Mediatization and the Language of Journalism

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At the intersection of applied linguistics and journalism studies lies media linguistics.


By Dr. Tom Van Hout (left) and Dr. Peter Burger (right)
Hout: Lecturer in Journalism and New Media
Burger: Lecturer in Journalism and New Media
Leiden University


At the intersection of applied linguistics and journalism studies lies media linguistics. This
emerging subdisciplinary label is an umbrella term for the study of mass mediated language
use, which, for the purposes of this, is restricted to news media: public or private
institutions of mass communication that produce and spread public information
commoditized as news. Two issues stand out in the literature on media linguistics (and
beyond). The first is the shifting ecology of contemporary journalism: in an always-on,
digital mediascape, the craft of journalism is increasingly defined by screenwork. The second
is the perspective of mediatization, which highlights the central role mediated communication
plays in high modern societies. This discusses two responses to the mediatization of
society: the cultural authority of journalists as knowledge creators and knowledge brokers in
fluid, heteroglossic media environments, and satirical responses to the proliferation of news


Image by Benjamin Stewart, Wikimedia Commons

At the intersection of applied linguistics and journalism studies lies media linguistics. This
emerging subdisciplinary label (Perrin, 2013) is an umbrella term for the study of mass mediated language use, which, for the purposes here, is restricted to news media[1]:
public or private institutions of mass communication that produce and spread news. Two approaches can be discerned within media linguistics. Work on language of the media examines how news media use language to represent social life. News media mediate social
life through institutionally constrained language use (Bell, 1991) and visual design (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001; Zelizer, 2010). Whether in print, broadcast or digital form, news media spread culturally authoritative representations of social life, from traditional domains such as politics and business to more recent ones such as health and lifestyle. There is a long-standing tradition of applied linguistic and discourse analytical research on the structure, social meaning, epistemology, and functions of media language (see for instance, Cotter, 2010). Conversely, work on language in the media investigates how language issues such as language standards, language ideologies, and language change are represented and thematized in news media (Johnson & Ensslin, 2007; Johnson & Milani, 2010). As driving forces in the political economy of language, news media shape cultural values and naturalize specific language codes and ideologies. Indeed, rather than offering value-free representations of the world, news language invariably reflects particular worldviews, interests, and ideas about society, including ideas about language, Understanding whose values, beliefs and worldviews are foregrounded and what counts as legitimate language use remain central concerns in media linguistics.

Two broad but overlapping issues stand out in the literature on media linguistics (and beyond). The first is the shifting ecology of contemporary journalism. The coherently bundled mediascape of yesteryear differs drastically from today’s noisy news cultures, what with 24/7 news cycles, mobile news, machine-written news, content farming, spin doctors, and sponsored content. The public, famously redefined by journalism pundit Jay Rosen as ‘The People Formerly Known as the Audience’, have joined the actors on the stage and talk back, repurpose content, share news stories and create their own. Meanwhile, journalism’s most prominent exemplar – the written press – has been fighting an uphill battle against shrinking advertising revenue, commercial pressures, dwindling staff numbers, editorial adjustments, industrial concentration and precarious labor conditions.

However, the most striking change is that the craft of journalism is no longer exclusively defined by reporting. Instead, for a large majority of journalists, making news now means navigating dense information flows. Indeed, in an always-on, digital mediascape, journalism “has become as much about navigating the complex ecology of information already ‘out there’ as seeking and revealing unknown truths” (Boyer, 2013, pp. 2-3). Journalism-as-screenwork changes the very notion of news, argues Boyer (2013, p. 4): “At an increasing number of western news organizations today, “news” is being redefined by managers and by many journalists as information that users themselves deem relevant. As one can imagine, this shift has destabilized the old model of journalistic expertise and authority in which journalists could imagine themselves as (…) guarantors of an informed democratic public. The neoliberal model positions journalism instead as a particular kind of informational service labor on behalf of sovereign consumers, perhaps involving some specialized expertise in the filtration and “curation” of relevant messages, but nonetheless robbed of much of its authority to define what issues and events are newsworthy and why.”

