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Home arrow Communication arrow Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis

Findings from the BP Data

Intertextuality Type 1: Direct and Indirect Quotation

Both direct and indirect quotation of speech are present extensively in the 2010 texts, primarily from senior BP staff, technical experts and involved members of the public (e.g. the cook’s interview narrative mentioned earlier). Quoted speech is also a feature of press releases. The purposes of direct and indirect quotation in news reports are varied, including to add credibility, to personalise a story, to invite reader identification with the quoted individual and to distance the writer from the propositions made in the quotation. In most cases in the 2010 texts, quotation is used to present information from BP as a credible source, and to gain reactions to the oil spill from experts other than BP, such as the Coast Guard, environmental and ocean studies experts and local fishermen. The following excerpt presents the BP perspective:

Paragraph 1 BP plans to collect leaking oil on the ocean bottom by lowering a large dome to capture the oil and then pumping it through pipes and hoses into a vessel on the surface, said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP Exploration and Production.

Paragraph 2 It could take up to a month to get the equipment in place.

Paragraph 3 “That system has been deployed in shallower water, but it has never been deployed at 5000 feet of water, so we have to be careful,” he said. (, 27.4.2010)

This fragment shows evidence of a range of reporting strategies. The first paragraph is shown in Free Direct Speech (Leech & Short, 1981)—that is, no quotation marks, but a clear reporting clause (“said Doug Suttles”). The use of Doug Suttles’ full name and title (see earlier comments on naming actors in the events) connotes that this is someone with a warrant to speak, as both a BP representative and a technical expert. The third paragraph (“That system has been deployed../’) is an example of Direct Speech with full use of quotation marks, reporting clause and specific attribution. However, the second paragraph “It could take up to a month.” is neither in quotation marks nor attributed. The reader can make the assumption that this is still a version of Doug Suttles’ words, particularly as the concluding “he said” refers back across paragraph two to Suttles’ full name in paragraph one, but there is no other linguistic evidence of quotation. The fragment “It could take up to a month.” takes on the colour and authority of Suttles’ pronouncements through its placement (and may indeed be his words). However, it allows for economy (no need for reporting clauses or additional attributions if relevant), stylistic variation and a sense of journalist as expert.

This mix of representation strategies is common within news reporting, and it is sometimes difficult to unravel whether markers of (un) certainty can be attributed to the writer or the quoted source. In news report writing, journalists seek ways of varying the presentation between their own consolidated but unattributed understanding from a range of sources, direct quotation from experts and eyewitnesses and something in between, as above.

By 2011, quotations are fewer in number. These are more likely to appear in connection with BP financial results than in news report items: journalists are no longer using quotations as a channel to express uncertainty in relation to the Deepwater Horizon events. I have noted that direct and indirect quotation is one strategy by which journalists distance themselves from reported propositions. This process is observable in the 2011 texts, where certain voices are quoted directly (e.g. Michael Greenberger in an interview and the views of the Florida Attorney General in a letters page) but such quotations are considerably rarer than in the 2010 data.

Direct quotation is certainly present in the 2012 texts, but used in a different way from the 2010 texts. In 2010, it was a way of representing the crisis as an immediate, recently witnessed occurrence, of inviting the reader to feel somehow present at an unfolding event. By 2012, direct and indirect quotations fulfil a number of different functions.

  • • Referencing the event, in order to place it in a context, as here, in a business article about crises that quotes the originator of a spoof BP Twitter account: “The best way to get the public to respect your brand? Have a respectable brand.” (Campaign Middle East, 27.4.2012)
  • • Direct quotation from members of the public, but indirectly related to the oil spill (here in the context of a feature about an oil town in Dakota.) “After the spill in the Gulf, it was really getting hard to know if you have a job or not.” (Canwest News Service, 27.4.2012)
  • • Reports of political speeches, dealing with energy matters
  • - “Hood says as many as 200,000 individuals and businesses who signed the deals should qualify to receive payments for future damages and any increased damage payments.” [indirect quotation] (Greenwire, 27.4.2012)
  • - “He [Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar] blasted the Republican- controlled House of Representatives for not acting to codify offshore-drilling regulations adopted since the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, failing to quickly approve a US-Mexico agreement on offshore development, not making tax credits of renewable energy permanent, and not adopting new clean energy standards.” [indirect quotation] (Foster Natural Gas/Oil Report, 27.4.2012)
  • • Literary quotations

One reference of interest is to what was possibly the best-known quotation of the Deepwater Horizon crisis, that of Tony Hayward in May 2010 mentioned earlier:

In this book’s more than 600 pages you may sometimes be tempted to utter, as did BP’s hapless chief executive Tony Hayward, disastrously, during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, “I’d like my life back.” (The New York Times, 27.4.2012)

The quotation was clearly suggested to the writer by his topic matter, in this case a book on oil companies, primarily Exxon Mobil and BP But it also shows how recognisable texts from the events (Tony Hayward’s words) are appropriated into the public domain for general-purpose use, in this case to make a humorous observation.

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