. Alexandra-Mariana, FLSC, CCBCG, anul II, sem.

TABLOID AND NEWS DISCOURSE


Some of the most important questions regarding the relationships between
media and culture are about communication:

How are the meanings which make up a culture shared in the society?

How is the power performed in the media?

What identities and relationships take shape there?


The word tabloid in the media context originally referred to newspapers of a

specific format, a printer's term for a publication smaller in size than previous
newspapers. The smaller size made the tabloids easier to handle and read on the bus, train
and other forms of public transportation. The tabloids can also be seen as a product of an
emerging mass market, adapted for a new reading public.
From the very beginning though, the concept of tabloid meant concentrated form and
content in general, and the first time the word was used it was in a medical context.
Tabloid then was a medicament in a concentrated and handy form: a small and effective
tablet! Lord Northcliffe, who laid the foundation for the British mass market newspaper
when he in 1896 established the Daily Mail, introduced the concept of tabloid in the
media context. The Daily Mirror was the first modern newspaper with a tabloid format
a format that Lord Northcliffe defined as the daily time saver. As a newspaper that was
intended for the masses, the tabloid was adjusted to that particular market in several
ways: contents, price, distribution and marketing.
The tabloid press then was synonymous not only with a specific paper format, but
also with a certain way of selecting and presenting news. The tabloid press was from the
beginning criticized for sensationalism and emotionalism, for over-simplification of
complex issues, for catering to the lowest common denominator and sometimes for
outright lies. Today, the word tabloidisation or tabloidism are used in media criticism to
(vaguely) describe the tendency for all journalism to become more like the journalism of

the tabloid press (as in Franklin, 1997:7) - it is obvious that tabloid journalism no longer
is confined to the tabloid press. Indeed, today it seems that television is the medium that
is most often associated with tabloid journalism. Some researchers talk about the
commercialisation of the news a process which, according to the critics, shares many
features (sensationalism, personification, simplification etc) with the tabloidisation
process.
Tabloid journalism no longer refers to just a newspaper format, but a specific type
of journalism. The problem with using the term in this way, is of course that the term
tabloid journalism is heavily value-laden. Tabloid journalism simply means the same as
bad journalism. As seen from the examples of criticism above, tabloid journalism
becomes all that which a serious, responsible, good quality journalism is not:
sensationalist, over-simplified, populist etc. The tabloid journalism thus becomes a kind
of journalistic other, used as a warning example and symbol for all that is wrong in
modern journalism. With this kind of definition, the question "But can't there be any good
tabloid journalism?" becomes impossible to ask, since tabloid journalism by definition is
bad, and so no good tabloid journalism can exist - if it is good, then it can't be tabloid
journalism.
This journalistic other has of course existed before the tabloid format was
invented. The tabloid format first appeared in Europe in the first decades of the 20th
century but before that the cheap British periodicals of the early 19th century and the
New York penny press in the 1890s had been criticised for its focus on scandals and
sensation.
For simplicity's sake, we will use the term tabloid journalism to describe all journalism
that generally has been defined as bad journalism tabloid journalism becomes
synonymous with the journalistic other discussed above.
The basic thrust of the criticism against tabloid journalism has always been that
its forms of journalistic representation, in one way or another, goes against important
societal values, whether moral or political. Tabloid journalism is in many ways regarded
as anathema to this kind of rational public discourse. There is also a close connection
between this public sphere-based criticism and the criticism that is based on the notion
that tabloid journalism does not live up to its responsibility and the journalistic

professional standards of objectivity, balance, diversity and pertinence: by ignoring these


standards and ideals, or at least treating them with a certain laxity, the tabloid journalism
cannot fulfil what is generally considered to be the given functions of news media in a
pluralist democratic society.
News reports in the press are a member of a family of media text types that need their
own structural analysis. That is the general property of discourse they display and the
more specific or characteristic structures that distinguish them from other media texts or
similar non-media texts, such as stories, must be made clear.
Such a structural analysis operates at several levels and dimensions.
Obviously, as a form of language use, media texts also display linguistic or grammatical
structures of words, word groups, clauses, or sentences. The usual phonological,
morphological, syntactic, and semantic descriptions may be relevant for these structures.
Variations and genre-specific structures at these levels also define the style of news
discourse. Thus, the use of neologisms, the heavy recourse to nominalisations ( instead of
verbs), sentence complexity, or word or clause order (such as post-positioned
declaratives: -. . . ., the president declared") are examples of these specifics of
grammatical style of news discourse. Similarly, syntactic structures may also express
underlying ideological positions, for instance by using passive constructions and deleting
agents from typical subject positions to dissimulate the negative actions of elite or
powerful groups. Finally, lexical choice is an eminent aspect of news discourse in which
hidden opinions or ideologies may surface. The traditional example of using - terrorists"
instead of "guerrillas" or "freedom fighters" is only one example. The same is true for the
use of "riots" instead of "disturbances" or instead of "resistance" or the use of "hooligans"
instead of, for example "demonstrators". A large part of the hidden point of view, tacit
opinions, or the usually denied ideologies of the press may be inferred from these lexical
descriptions and identifications of social groups and their members. Thus far, discourse
analysis runs parallel with linguistics. However, news texts are not simply characterised
at the level of individual words or sentences in isolation. They also have structures at
higher, more complex, or more extended levels and dimensions. Semantically, for
instance, sentence meanings are mutually dependent and connected and form coherent