Consider, for instance, how digital technologies have changed the production and consumption of news. We now have round the clock access to personalized newsfeeds at our fingertips. Algorithms automate news production based on statistical information and stock phrases. Vast databases such as Wikileaks provide access to new sources of information. We use social media to bookmark, share, modify and comment on news stories, memes and other media content. For journalists, the action takes place on their computer screens where they manage newsroom diaries, monitor twitter and email accounts, filter news agency feeds, repurpose content, create interactive maps, and write news stories. For journalism scholars, these changes require a shift from seeing news as an upward trajectory from institutional sources across newsrooms to passive audiences. Instead news becomes a continuously negotiated, “ambient” commodity (Hermida, 2010) in a participatory media culture that is at once intensively discursive and discursively intensified.

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The second issue is mediatization and its impact on mediated communication (Androutsopoulos, 2014b). The term was originally used in historical research to describe political disempowerment; more precisely, “the suspension of “imperial immediacy” in the German empire in Napoleonic times” (Hepp, 2014, p. 51). In its current usage, mediatization refers loosely to an ongoing process of socio-cultural change driven by the saturation of media(ted) communication in society. Defined as “the accrual of power created by the increased pervasiveness and autonomy of media institutions, values and technologies” (Deacon & Stanyer, 2014, p. 1033), mediatization is an abstract and contested notion with remarkable social scientific appeal and scope. The term is used in analyses of tourism, war, health, religion, education, sports, and politics, among others. In this sense, mediatization
resembles the popularity of globalization, neoliberalism, and superdiversity in recent discussions of social change.

Deacon & Stanyer (2014: 1033) discern two traditions of mediatization research in communication and journalism studies: “In institutionalist accounts, mediatization is seen as a process in which non-media social actors have to adapt to ‘media’s rules, aims, production
logics, and constraints’ (…). In social constructivist accounts, it is seen as a process in which changing information and communication technologies (ICTs) drive ‘the changing communicative construction of culture and society’ (…).”

The institutionalist tradition of mediatization research, with its emphasis on large media corporations and “media logic” (Albæk, 2011), is useful for understanding the communicative ecologies of news media. For instance, much of broadcast interviewing nowadays is not produced for an ‘overhearing audience’, but consists of off-camera conversation and research interviews. In this process, the boundaries between what is on or off the record, informal socializing or professional exchange are ambiguous (Ekström & Lundell, 2011). In news broadcasts, politicians’ quotes are used to support the editors’ interpretation of issues. For the audience’s ears and eyes, the quotes fit seamlessly into the reporter’s frame. This is achieved by editing, which “naturalizes the journalists’ interpretation, conveying it as coherent and logical” (Schohaus, 2013, p. 506). Questions that are not edited out of the footage are often neutral instead of confronting, which adds to the impression that the reporter is a neutral intermediary between source and audience. Factual introductions of news items by the anchor work towards the same end (Schohaus, 2013). Another example is the intraprofessional news interview, i.e. the widely used format in broadcast news of journalist-to-journalist talk. In these interactions between a news anchor and a fellow journalist in the role of expert, the interviewer enhances rather than questions the interviewee’s authority. This format allows for interactional control and communicative predictability: a fellow journalist can be relied upon to produce efficient, audience-friendly news talk (Ekström & Lundell 2011). Ironically, the increasingly circumscribed airtime set apart for politicians and other social actors exposes them to the novel risk of “talk scandals” (Ekström & Johansson, 2008): scandals not sparked by disclosures about financial or sexual misconduct, but by verbal transgressions, originating in the media. A case in point is the Dutch scandal that ensued in 2002 when Amsterdam alderman Rob Oudkerk, unaware of an open microphone, referred to a sizeable part of the citizenry as ‘kut-Marokkanen’ (literally, ‘cunt Moroccans’). As Silverstein reminds us (2011, p. 169), such gaffes are revelatory of “something behind or underneath (…) the carefully crafted façade of performance, in which
(…) a self, an identity, a biography is performatively achieved for the electorate and broader
addressee.” The social constructivist tradition of mediatization research is broadly concerned
with the communicative construction of socio-cultural reality and, more specifically, with how mediatized messages are recontextualized by audiences in everyday social practices and public discourse (see for instance Cole & Pellicer, 2012; Graber, 2012; Jaffe, 2011; Squires, 2014).[2]

Taken together, the shifting ecology of news journalism and the broader perspective of mediatization underscore the relevance of media linguistics to the study of language in society. In what follows, we briefly describe the disciplinary context of journalism studies before identifying two journalistic responses to the mediatization of society. We then discuss perspectives for the future and conclude with a call to action.

