September 26, 2005

Context part 2, supplemental…

As an aside to my developing blog essay on context in journalism, let’s consider a sentence out of context:

“There is no reason to suppose that any language lacks the means to develop ways of talking about anything that becomes important to its users.”

I read this over the weekend in Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings about Language, by Ronald Wardhaugh, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto. Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log recommends this book. Me too.

The sentence is written in the context of an examination of the myth that some languages are “primitive” and others “advanced”–primitive languages being those that lack certain concepts that others (i.e. ours) contain.

But it seems to me this sentence also speaks, in terms of language use, to my consideration of context as (differently) understood by the public and journalists. Journalistic language may be described this way (emphasis added):

I have briefly discussed the how journalism conforms to and creates the noetic field of our age. And I’ve shown how journalism creates various relationships among the elements of the rhetorical situation. Now, let’s briefly consider the last of the questions I raised: How does journalistic language create the relationships of the rhetorical situation and deliver the news?

As previously discussed, journalism operates with an objectivist epistemology. Journalism’s challenge in this epistemology is to perceive the world correctly and then represent perceptions correctly through language. You may be thinking that this description is inadequate because, quite often, journalists delve into subjective worlds that cannot be known through empirical methods or inexpert observation. For example, political reporters today are prone to discussing subjective assessments of politicians as if these were observations of verifiable facts. The reason is simple (and terribly complex): The noetic field is changing.

For now, it is important to understand that the dominant noetic field, as described by the epistemology of journalism, still undergirds most journalistic practice.

The language of journalism creates and maintains the relationships of the rhetorical situation by using language that treats these relationships as self-evident. Journalists rarely engage in the kind of qualifying that calls into question their observations and experiences or the observations and experiences of sources. Further, the ethos of journalism leaves such assessments for the reader to make and, by default, assumes that such assessments are possible given the information that’s available.

It works this way: A news consumer reads an account of reality that considers two points of view and/or other actions or events chosen by the reporter/editor as newsworthy. Because the reporter recreates reality as it is, the reader may then apply a process of rational thought to the issues and make a decision about which of the two points of view are true or best represent the socio-political values of the culture. The implication is that one correct interpretation exists. The reporter, however, is barred by professional practice from making that assessment (pundits and editorialists, however, may).

And this way:

From George Lakoff’s Moral Politics (U of Chicago P), journalism falsely asserts that:

1. Concepts are literal and nonpartisan: The standard six-question rubric of journalism (who, what, when, where, why, how) cannot capture the complexity of issues as seen through, and expressed by, the incompatible moral systems of liberals and conservatives.

2. Language use is neutral: “Language is associated with a conceptual system. To use the language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system.”

3. News can be reported in neutral terms: Not if #2 is correct. To choose a discourse is to choose a position. To attempt neutrality confuses the political concepts. Is it an “inheritance tax” or a “death tax”? What could possibly be a neutral term? To use both in the name of balance is confusing because most news articles don’t have the space, and most TV treatments don’t have the time, to fully explain the terms and why liberals prefer one and conservatives prefer the other. There’s no time or space to explain why this language difference matters (beyond political tactics) to the formation, implementation, and evaluation of policy.

4. Mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage: Again, see #2.

5. All readers and viewers share the same conceptual system: We share the same English language, i.e. its grammar. We often do not share dialects or the denotations and connotations of concepts, lived experience, and ideologies. The statement “I am a patriotic American” means something entirely different to liberals and conservatives. That difference is more than a matter of connotation. The differences in connotation spring from different moral constructs. What the conservative means by that statement appears immoral to the liberal and vice versa.

It is my opinion that the language one uses plays a crucial role in what it is one sees when looking at the world. So language use, in this case the particular language (and rhetoric) journalists use to understand and portray the world, is bound up in any consideration of context. This is one of the reasons I began my examination of journalistic understandings of context with a brief metaphorical analysis. Which, by the way, comes straight from the analytical techniques I learned from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (begin your journey here).

To be able to add context or to put something into context, journalists must be able to see (a/the) context(s), which may require an addition to the professional standard language. Such additions to the professional standard language may be acquired and used if, as Wardhaugh suggests, alternative contexts become important to journalists.

For an interesting look at how one might use the metaphors of context as critical probes, check out this by Tim Schmoyer.

To be continued…

Part 1: Considering the ‘C’ word

Part 2: Context as ingredient and container

One Response

  1. rgrafton 

    Here’s some context for ya: Will there be massive soul searching on the part of the national press ala Jayson Blair, on how their initial reporting could be so wrong? Nah! The national press is crowing about how they have the new-found power to “set the agenda”, so don’t count on this story to get much national media play—-they’d have to admit they were wrong, and as we all know, it’s politicians who have a hard time admitting failure, not our “objective” press.