“News as discourse” marks a theoretical framework for the analysis of news. News is considered as a complex communicative event – as discourse – including the social context of news reports. Rather than exclusively focusing on text properties such as the thematic structure of news reports, the actors, and the opinions addressed in the reports, the framework directs attention to the participants, the production, and the reception processes, as well as to the possible effects. “News as discourse” starts from the assumption that texts are a “result of social and professional routines of journalists in institutional settings, on the one hand, and an important condition for the effective cognitive processing of news texts by both journalists and readers, on the other hand” (van Dijk 1985, 70). Investigating text and context, the approach aims to assess the systematic relationship between the two.
The theoretical framework of news as discourse differs from more traditional approaches to news analysis by its holistic perspective. It integrates findings from linguistics, cognitive and social psychology, speech communication, micro-sociology, and ethnography. The methodological basis of the framework is referred to as discourse analysis. It mainly draws on linguistic and information processing approaches in order to reconstruct the meaning that is established in the news. It is complemented by a special emphasis on social and cultural differences between groups and individuals that characterizes the concept of social cognition. This concept bridges the gap between psychological and more sociological approaches since it sees journalists or audience members not as unique individuals but as social actors and group members (van Dijk 1988a, 20).
The discussion of the power structure in news discourse adds a critical dimension to the approach. Journalists are considered part of a dominant cultural elite who often contribute to the expression and legitimation of the national and international power structures. The approach examines how the press reproduces this power.
News as discourse also implies a critical attitude toward quantitative content analysis. It employs a more qualitative content analysis and tries to reconstruct the underlying meaning and the effects of the news. Since this approach is limited to small amounts of data, however, it often draws upon additional, more traditional, methods of analysis when emphasizing general structures like the imbalance of the international news flow.
The approach was developed by Teun van Dijk, a linguist by education, who was heavily engaged in the investigation of the organization of news text and the related processing strategies. In cooperation with Walter Kintsch, he developed the concept of mental models as a conceptually driven strategy for discourse comprehension (van Dijk & Kintsch 1983). The respective ideas were also incorporated in his investigation of the structures of international news discourse (van Dijk 1988a,b). In dealing with international news discourse, however, van Dijk adopted a broader perspective by taking the social and cultural context of news into account.
By integrating textual properties and contextual conditions, the framework shows considerable similarity with cultural studies approaches. The same applies to the clear preference for a predominantly qualitative methodology. Yet the framework is strongly rooted in cognitive psychology and linguistics, and frequently employs quantitative content analysis, if appropriate. The critical perspective to news as expression and legitimation of the existing power structures also relates to cultural studies, in particular to the French and British Marxian analysis (van Dijk 1985, 72). The conceptualization of news as narrative is another research area closely related to the framework of news as discourse. These approaches not only relate formal news structures and typical topics to traditional story patterns, but they also emphasize the functional character of those narrations for the development of societal self-conception (Fiske & Hartley 1985; Fiske 1987).
The thematic framework can be applied to a variety of topics in news discourse. It addresses turn-taking or strategic moves in interviews or talk shows, the structures and textual functions of headlines or leads of news reports in the press, and the style, ordering, and thematic organization of media stories, as well as the subtle meaning constructed in the discourse and the functions of this discourse in society. The most prominent application is the analysis of news on the assassination of Gemayel of Lebanon in 1982, a study conducted for UNESCO (van Dijk 1988a, b). It included a more general analysis of possible differences in international news coverage among 15 first-world and 15 third-world papers, as well as a number of smaller studies of marginalized groups in national news reporting. Results show that the theoretical framework serves as a useful tool to relate contextual properties of news such as social, economic, and institutional conditions of news production to various structural properties of news reports.
- Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. London: Methuen.
- Fiske, J., & Hartley, J. (1985). Reading television. London: Methuen.
- Van Dijk, T. A. (1985). Discourse and communication: New approaches to the analysis of mass media discourse and communication. Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Van Dijk, T. A. (1988a). News analysis: Case studies of international and national news in the press. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Van Dijk, T. A. (1988b). News as discourse. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Van Dijk, T. A., & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.