Media Discourse Analysis:
Approaches to Analyzing Media Texts
This paper discusses the possible approaches to analyzing media texts. It intends the cover some of the most important and most developed methods of media discourse analysis, starting from the early quantitative content analysis, originally developed by sociologists, social scientists and communication researchers. Then, critical analysts like Fairclough and van Dijk came to prove these quantitative methods insufficient. After that, my paper will discuss the approach of other researchers like Schroder who found gaps in the concepts concerned with the production/consumption processes. She suggests, along with van Dijk, an empirical, ethnographic approach to media texts to fill in those gaps.
Keywords: CDA, ethnography, encoding, and decoding.
In regard of the importance of media discourse one of the four main registers of the English language (O’Keeffee, 2006), my paper will cover some of the key approaches, methods and tools of analysis of media discourse that analysts can adopt to analyze either small-scale or large-scale corpora. The quantitative content analysis has been first adopted to carry out objective observations and interpretations. Many software tools were brought to the table to serve quantitative and statistical needs. However, these quantitative tools were later proved inadequate, the thing that smoothed the path for critical analysts to introduce Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to the world of media text analysis. Then, I will focus on the importance of ethnography in media discourse analysis which is still under growth.
Quantitative Content Analysis of Media Texts
Quantitative Content Analysis and Mass Media Research
Quantitative content analysis has first submerged in the 1950s as a major research tool of analysis of media texts in mass communication studies and social sciences. Lasswell (1948) describes media content analysis as ‘who says what, through which channel, to whom, with what effect.’ The quantitative research techniques are used for the conduct of ‘objective, systematic and quantitative’ descriptions of the manifest content of media texts. This makes quantitative content analysis the most scientific and unbiased method that can be used for the analysis of media content.
Mass communication researchers have offered a lot to the analysis of media content. Their findings give clear definitions to the content analysis of communication events and provide clear outlines to follow, not only for the objective interpretations, but also for the gathering of media content samples. Neuendorf (2002) suggests seven elements that will assure that the scientific quantitative content analysis of media texts will not get ruined by the subjective orientations of the researchers: objectivity-intersubjectivity, a priori design, reliability, validity, generalizability, replicability, and hypothesis testing. Berelson (1952) suggests five elements of content analysis that every researcher should focus on: substance of message content, form of message content, producers of content, audiences of content, and effects of content on audiences.
Similar findings were later on found in the field of applied linguistics. Even van Dijk (1985) admitted that before the 1960s, linguistics had little to offer to those who were interested to analyze media discourse, and that it is within social sciences that mass media research has initially emerged.
Implication of Quantitative Content Analysis in Applied Linguistics
Quantitative content analysis is used for large scale corpora to summarize patterns and regularities in texts. In the 1960s, the analysis of media discourse was approached through quantitative methods. In the field of applied linguistics, the importance of the quantitative approach to texts was highlighted by the Gerbner et al. book and the Holsti introduction. Then, it was further emphasized in the General Inquirer project, where the help of computers were brought about.
Computational algorithms can help researchers conduct all sorts of quantitative analyses, from the most limited and automatic, to the most complicated, e.g. analyzing statistical data and results. The quantitative methods are the best to use for large scale projects, if the researcher’s aim is to identify widespread language patterns that could be missed when applying a small-scale analysis. The large-scale analysis will help researchers to highlight patterns of association so that they unveil, for instance, the most lexical items that tend to co-occur with keywords derived from the issues they intend to investigate. Sometimes, without this quantitative approach, analysts cannot be aware of the existence of some crucial lexical items, due to the fact that they cannot be observed with the naked eye. Noteworthy, the quantitative approach was carried out by a good number of researchers, such as Gerbner (1968), Krishnamurthy (1996), Flowerdew (1997), Fairclough (2000), Piper (2000), Teubert (2000) and Baker et al. (2013).
Software for Quantitative Content Analysis
Ever since the recognition of the role of computational algorithm in conducting a scientific objective analysis, a good number of software tools were created to fulfill the purposes of the texts analysts. A software tool for content analysis can be divided into three major categories: dictionary-based content analysis (word counting, sorting, simple statistical tests), development environments (do not analyze but automate the construction of dictionaries, grammars, and other text analysis tools), and annotation aids (an electronic version of the set of marginal notes researchers generate when analyzing texts by hand).
The most commonly used software that has been acknowledged as the most reliable one by many researchers is the WORDSMITH. It is ‘an integrated suite of programs for looking at how words behave in texts.’ It ‘controls’ the programs it contains: Concord (makes a concordance using plain texts or web text files), KeyWords (locate and identify key words in a given corpora), and WordList (generate word lists based shown in alphabetical and frequency order).
