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Home arrow Communication arrow Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis
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Intertextuality Type 2: Press Releases

Press releases are one type of intertext that is more or less retrievable from the items in which they appear, and they are interesting for my analysis because they are one means by which participants other than journalists play a part in shaping the media representation of events. Press releases are written with the primary aim of being repeated verbatim in news reports (Jacobs, 1999, 2000a). They are intended by their originators to present a version of the “truth” that is easily accessible and repeatable, and so eventually becomes the version of the truth. Jacobs demonstrates how frequently sections of press releases are inserted in their entirety into a news report, and how the writers of press releases encourage this by their use of the third person (“BP” rather than “we”), their formulaic structures, their submission of direct quotations and their deliberate mirroring of newspaper house styles. In this way, the originator’s perspective on the story is far more likely to find its way into the media.

The direct use of press releases as copy is demonstrated in the case of inadvertent error:

Chief executive Tony Hayward said better weather in the area around the rig disaster that is believed to have killed 11 men had increased confidence we can tackle this spill offshore. (The Evening Standard (London), 27.4.2010, my emphasis)

The failure to make the changes from direct to indirect quotation (one of which is the change from first to third person) is unlikely to have arisen from the reporting of a face-to-face interview with Tony Hayward, and more likely to have been taken from the following press release:

“Given the current conditions and the massive size of our response, we are confident in our ability to tackle this spill offshore,” Hayward added. (BP, 2010b, 24 April)

Press releases are also an efficient way of communicating complex information, such as technical information or numerical data. The following press release is dated two days after the explosion (the list continues for a further four items):

BP has mobilised a flotilla of vessels and resources that includes:

  • • significant mechanical recovery capacity;
  • • 32 spill response vessels including a large storage barge;
  • • skimming capacity of more than 171,000 barrels per day, with more available if needed;
  • • offshore storage capacity of 122,000 barrels and additional 175,000 barrels available and on standby (BP, 2010a, 22 April).

The communication of facts and figures, from press releases, ostensibly an objective exercise, is however, subject to ideological influence. For example, many of the 2010 BP reports make mention of a particular proposition from a press release, that, as at 27 April, oil may reach land in three days. This fact is positioned by reporters in various ways.

  • • “as little as three days” (Trend Daily News (Azerbaijan), 27.4.2010)
  • • “expected to reach land by Saturday” (theflyonthewall.com, 27.4.2011)
  • • “within days” (24/7 Wall St, 27.4.2010)
  • • “ It’s still not expected to reach the coast before Friday, if at all” (Carleton Place (Canada), 27.4.2010)
  • • “may reach land in just days” (CNN, 27.4.2010)

These reformulations of the same basic information reveal a positioning that ranges from the (relatively) neutral “expected to reach land by

Saturday” to the more urgent “as little as three days”, “just days” and “within days”. An alternative, and more reassuring, version is presented in “not expected.. .before Friday, if at all’. The choice of contrasting positive and negative formulations in “expected” (second example in the list) and “not expected” (fourth on list) again indicate differing modal positioning of identical original information.

The part press releases play is considerably reduced in 2011, with the number of press releases published by BP in April 2011 being much smaller than that in April 2010. Whereas BP issued one release per day from the explosion on 20 April to 27 April 2010, only six releases were issued between 1st and 27 th April in 2011. Only three of the six are related to the BP events, and these indirectly. The first concerns sales of assets, and this issue is referred to in several of the financial report texts of 2011 in connection with the need to fund compensation for the oil spill. The second refers to environmental projects along the Gulf Coast. The third concerns the Gulf of Mexico Research Institute (GRI), and is reported in great detail in one of the 2011 texts, with much of the original text from the press release unchanged. (This text has already been noted as of interest for its use of categorisation, because it positions the Deepwater Horizon events (unnamed) as only one of many similar events, and as backgrounded to the global benefits of the work of the GRI.)

The number of press releases made by BP in the month to 27 April 2012 is again six. Three are unrelated to the Deepwater Horizon crisis (one of these concerns BP’s involvement in the 2012 London Olympic Games). The other three are connected to ongoing legal issues, and these are reflected in references to legal texts in several of the 2012 items. From a BP perspective, press releases are concerned partly to continue to control the accuracy of the Deepwater Horizon story, and partly to show how the company is moving on away from Deepwater Horizon through undertakings such as the Olympic sponsorship.

 
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