Discourse 2: Positioning

Typical markers of the discourse of objectivity continue to be discernible in many of the 2011 texts, including the presentation of empirical facts, neutral lexis and some distancing of journalists from commentary on their material through the use of reported speech. At the same time, other 2011 texts show a greater degree of engagement by journalists, who have started to express their own opinions overtly, and to summarise, synthesise and interpret information about the oil spill. As a crucial part of this process, journalists place and locate the unknown (the BP events) within the known, in other words, positioning it as a certain entity. While the discourse of objective factuality continues to be a feature of the 2011 texts, a discourse of positioning is the characteristic feature in this year.

The positioning of the events is recognisable particularly in the linguistic process of categorisation, which has increased significantly in 2011 over 2010. Through groups, lists and comparisons, BP is positioned, unsurprisingly, as a “disaster” (to use one of the key terms from the 2011 texts) and journalists define the events by analogy with other events, which in their turn have been previously defined and categorised. I have commented that the 2011 lists and groups are what we might term “expected”. So by 2011i journalists follow a relatively proscribed pattern of writing about disasters. Amongst other strands, the following topics are typically of interest (Arpan, 2002; Stephens, Malone, & Bailey, 2005):

  • 1. The cost: for restoration and compensation.
  • 2. Blame and responsibility: for the cause of the disaster (not applicable to natural disasters, but applicable to BP) and the subsequent handling (applicable to both natural and man-made disasters).
  • 3- The future: when the immediate effects of the disaster (e.g. oil on the beaches) will have been tackled. Any changes arising from the disaster (e.g. in oil drilling policy).

These are only three of a number of regularly rehearsed ideas about disasters of this kind. These shared ideas raise a series of expectations about media coverage (that the questions inherent in them will be answered), and the texts in my data set show evidence that this is the case. In 2011, the texts increasingly address the questions of cause, blame and responsibility, as well as compensation. They address issues of recovery, such as the form this is taking, and how long it will be before normality is resumed. Addressing the questions that arise from generally held assumptions is part of a longer-term process towards a sense that we now understand what the events mean. The 2011 texts fulfil a critical role before this can happen, and this role is one of definition and location. Here, the relevant information is “bigger/smaller than what?”, “like/unlike what?”, “as expensive/not as expensive as what?”

Categorising, listing and grouping are the key features of a discourse of positioning, but three other processes are also relevant. Firstly, the analysis of the news report genre in 2011 shows that the BP story increasingly forms part of other news stories; 27 % of the texts are news stories, but only 15 % relate primarily to the BP events. The rest mention BP as part of another story. Secondly, represented events are positioned by means of intertexts. That is, it becomes more common that the researched texts comment on other texts about the events rather than the events themselves. In this way, an agreement about the meaning is being fixed and shared, through the use and spread of common, legitimised sources. Thirdly, this involves temporal positioning—texts start to place the BP events within a diachronic context. Four broad time bands are visible as strands throughout these texts: DISTANT PAST ^ RECENT PAST (2010 EVENTS) ^ CURRENT EVENTS (2011) ^ FUTURE. Current events, as covered in the 2011 texts, are more or less directly related to the 2010 events of a year ago—these are the touchpoints for the 2011 commentary. The more distant past is evoked in phrases such as “the biggest oil spill in US history”, which is used several times in the 2011 data set, serving to place the oil spill in the context of events further back than 2010. At the other end of the time spectrum, a number of the texts refer to planning for the future. These include the Panama City Beach text (marketing planning), an item on predicting future oil prices, the text headlined “BP expects to resume Gulf drilling this year” and another whose headline is “Prepare in Advance for the Inevitable Crisis”.

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