Historical Perspectives

College of Journalism and Communication, University of Florida, Photo by Daniel X. O’Neill, Flickr, Creative Commons

Long considered a less respectable version of more established disciplines – not history but ‘the first draft of history’; somewhat literary but not literature – journalism came under increasing scrutiny from the 1940s onwards. While the field’s prehistory dates back to mid-19th century German social theory (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009), the empirical study of journalism began after the Second World War with the foundation of journalism schools in the United States. These schools studied journalism for educational purposes: to train journalism students. A first generation of news scholars produced groundbreaking work on news values, agenda setting and gatekeeping in the 1950s (White, 1950). A wave of very influential sociological studies then followed in the 1970s and 1980s (for a review, see Stonbely, 2013), yielding insights into news production at Anglo-American elite news organizations that hold sway to this day. The past two decades have witnessed a global comparative turn in the study of journalism, with multinational research projects such as the Worlds of Journalism Study (Reich & Hanitzsch, 2013) or Journalistic Role Performance around the Globe (Mellado & Van Dalen, 2013).

Originally scattered across disciplines such as political science, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and linguistics, journalism studies was adopted as an umbrella term for the study of journalism theory, practice and education in the nineties. Two major journals in the field, Journalism and Journalism Studies, were founded in 2000. Although the original disciplines are still recognizable as self-contained ‘citation communities’, they are united by an expanding infrastructure of journals, conferences, and associations. Another boundary, perhaps even more in evidence, is the divide between theoretical-empirical work and industry-facing professional studies. Although hackademics (Harcup, 2012; Niblock, 2012) straddle the professional divide between scholars and practitioners (or find themselves caught in the middle), journalism scholars struggle to convince news workers of their relevance — much like sociolinguists who struggle to communicate expertise about language to a wider audience (Jaspers, 2014; Johnson, 2001).

The distinction between academics and practitioners, we surmise, is not – as is often said – one of theory versus practice, nor an objective versus a normative perspective on the workings of the press. Journalism scholars tend to be as normative as journalism practitioners, but both groups cherish different epistemological norms and occupy different social identities (Niblock, 2012). A more productive division is that between the view from the outside in (etic) and from the inside out (emic). On the emic side we find not only (former) practitioners but also media anthropologists and applied linguists, particularly those with a professional background in journalism (e.g. Cotter, 2010), who adopt journalistic concerns as departure points for their research or who try to give situated knowledge and lived experience their analytical dues. On the etic side, there is a well-established sociological tradition of newsroom ethnography, currently experiencing renewed attention (Anderson, 2012; Paterson & Domingo, 2011).

A variety of approaches to the language of journalism can be found on both sides of the emicetic divide. These include sociolinguistic approaches to style and variation (see for instance Bell, 1991 on audience design), conversation analytical work on broadcast news
media (Montgomery, 2008), work in the tradition of systemic functional linguistics on register and genre (Martin & White, 2005), rhetorical (López Pan, 2014) and pragmatic (Verschueren, 1985) approaches to news language, corpus analytical studies (Bednarek, 2006b), critical discourse analysis (Richardson, 2007), multimodal analysis of news language (Machin & Niblock, 2008), and linguistic ethnographic work on news production (Van Hout, 2015). It would lead too far to discuss all these approaches in detail, let alone their degrees of topical, analytical and methodological overlap or their uptake in other disciplines such as cultural and media studies, communication and political science. We do, however, draw on the rich tradition of discursive approaches to news journalism to carve out two core issues. The first is a profession-internal response to competing knowledge claims and attacks on journalists’ professional authority. The second is a profession-external response to the proliferation of news discourse.

Core Issues in Media Linguistics

Boundary Work and Paradigm Repair

Psychology Today, Wikimedia Commons

Journalism’s claim to reliability has always been tied to the use of sources: although commenting on social events has always been a major component of the news, a journalist’s
core business is and was, according to its practitioners, the source-based reporting of facts.
According to one adage, journalists do not make the news. Sources do. Put differently, “news
is not what happens, but what someone says has happened or will happen” (Sigal, 1986, p.15). However, in an era of growing distrust vis-à-vis establishment institutions – governments and corporations, politics and science – journalism, too, has had to reinvent itself as a producer of authoritative knowledge. Competing sources of knowledge abound in the form of alternative and social media. Journalists are faced with a double bind: they need to embrace the digital world to maintain contact with their public and avail themselves of the news that moves fast across social networks, but simultaneously they need to distinguish their profession, their product and their outlets from rivals of knowledge. They do so by employing a number of discursive and rhetorical techniques that stress their status as a reliable source of knowledge that is itself based on dependable sources.

