Wortham, Stanton and Michael Locher
Bates College and University of Chicago

Stanton Wortham
Department of Education
Bates College
111 Bardwell Street
Lewiston, ME, 04240 USA


Michael Locher
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
Chicago, IL, USA

strand: semiosis in language and other modalities

Title: Verbal and Nonverbal Cues in Media Bias

Speakers often evaluate others, implicitly, while apparently speaking in a neutral way about them. In earlier work, we have developed linguistic techniques for uncovering implicit evaluations in political news reporting (Locher & Wortham, 1994; Wortham & Locher, 1996). These techniques draw on Bakhtin's (1935/1981) sociocentric account of language and Silverstein's (1993) analyses of indexicality. Although we have not specifically used Halliday's (1978) functional linguistics, our work does draw on the three main functions he identifies. At least in US TV network news, reporters present their accounts as objective as if their speech functioned simply to represent the political world. We argue that reporters' speech also inevitably enacts relationships, by placing the reporters in some social position with respect to the political candidates being discussed. Our analyses uncover this implicit positioning in part by studying the textual functions of speech by examining how stretches of broadcast talk come to cohere around a particular implicit political message.

The proposed paper builds on our earlier work, in two ways. First, we are interested in exploring connections between our approach, inspired by Bakhtin and Silverstein, and Halliday's. Informal discussions with others analyzing media bias and multimedia semiotics from a Hallidayan perspective (e.g., Jay Lemke and Paul Thibault) suggest that the approaches are complementary, and that cross-fertilization would be productive. Second, we will expand our analyses to include detailed study of visual cues from TV news political coverage. Our earlier analyses focused on the linguistic devices reporters use to communicate implicit evaluations. We are currently analyzing the newscast visuals, to answer two questions. (1) Can the same analytic devices (in our case primarily analysis of signs' indexical values) be applied to nonverbal cues, to explore their role in communicating implicit evaluations? (2) Do the nonverbal cues reinforce the messages we have uncovered through analysis of the verbal ones, or are there different messages sent through the two channels?

The data are US network news coverage of the 1992 and 1996 US presidential campaigns. The corpus includes all weekday coverage of the presidential campaigns for the two months preceding each election. We focus in particular on coverage of the "character" issue candidates' attacks on their opponents' character, and reporters' implicit positions on the issues raised by these attacks. For this paper we will first present an overview of our general findings and then present analyses of verbal and nonverbal cues in two detailed case studies from key days in the campaigns.

Bakhtin, M. (1981). Discourse in the novel (translated by C. Emerson and M. Holquist). In M. Bakhtin, The dialogic imagination. Austin: University of Texas.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978). Language as social semiotic. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Locher, M. & Wortham, S. (1993). The cast of the news. Pragmatics, 4, 517-534.

Silverstein, M. (1993). Metapragmatic discourse and metapragmatic function. In J. Lucy (Ed.), Reflexive language. New York: Cambridge University.

Wortham, S. & Locher. M. (1996). Voicing on the news: an analytic technique for studying media bias. Text, 16, 557-585.