I Written Language and Semiotics

Researching the Representation of a Crisis

A Semiotic Account of a News Story

In this book, I make a broad claim about news media representation. I suggest that whole sets of texts, whole representations of events, have linguistic commonalities which can be investigated. In this view, the linguistic picture constructed by the media immediately after an event is quite different from the picture we get some years later, even taking account of important variations by news genre, channel, publication style and so on. It is these large flows of social meaning that I propose we can investigate systematically using semiotic concepts. Consider these two examples of news coverage concerning the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of 2010.

1. The oil is now about 20 miles (32 kilometres) off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, the closest it’s been to land. But it’s still not expected to reach the coast before Friday, if at all.

BP, which was leasing the Deepwater Horizon, said it will begin drilling by Thursday as part of a $100 million effort to take the pressure

© The Author(s) 2017

J. Gravells, Semiotics and Verbal Texts, Postdisciplinary Studies in Discourse, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-58750-3_1

off the well, which is spewing 42,000 gallons (159,000 litres) of crude oil a day. (Carleton Place (Canada), 27.4.2010)

2. The ditty by the two singers included the lines: “When I hear that BP story, Green and yellow melancholy, Deepwater despair.” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27.4.2012)

Example 1 is drawn from a Canadian newspaper (Carleton Place) one week after the explosion, and deals with the ongoing attempt to cap the leaking oil well. It is packed with information of a certain kind—times, places, amounts of money and volumes of oil, as well as the reported voice of BP The second example appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (UK) on the same date two years later. It is still of the genre “news report”, but this time its topic is a protest about BP’s environmental record. This extract also draws on reported voices, but in this case the commentary on the BP crisis is expressed through an artistic genre—the protest song. The phrase “green and yellow melancholy”, alluding here to the BP logo colours, is taken from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” (Act II, Scene iv). These two news pieces make meaning of the crisis in very different ways, and in this book I will explore what these changes in meaning-making are, how and when they occur, and how we can examine the shape of media representations through systematic language analysis.

The book explores a number of connected themes. Its primary focus is the semiotic analysis of written verbal text. I will explore whether concepts common in the study of semiotics, and more usually applied to non-verbal sign systems, can be deployed as frameworks for investigating stretches of text (discourse) and shed light on how they make meaning. In this conceptualisation, collections of texts such as news media representations of a story can be regarded as signs with their own sets of characteristics. In other words, I will consider whether text 1 above has anything in common with other texts written at the same time on the same topic, and if so, what that tells us about how the press made sense of the BP events at that time. I propose that text 2 seems to me to be different in kind from text 1. What evidence can I marshal to support that instinct? How are the texts (demonstrably, analysably) different, and what does that tell us about how the view of the crisis has changed? In suggesting that semiotic frameworks have something to offer in the study of written texts, I will be considering semiotic concepts as epistemological foundations for a practical methodology.

I take it that written text is a sign—a privileged sign no doubt—but still one type of sign system amongst many. Writing sits alongside speech, still image, film, gesture, music and so on as a resource for making meaning, and it has been the enterprise of semiotics to explore the ways by which such resources are exploited, managed, combined and systematised by their users for myriad communicative purposes in an infinite variety of contexts. Following Barthes’ (1972) insights that diverse cultural phenomena can be understood as a sign or representation, scholars of multimodality have investigated the regularities (the “grammar”) of a range of semiotic modes including visual images (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006), typography (van Leeuwen, 2006), music (e.g. Monelle, 1999), film (e.g. Machin & Jaworski, 2006), as well as the interaction of these modes (e.g. Iedema, 2003).

It is perhaps surprising, however, that the scholar sitting down to engage with written texts from a semiotic perspective—in other words, asking how does this text make social meaning?—may find that her options for analysis are constrained. In considering written text as one mode amongst many she may find that text in multimodal artefacts, such as advertising or websites, is analysed as much for its visual properties, for example, font, position and layout, as for the contribution to meaning inherent in its lexico-grammar. I call this approach the “text-as-graphic” approach, and touch on this again in the next chapter. Alternatively, Systemic Functional Grammar (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004) provides a comprehensive analysis framework within which analysts can give an account not only of verbal language but also of other modes, in particular still and moving image (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006). Systemic Functional Grammar provides an account of verbal language within the clause and sentence and, and inter-sentential connections through the study of cohesion (Halliday & Hasan, 1976). However, the concerns of a semiotic account of text representations may also be broader, for example, an investigation of the role of metaphor, or intertextuality, or how writers have chosen to name events.

I argue in this book for an approach which offers an alternative to these ways of studying written text. I suggest that there are a number of concepts in the field of semiotics which are useful as explanatory frameworks. Suppose our scholar of the preceding paragraph has a broad investigative agenda. Her need is for an account which is:

  • Emergent. She does not wish to approach the text with a presupposition of what she might find, but rather to let the data “speak for themselves”.
  • Comprehensive. Her analysis should give a picture of the text at all its levels, from close text analysis to social meaning-making.
  • Critical without an agenda for emancipation.
  • Flexible in terms of analysis tools.
  • Multimodal in that written text can be analysed within the same epistemological framework as other semiotic modes.

Using news data related to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster spanning a two-year period, I will illustrate how a number of theoretical concepts drawn from semiotics can be useful as starting frameworks to build a comprehensive, critical, situated description of written texts. I will move from a micro-analysis of word choice to a macro-analysis of whole sets of texts, arguing that these can be construed as signs in themselves, with shared characteristics of ideological significance. I started this chapter with two quotations from the news coverage of the BP crisis. In order to show the interplay between semiotic theory and practical discourse analysis, I will apply the semiotic principles I will describe to this real-life example of a business crisis constructed through the news media.

The text extracts at the beginning of this chapter are drawn from a very particular linguistic context—news media coverage—and this is another key theme. This book is partly a story about a story: how it starts, grows, develops and changes. The lives of stories in the news media are tightly bound to the conventions and practices of news writing, and the language usages I discuss here will be very different from the discursive construction of the BP story, say, at the pub. The analysis of the story needs to be grounded in an understanding of how news media construct news. The principles in which I ground my analysis practices are, nevertheless, transferable to other contexts, genres and registers. They could equally be used to examine our pub conversation about the BP crisis, as long as they take account of the conventions and practices of pub conversation. And while the news media are still highly influential in shaping how we understand events in the world around us, their influence is increasingly fragmented by both the proliferation of professional news outlets and the increase in “lay” interpretations of the news, particularly through the Internet. In proposing that the news media make identifiable “pictures” of news stories at given times, I also acknowledge that these pictures are multifaceted and shifting mosaics made up of different media professional and individual voices.

The next section of this chapter sets out some general observations about the characteristics of news media stories, practices and genres. My specific illustration is the explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling platform on 27 April 2010, and its business aftermath, and this introductory chapter concludes with a brief account of how the news story developed over the two subsequent years.

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