Although journalism deals in facts, there is always a persuasive subtext: the tacit, and sometimes explicit claim, that the medium possesses the authority to establish what is a fact and what is not. In rhetorical terms, journalism is defined more by its ethos, i.e. the image it wants to project, than by its logos, i.e. its content. Ethos, according to Aristotle, can be broken down into expertise, virtue, and goodwill. Rhetorically emphasizing the truth and objectivity of their product is part and parcel of journalistic practice. Routines such as using quotes and balanced reporting have been identified as ‘strategic rituals’ that journalists carry out to preempt criticism by their superiors or by sources who might feel short-changed (Ekström, 2006; Tuchman, 1972). Journalists also routinely construct facts by using impersonal grammar, e.g. ‘facts show that’ or ‘it is believed that’ (Potter, 1996, pp. 155-158). These techniques derive their effect mainly from the way journalists present their sources and vary the distance to their sources. This level of distancing is variously called footing (Potter, 1996, p. 122), authorial positioning (Bednarek, 2006a) and journalistic stance (Van Hout, Pounds, & Vertommen, 2012). In this way, journalists routinely construct facts as existing independent from themselves. From time to time, however, news facts are challenged, along with journalists’ ethos. In those cases, journalists reach for a more forceful rhetorical repertoire to discredit rival knowledge claims.

Whenever their authority is challenged, journalists tend to re-affirm the solidity of their profession’s norms and procedures. These attempts to demarcate a profession – ‘boundary work rhetoric’ – were first identified by the sociologist Thomas Gieryn (1983). Boundary work may serve to expand one’s authority or expertise in areas where external rivals stake their claims; monopolize professional authority and resources by excluding internal rivals (e.g., ‘amateurs’); and protect autonomy, i.e. protect members of the profession against the consequences of their work by placing the blame for any misdeeds on external forces. Generally, these defensive measures assume the form of reaffirming the classic norms of objectivity and neutrality, hence the alternative terms paradigm repair or news repair (Lance Bennett, Gressett, & Haltom, 1985).

Gieryn’s concept sparked a number of follow-up studies about cases in which journalists had to fight off attacks on their claims of objectivity and re-establish the boundaries between news and entertainment, and between tabloid and quality reporting (Berkowitz, 2000; Bishop, 2004; Fakazis, 2006). The car accident that killed Princess Diana, to name one such case, allowed journalists representing mainstream news media to distance themselves from the tabloids and their paparazzi, who allegedly chased Diana with fatal consequences. In preceding years, the boundary between tabloid media and mainstream news media had become blurred because the latter, too, had increased their celebrity coverage, so the Diana accident offered an opportunity to reaffirm distinctions. In talk shows, tabloid editors, in turn, downplayed their connection to the ‘irregular’ photographers involved in Diana’s death. In this case, boundary work rhetoric of both mainstream and tabloid journalists served the third function identified by Gieryn: warranting autonomy. In a bid to ward off calls for press regulation, journalists confessed that they had sinned, but tried to shift the blame towards the audience’s craving for celebrity news or towards the paparazzi (Bishop, 1999). In scandals like these, journalists’ virtue and goodwill are questioned: are these journalists people who perform their work in the service of the public? In more routine instances of boundary work, journalists also stress the third dimension of ethos distinguished by Aristotle, i.e. their expertise.

Coming to Terms with the Vernacular

Nieman Lab, Creative Commons

What emerges from these studies of boundary work and paradigm repair is that journalism is a count noun: it consists of ‘journalisms’ (Deuze, 2003) that differ in status, norms, and practices. One of the most fiercely contested border regions is the area where institutional news media touch the ‘vernacular web’ of blogs, wikis, forums, and social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. To what extent do these ‘we media’ constitute journalism? An early, but still relevant example of this clash occurred in 1996, when the established American journalist Pierre Salinger mistakenly claimed that the crash of TWA flight 800 near the coast of New York was caused by a U.S. Navy missile. He was ostracized by his peers, who repaired the paradigm by painting both Salinger and the Internet as unprofessional, gullible, and unreliable (Ruggiero & Winch, 2005).