Since there are plenty of software tools to choose from, there are some choice criteria that analysts can follow in order to determine which software will meet their research studies’ ultimate goals. Some of the criteria are: complexity of analysis, language constraint, licensing issues and user base, and platforms.
Downsides of Quantitative Content Analysis
Content can be divided into two categories: Manifest content (explicit information) and latent content (implicit information). Quantitative content analysis can only be used for the manifest content of media texts. Berelson (1952) says that using a quantitative method to analyze ‘what-is-said’ will force the researchers to turn a blind eye to ‘why-the-content-is-like-that’ and ‘how people react’, i.e. the latent content. Therefore, reducing large corpora into quantitative texts, looking for keywords, and making concordances is not enough to build a complete picture of the meanings intended from producing the text. Drawing conclusions from mere figures and simple statistical data is neither the only way nor enough to determine the intentions of the producers of media texts or the impact of these texts on the audience.
One of the other aspects that a quantitative content analysis of media texts failed to cover is, for instance, the syntactic analysis of sentences, e.g. agency of social actions; the use of the passive voice instead of the active voice to withdraw the attention from the agent of the action. For example, “The man got killed during the revolution” is different from “Police agents killed the man during the revolution.” Instead of looking for the most frequent words that co-occur with the verb ‘kill’ in media texts about the revolution, it seems more important to know the agent of this violent action. The fact that some media text producers choose to use the passive or the active voice have different interpretations.
Qualitative Content Analysis of Media Texts
No one can deny the importance of the quantitative method as an ‘objective, replicable and quantitative’ tool of analysis of the manifest content of media texts. Ever since the 1960s, much focus had been put on the ‘classical’, ‘quantitative, American, stimulus-response’ approaches to media texts. Van Dijk (1985) stated that in order to establish an ‘adequate analysis of the relations between media texts and contexts’, we need to go beyond the ‘surface’ level of texts to the investigation of the ‘underlying’ meanings. In the same context, Wodak & Busch (2004) spoke of what some observers like Jensen & Jankawski (1991) labeled “qualitative turn” from the quantitative content analysis of the study of media texts. By the second half of the 1970s, different suggestions of a ‘more explicit and systematic account of media discourse’ were brought to light primarily by the Glasgow University Media group which has published ‘Bad News’ (1976) and ‘More Bad News’ (1980), and the Center For Contemporary Cultural Studies (1980) under the direction of Stuart Hall. Further contributions were made by Schelesinger & Lumley, Dowing, Husband & Chouhan, and Hartley & Montgomery.
Richardson (2007) states that there are two main approaches to media texts: the formalistic approach, also called the structuralist approach, and the functionalist approach. The formalistic approach deals with the structural level of the media texts, including these four characteristics: cohesion, narrative, causality and motivation. Here, discourse analysis deals with ‘language above the sentence.’ The functionalist approach deals with ‘language in use’ rather than ‘language above the sentence’. The language use and text interpretation cannot be fully and adequately analyzed without the social component. Both the formalistic and functionalistic approaches can contribute to a more adequate analysis of media texts, built upon a consideration of meaning (assigning of sense) and context (assigning of reference).
Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)
CDA was first derived from the Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) developed by Halliday. Then, it got enhanced thanks to contributions made by Fairclough (1995), Fowler (1991) and Boyd-Barret (1994). Despite the similarities, the founding fathers and mothers of CDA, van Dijk, Wodak, and Fairclough, had a lot to offer to this qualitative approach to media texts. CDA follows the functionalist approach, which advocates the analysis of texts as ‘language in use.’ Its aim is to ‘link linguistic analysis to social analysis’ (Wodak & Kroger, 2000). It is concerned with: social problems, power relations, how society and culture are shaped by discourse, and the investigation of texts, their interpretation, reception and social effects (Titscher et al. 2000).
Fairclough’s model of CDA. Fairclough’s approach draws upon SFL. Fairclough’s method of analysis is conducted according to: (1) text, (2) discursive practice, and (3) social practice.
(1) A text consists of representations, identities and social relations, cohesion and coherence. There are two levels of textual analysis: the sentence, and what is above the sentence. At the level of the sentence, analysts examine vocabulary, semantics, grammar, and even the sound system and the writing system. At the level that is above the sentence, analysts examine cohesion, the organization of turn-taking in interviews during talk-shows, and the overall structure of newspaper articles.
(2) It is at this stage when analysis turns from textual analysis to discourse analysis. Texts should be analyzed as the ‘outcome of a discourse practice’ for a more competent assessment of the ‘news practice, news values, and audience role’ (Cotter, 2001). Too much focus on the text will depict analysts as ignorant of the processes of news gathering, encoding, shaping of belief, encoding and decoding, etc. Analysts also need to know the producers’ level of credibility, and the types of relationships they have with the audience they are writing for and the communities they are covering (Cotter, 2001). This can deeply affect analysts’ examination of the meanings of the texts.