sequences. Besides the meanings of words and sentences, world knowledge in the form
of models, frames, and scripts represented in memory, is brought to bear by the reader to
understand a piece of news discourse as a coherent whole.
Conditions, causes, or reasons may be involved in these links between
sentences, and obviously these presuppose knowledge or beliefs about how events or
situations in the world are organised. Thus, a simple because may betray a large set of
assumptions about the social or political world the news describes. No wonder that
journalists often use the more neutral while instead of because to avoid ideological
identification with their sources or with the events they describe.
Whereas this semantic account still takes place at the more local level, we
also analyse the overall, global meanings of news discourse. The notion of' semantic
macrostructure has been used to make explicit the familiar notion of topic or theme a
news report covers. Macrostructures and the cognitive processes on which they are based
are crucial for news reports and their production and comprehension: they define the gist,
upshot, or most important information of the news report. More than in any other type of
text, macrostructures are explicitly expressed in the news report, as headlines and leads.
Since they also depend on world knowledge, opinions and attitudes (after all, what is
important is ideologically bound), macrostructures and their expressions - e.g., in the
headlines - may be subjective and biased. An explicit analysis of the thematic
organization of news reports, in terms of macrostructure rides of inference or reduction,
allows us to assess such biases, for instance when low level topics are upgraded to main
topics and even expressed in the headlines, or conversely. In other words, the definition
of the situation as it is provided by the thematic macrostructure of a news report may be
vastly different from alternative definitions. Macrostructures, thus, are systematically
related to the constraints and conditions of news production: summaries of news events
figure everywhere in news-making.
Global meanings or content (topics) also require a conventional or canonical
form (like sentence meaning needs syntax for its organization). For different types of text
or talk, therefore, each culture has its own global categories and rules to organise
discourse or communicative events. The best known examples are the conventional

structure of stories (setting, complication, resolution, etc.), or that of arguments


(premises, conclusion).
Texts that occur frequently and/or are processed routinely within
institutions, such as news discourse, often have such a canonical pattern. Therefore, we
introduced the notion of a news schema, featuring the usual categories that provide the
different functions of information in news reports: summary (headline and lead), main
events, backgrounds (context and history), consequences (consequent events or actions
and verbal reactions), and comments (evaluation and prediction). Some of these
categories are mandatory (summary and main event), whereas others are optional.
Apart from organising the global content (themes, macrostructure) of news
reports, they have cognitive and social functions in news production and in news
understanding and memorisation. For instance, journalists may explicitly search for
background to a main news event and explicitly ask for, or select from, a wire, the verbal
reactions of a major news actor.
Characteristic of both macrostructures and superstructures of news is
their discontinuous, installment structure: topics and their schematic categories are
realised step by step throughout the news text. The general principle is that of relevance:
the most relevant information (from top to bottom) comes first, followed by lower levels,
and finally, details of each respective schematic category (from summary, via main
events, through backgrounds to comments). Hence, an important verbal reaction may
appear before a less important detail of the main event. This relevance structure is
intricately linked with news production strategies, the structure of models journalists have
of news events, as well as with properties of reading news such as skimming. Finally,
news structures of various levels may feature a rhetorical dimension. Special structures or
organizational principles (identity, permutation, deletion, or addition) may operate on
sounds, word order, or meanings in order to make them more noticeable, hence more
memorable and effective.
Although news discourse was found to be non-persuasive in principle or
intention, it may well have a persuasive dimension in a more indirect sense: even if it
does not argue for a position or opinion, it certainly presupposes them, by definition of its
social and therefore ideological embedding. But even professionally speaking, a news

report will have to signal its credibility and therefore exhibit its truth claims. The major
rhetorical aspect of news, therefore, is the characteristic usage of the number game. By
signaling precision or exactness, such numbers in the news report rhetorically enhance its
effectiveness - like the statistics in a scholarly publication.
This summary of a few structural principles of news discourse suggests that
we are not simply interested in news structures per se, even if these also need attention.
Rather, we analyse such structures in relation to their context of production and
understanding: we want to know their specific functions, for instance, in the expression
of underlying knowledge, beliefs, attitudes or ideologies, or as results of specific
constraints of news-making.
Similarly, once we have made explicit such structures, we also know more
about the strategies and the representations that play a role in the interpretation,
memorisation, and reproduction of news information by the readers.