Much has changed since 1996, but each technological innovation summons the old rhetoric, be it about blogs (Haas, 2005), online citizen journalism (Robinson, 2009), or Twitter (Hermida, 2013). Domingo & Le Cam (2014, p. 311) attempt to bypass or reconcile these boundary disputes by defining journalism as a ‘polyphonic, socio-discursive practice’, ‘dispersed’ across various institutional and non-institutional media and news producers. This constructivist approach to journalism clashes with the essentialist definitions still cherished by most practitioners. Although they have successively incorporated once distrusted innovations (e.g., in the form of live blogging and Twitter reports), journalists still police the boundary between professional, institutional news discourse and the vernacular.

The vernacular web is the term coined by the American folklorist Howard (2008) for participatory media – e.g., Use­net, blogs, wikis, Facebook, readers’ comments on news sites – characterized by a rhetoric that blends the institutional and the vernacular. The vernacular exists “alongside, but apart from” the institutional (Howard, 2012, p. 45). Its status resembles that of the European vernaculars during the Middle Ages vis-à-vis Latin as the lingua franca of religion, government, and science. The web vernacular is a hybrid: enabled by institutional structures (e.g., Facebook, or comments sections on news sites), it defines itself as non-institutional. The vernacular web is polyphonic and centrifugal, whereas institutional discourse is monologic and centripetal: “[…] the vernacular emphasizes alternatives to the single authority of an institution” (Howard 2008:206). The vernacular web opens up news discourse to languages other than the dominant ones: comments sections on corporate news websites may contain contributions in other languages or language varieties than the news, and users are free to switch codes in ways that would be unacceptable in institutional news items. This hybrid form of communication has also taken root within news discourse that blends the professional and the personal, such as journalists’ personal blogs on corporate websites or their Twitter accounts. These hybrids change – at least potentially – the relationship between journalist and audience, the nature of the authority news organizations claim, and the knowledge they produce (Matheson, 2004; Schudson & Anderson, 2009, pp.98-99).

There is no single, easy answer to the question whether that potential has been realized. Initially seen as ‘pointless babble’, Twitter has now been normalized, meaning that journalists use it as they do other sources, privileging elite voices when it comes to the definition of public issues (Hermida 2013). Surveying almost 6,000 tweets quoted as news sources in British and Dutch newspapers, Broersma and Graham (2013) conclude that their main function is to illustrate broader issues, quoting a wide range of both elite and non-elite sources. Since most were direct quotes, this enhances the opportunity for citizens to publicly express their concerns, experiences and opinions in their own words. A study of social media sources in two Flemish newspapers likewise found that ‘ordinary citizens’ outnumbered elite sources such as politicians and government and business officials (Paulussen & Harder, 2014).

This seems to indicate a more inclusive approach to news sources, even though using citizens’ voices mostly as vox pop does not actually affect the traditional hierarchy of credibility. Inviting user comments, too, either on news websites or on the Facebook fan pages of news media, makes the vernacular more visible, but still maintains the boundaries: a study of user comments about two major Dutch news events in 2013 found no instances of interaction between users and journalists (Hille & Bakker, 2014). Similarly, few journalists involve Twitter users in the co-creation of the news (Hermida 2013: 300). Even when social media sources were part of the issue, as in the Iranian election protests of 2009, journalists preferred established experts and officials (Hermida 2013, pp. 302-3).

Comparing media talk about the dangers of drink spiking in Dutch newspapers and web-based forums, Burger (2014) found parallel discursive worlds with little interaction. Taking their cue from law enforcement officials and drug counseling institutions, journalists constructed the issue as a serious threat, ignoring arguments to the contrary by experienced drug users and partygoers. Victims in the news were molded to fit the ideal of the innocent female, who does not put herself at risk by being sexually outgoing or consuming alcohol and drugs. On forums, alcohol and drug use did not clash with victim status, but – unlike in newspapers – their integrity and judgment were frequently questioned. Forum users generally ignored official warnings relayed by news media, positioning themselves as experts on the basis of relevant experience.

Perhaps the potential of social media to shift the power balance between elite and non-elite sources will eventually be realized less in the form of more inclusive sourcing routines and more in the form of journalists crossing the boundary between the institutional and the vernacular, as they join the conversation that goes on alongside established media. This is what Hermida (2013, p. 304) suggests when he characterizes Twitter as a “hybrid space for the cultural production of journalism, with citizens involved in the flow, framing, and interpretation of news.”