(3) An adequate analysis of media texts must also include the socio-cultural practice that is part of the communicative event to be covered. Therefore, the textual analysis and the discourse analysis of media texts must be linked to the socio-cultural goings where the event took place.
Van Dijk’s Model of CDA. Van Dijk’s and Fairclough’s approach to CDA are ‘similar in conception,’ but different in naming. However, the former has one special conception, which is the socio-cognitive model. Van Dijk’s method of analysis is conducted according to: the structural nature of texts, production processes, and reception processes. His analysis takes place at two levels: microstructure, and macrostructure. At the micro-structural level, he focuses on the semantic relations between propositions, syntactic and lexical elements, coherence, quotations, and direct/indirect reporting. At the macro-structural level, he focuses on the overall level of description of media texts, from themes, topics, to news schemata (summary, story, and consequences).
Van Dijk’s work also gives a great deal of importance to ideology analysis which is based on social analysis, cognitive analysis, and discourse analysis. The cognitive analysis consists of mental models, intended to mediate between discourse practices and the social component. It helps analysts examine the cognitive processes involved in the encoding and decoding of texts. In order to reveal the implicitly-stated ideological dichotomy in media texts, van Dijk (1998b) suggests that analysts must (1) examine the context of the discourse, the participants and their background, (2) analyze the concerned communities, their power relations, and conflicts, (3) cover as many opinions as possible about, what he calls, ‘US versus THEM’, (4) reveal all what is stated implicitly, and (5) examine the formal structure of the texts.
Wodak’s Method in CDA. Discourse sociolinguistics is one of the directions of CDA developed by Wodak. She developed an approach to analyzing media texts that she called the discourse historical method, where all the available background information should be included in the analysis of the audience of written or spoken media texts. There is a similarity between her approach and the steps that van Dijk suggested in order to unveil the ideological dichotomy, where he says that analysts must examine the ‘historical, political, and social backgrounds’ of the main participants in the discourse (the text producers, the people who were involved in the event, and the audience). Through many research studies conducted by Wodak and her colleagues, Wodak attested that the context of the discourse has an important impact on the structure and form of the discourse.
Ethnographic Discourse Analysis
The search for the most adequate method of media texts analysis did not end with CDA or any other quantitative methods or qualitative frameworks. Many analysts adopted a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to achieve a holistic analysis, namely Halloran et al. (1970), Hartmann & Husband (1974), Ter Wal (2002), Backer & McEnery (2005), Backer et al. (2013), etc. However, what some researchers, like van Dijk, suggest to do is to put into consideration the ethnographic observations that need to be done ‘about the production and uses of communicative events […] ‘in’ the media and ‘by’ the media’ (van Dijk, 1985). A general definition of the term ‘ethnography’ is ‘the description of people and their culture’ (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). The concept in relation to content analysis will be broadened in the following parts.
Qualitative Content Analysis and Ethnographic Discourse Analysis
Schroder (2007) criticized what she called ‘the half-hearted holism of CDA’, because it ‘suffers from a number of self-imposed methodological limitations.’ She states that at the surface level, CDA is holistic. It examines all of the three dimensions of media discourse in relation to each other: text, discourse practice (text production/consumption), and the socio-cultural practice. However, in a statement made by Fairclough (1995) in which he says ‘[…] the ways in which texts are produced and consumed, which is realized in the feature of texts,’ Schroder (2007) draws our attention to the fact that in CDA, discourse practices are not studied ‘independently or empirically.’ They are simply observed through the text. Schroder supports her argument with a study conducted by Swales & Rogers (1995), where they state that conducting an ethnographic fieldwork among media text producers and consumers will increase the validity and reliability of the analysis, and minimize the subjectivity of the researchers’ analyses. Another argument she uses is that of Cotter (2001), where he suggests a ‘holistic and ethnographically oriented approach’ that examines the ‘community of coverage’ as well as the ‘community of practice’. As an example, Schroder mentions the framework of investigation used by David Deacon, Natalie Feuton and Alan Bryman. They argue that media production/reception studies have made it possible for analysts to produce more reliable interpretations, and to achieve a more objective view of the power relations between the audiences and producers of media texts. Schroder claims that her approach to media texts is empirical rather than merely critical, and that critical discourse analysts should start analyzing the encoding and decoding processes of media discourse in an empirical manner if they ever want to add more credibility and objectivity to their findings and interpretations.
No researchers from the field of linguistics have approached media discourse directly or developed theories implicating media discourse to linguistics. Instead, methods that are originally developed in sociology, social science, mass communication, discourse analysis, critical discourse analysis, and ethnographic analysis have been adapted to fit the analysis of media texts. Still, relying on the findings of researchers working on the latter fields will definitely accelerate the process of producing a specially-made theory of media discourse analysis by linguists.
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