Satire: Subverting the Language of New Media

NHPR, Creative Commons

The omnipresence of news discourse has given rise to various kinds of humorous responses, both professional and amateur, that question its authority. Entertaining, educational, or downright critical, by highlighting the discursive and rhetorical strategies of news discourse,
these responses subvert their taken-for-granted nature. Offering more than laughter, news satire possesses the potential to expose the rhetoric of ‘reliable sources’ and reframe public
issues. Comedy shows such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live
use remediation to lampoon the pretenses of news networks and politicians (Reilly, 2012).
One example is SNL comedian Tina Fey’s near-reproduction of governor Sarah Palin’s interview by CBS anchor Katie Couric. The repetition with minor changes creates a pastiche that invites the viewer to question Palin’s original rhetoric (Reilly 2012, pp. 271-271).

This strategy of ‘ironic iconicity’ (Waisanen, 2011) is also effectively employed by satirical news site The Onion and its many US and international counterparts (e.g. Boyer & Yurchak, 2010). During the past decade, fake news sites have mushroomed: the Netherlands, India, Mexico, Brazil, and many other countries each boast one or several. They co-exist symbiotically with the news media that permeate our lives, depending on our understanding of news conventions and simultaneously deepening and questioning that understanding. Foregoing cruder techniques such as outright parody or sarcasm, they serve up items that mimic news formats but package unconventional content. In this way, they subvert the news media’s fact-producing rhetoric, “illustrating instead the contingent nature of the public realm, and the idea that there are choices in such matters” (Waisanen 2011, pp. 512-513). News satire presupposes a high degree of news literacy. It can only succeed in a news saturated world in which even a slight tweaking of news conventions is readily recognized. Or perhaps not: one could draw up a long list of people, including scores of professional journalists, who were fooled by the deceptive mimicry of fake news and reproduced headlines such as ‘Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado On First Day of Legalization’.

In contrast, the vernacular humorous response to news is not iconic, it cannot be mistaken for actual news items, but comes in the form of (sick) jokes, Photoshop humor, and memes. The aftermath of 9/11 saw the emergence of Photoshop satire (Frank, 2004; Kuipers, 2005). Ten years on, Facebook and Twitter have sped up the global reach of humorous responses, e.g. to the killing of Bin Laden, spawning self-reflexive jokes like the picture of Bin Laden’s last status update on Facebook (‘BRB Someone’s at the door. I think it’s the pizza guy’) being liked by the U.S. Navy SEALs (Blank, 2013, p. 53). A good deal of this humor consists of sick jokes, e.g., ‘What was Amy Winehouse’s biggest hit? Her last one!’ Blank (2013) reads these intentionally tasteless responses to death, disaster and scandal as counter-hegemonic: they voice vernacular criticism of the official perspective, as expounded by mainstream news media. Rather than the deaths themselves, the jokes target the emotionally stifling media coverage. In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, jokes referenced aspects of his life that news media necrologies glossed over; “Like Michael Jackson always said: Live fast, die young, leave a vaguely Vietnamese looking woman’s corpse.”

During the past decade, the most prominent genre for news satire has become the meme. Originally conceived of by biologist Richard Dawkins as units of imitation, from a communication studies perspective memes may be defined as “units of popular culture that
are circulated, imitated, and transformed by individual Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience in the process” (Shifman, 2013, p. 376). “[A]rtifacts of participatory digital culture” (Wiggins & Bowers, 2014, p. 6), memes reflect the power shift that characterizes the Internet age. User-generated memes are one means by which an audience turns the tables on the monolithic discourse of institutional news outlets and other corporate media (e.g., advertising, entertainment). Memes are multimodal: favoring the visual, they also have a strong verbal component. Probably the most popular format is the image macro meme: an image that can be adapted by changing the caption, either manually or by using an online meme generator.

An example is the ‘Most Interesting Man in the World’, an image from a television beer commercial, that comes with a phrasal template: ‘I don’t always X, but when I do, I Y’ (e.g. ‘I don’t always take out the recycling, but when I do, I look like a raging alcoholic’) (Wiggins & Bowers 2014, pp. 15-16). The words are set in a white font and frame the picture in a ‘set-up/ punch-line format’ (Milner, 2013, p. 2365). More elaborate are Photoshops of news images, such as the ‘Casually Pepper-Spray Everything Cop’, the police officer who pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters at the UC Davis campus ‘as though he was spraying weeds in the garden’ (Washington Post). The policeman and his can of mace turned up in pictures replacing the Statue of Liberty, pepper-spraying the statues of Mount Rushmore and other scenes indicating that his behavior went against cherished American ideals of free speech and democracy (Bayerl & Stoynov, 2014). Memes mix news discourse and popular culture, weaving intertextual and interdiscursive relationships for public commentary on political issues (Milner, 2013). Spreading on social networks, they may also penetrate mainstream news media, as was the case with the pepper-spray cop meme (Bayerl & Stoynov, 2014, p. 5), thus spicing up the public sphere with ‘pop polyvocality’ (Milner, 2013).

Perspectives for the Future and Concluding Remarks

News is a staple of human communication; journalism is the relatively young profession that is currently struggling to maintain its hold on this commodity. Both are in a state of continuous flux, and scholars in this field have to make an effort to keep pace. Although crystal balls showing the future of journalism – often subsumed under the heading of ‘business models’ – are very much in demand, we will limit our observations to the future of media linguistics. Journalists, we argued here, still define the essence of their craft as source-based reporting. They employ boundary work rhetoric to fight off rival purveyors of news that encroach on their territory and maintain a relationship of mutual dependence with politicians, in which journalists set the stage and increasingly script the conversation. Overall, this project has been a resounding success. We all have at least a passive command of the language of news, an understanding which extends beyond superficial stylistic features such as article elision and stacked noun phrases and puns in headlines (e.g., ‘Flapjack Whack Rap Claptrap: School Ban on “Dangerous” Triangle Oat Snacks’, The Sun, 25 March, 2013). More importantly, journalists have succeeded in naturalizing news media frames and formats – but some pockets of resistance still remain. Professional satirists expose news media construction of facts by mimicking its rhetoric but tweaking its content. Social media users undermine hegemonic discourses by ‘memefying’ dominant news images.

Given this state of affairs, we discern the following avenues for future research in media linguistics. First, agreeing with Blommaert & Rampton (2011, p. 6) that “multimodal analysis is an inevitable empirical adjustment to contemporary conditions” of meaning making, refined methodological tools are needed to grasp the inherently multimodal nature of news discourse, as well as other forms of digital communication. While there are a number of very interesting developments, such as Grabe & Bucy’s (2009) work on the visual language of politics, Lempert’s (2011) research on gesture in American electoral politics, or Andén Papadopoulos & Pantti (2011) on amateur images in foreign news, the full range of semiotic resources that mediatized communication exploits are only rarely given their analytical dues.

Second, a reappraisal of emotion. Objectivity has been bashed by generations of journalism scholars, but among journalists, it still ranks as their profession’s prime value. What both academics and practitioners have neglected until recently, is the importance of emotionality. Taking her cue from Tuchman’s (1972) classic deconstruction of objectivity, Wahl-Jorgensen (2013) describes a ‘strategic ritual of emotionality’, i.e. the various techniques journalists use to infuse their writing with emotion. In order to remain objective, journalists, she observes, ‘outsource’ emotion to their sources. Stenvall (2014) has pointed out that the same devices are used in hard news reports. How emotionality is used in languages other than English and in other genres, such as science news or business reporting, remains to be seen.

Third, we see interesting possibilities for versatile linguistic ethnographies of mediatization. For instance, in their work on health reporting, Briggs and Hallin (2010, p. 150) outline a model of what they call communicability: “sets of normative assumptions about how knowledge and information should circulate within a particular domain”. The authors trace the textual cartographies of these assumptions, “noting what each article says explicitly and what it implies about where information is produced, how it is circulated, who participates in these flows, what can go wrong in them, and what norms are assumed to apply to them” (Briggs & Hallin, 2010, p. 151). Such models of mediatized communication offer valuable empirical insight into the creation, commodification, and circulation of public knowledge.



  1. The term media “encompasses communication channels, technologies, formats, genres, and products” (Spitulnik, 1999, p. 148) and can refer to “mass media, new media, media representations, and media engagement” in the sociolinguistic literature (Androutsopoulos, 2014a, p. 7).
  2. We are referring to an exciting literature on what (Agha, 2011, p. 163) has famously called “institutional practices that reflexively link processes of communication to processes of commoditization”.


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Albæk, E. (2011). The interaction between experts and journalists in news journalism. Journalism, 12(3), 335-348. doi: 10.1177/1464884910392851

Andén-Papadopoulos, K., & Pantti, M. (Eds.). (2011). Amateur Images and Global News. Bristol: Intellect.

Anderson, C. W. (2012). Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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Originally published by Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies 131 (April 2015), Tilburg University, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.



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