To what extent does the language of the news act as an ideological agent?
„The news media play an essential role in maintaining the authority of the political system.“ (Berkowitz, 1997, p. 424) How and to what extend this happens is described in the following text. But at first the termideologyshould be explained.
The analysis of ideology can be traced back toMarxand early Marxists, who favoured the idea of a social revolution dependent on the working class. They wanted to break free of the ideas of the ruling class. (Croteau. 2005) Now we see ideology as the structuring of beliefs from a particular perspective. “This perspective is a complex combination of the viewpoints of media institutions, powerful sectors of society and audience, and presented in such a way as to convince its audience that it is natural and unchanging.” (Conboy, 2005, p. 105) Such a presentation occurs through language, our main communication medium. Later we will see that there exist several linguistic features which help the producer of a text to convince its readership of his viewpoints. Through ideology certain meanings and values are produced for a specific audience, mainly through presentation and repetition of a constant viewpoint and interpretation. Complex facts become classified and represented in a way that structures the audiences´ viewpoint and let them create microspecific versions of the world. (Conboy. 2005) Not only can the explicitly given information influence the audience of media contents, but also the absences. (Croteau. 2005)Gramsciuses the termhegemonyand says that “...the ruling group does not simply impose a class ideology on others but rather provides the articulating principle by which diverse ideological elements are unified into a worldview.” (Berkovitz. 1997. p.425)
But who are these powerful people and how can they manage to distribute their message to the folk? Who helps them and why are they interested in imposing their views on the people? At first in a capitalist society; money rules. So, beside the government of a country, the rich citizens are more influential than the poor ones. Industrialists for instance sponsor political parties, election campaigns and can hire lobbyists who work in their interest. Businessmen pay more or less higher taxes and offer much needed workplaces. Advertisers spend much money and it would be unfavourable if they withdrew their funds1. One other reason for spreading ideology would be the wish for stability and peace.
Another powerful group in a society is the government, of course. Politicians feel good when the economy grows, enough workplaces for the people exist and the public are satisfied. Then there is a chance for them to become re-elected. And when the politicians are in power, they make laws and are responsible for the executive organ and the judiciary. But the media organisations are a powerful group as well. Many people see it as the forth power in the state, at least in a democracy. Most people would doubt whether it really makes use of this function and works as a control force. Of course it is hard to generalize all types of media reporting, but in the main there are still some doubts that the media works completely as a control force. One is certain; the media reaches many people and shape their belief systems. This is supported by studies ofmedia agenda setting. “These studies show that public opinion about which problems are important correlates with the problems reported on by prominent news organisations2.” (Bovitz, et al. 2002. p.128) But even the audience plays its role when ideology is produced.
In a capitalist world everyone has to earn money for surviving and living a comfortable life. Even media organisations, such as newspapers, have to sell their products to come into money. That’s one reason why editors deliberately produce, to a small extent, some political bias - to attract a certain readership.
A tool to attract the readership and make it easier to sell the outlets is the use ofstyle. The function of style is building ties with the readership. The use of familiar language allows the newspaper and its audience to feel a connection. This improves the relationship with them. The felt similarity makes it easier for the newspaper to convince the reader of a particular point of view. (Conboy. 2005) This means, language is used to transport particular values and points of view to the audience and therefore it can be seen as an ideological agent.
To understand to what extend language is used to produce ideology, it should be understood, why the media produce ideology. According toBerkowitz, the media reproduce a consistent ideology without being instructeddirectlyby the state.(Berkowitz. 1997, p. 425)Croteauaffirms it and says that the media are not simple agents of the powerful because their ideas are not simply imposed on the audience. “Media are cultural sites where the ideas of the powerful are circulated and where they can be contested.” (Croteau. 2005. p.168) Of course, there are also some critical media that differ from the dominant popular ones and we should be aware of seeing things in black and white. But it is apparent how much the big media channels agree in their way of reporting and choice of topics. Different opinions from the mainstream ideas are rarely released.Allanshares the opinion with other theorists and says that mass media institutions, whether publicly or privately owned are controlled by the members of the ruling class. These powerful persons carry through their interests. He refers toHermanandChomsky, “´..in their view, the news media ´permit – indeed, encourage – spirited debate, critisism and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consus´...Close ties between the media elite and their political and corporate counterparts ensure that an ´establishment orientation´is ordinarily maintained at the level of news coverage...” (Allan. 2004. p.52 f.)
This does not say anything about how and why the mass media institutions are controlled by the members of the ruling class.
As mentioned above, within language specific persuasion techniques are used to convince the audience of particular viewpoints. With regard toRichardsonthe language in the news has the function to report “...the actions and activities of the powerful and doing so in a form that is entertaining and readily consumable...”, where the main function of journalism is “...to help citizens to understand the world and their positions within it...” (Richardson. 2007. p.8)
But to make our world understandable, it simplifies complex situations and gives short explanations on issues that are too complex to explain in a few words. “Languagefirstrepresents social realities andsecondcontributes to the production andreproduction of social reality or social life.” (Richardson. 2007. p.10; [emphasis in original]) This means that through the language of the news media, social realities are presented. These realities are measured amongst others by the particular cultural background of the media organisation, and let the described social realities for the reader appear as normal.
Hodgeconfirms this and says that language itself functions as a powerful ideological device. Language is crucial in the way our society is organised. “Language, linguistic forms and processes, seen in this way as the product of social practices, is just one of the many semiotic modes through which social meanings are coded.” (Hodge. 1993. p.209) Language determines the limits of our world and constructs our reality. (Simpson. 1993) But it is not the language itself but the way how the language is used, which forms our understanding of reality. (Conboy. 2005) We also must be aware that language can never be neutral or value-free. “Rather it is shaped by a mosaic of cultural assumptions, political beliefs and institutional practices – in other words, ideologies.”3 (Simpson, 1993: 176)
1 One example is the German discounter supermarketAldiwhich stopped placing ads at theSüddeutsche Zeitung due to critical reports. This caused the newspaper a loss of 1,5 million €. (Netzeitung 18.04.2004)
2 Consider e.g. the perception of Americans about Iran. (CNN. 13.02.2006. (Poll: Americans nervous about Iran)
3 That´s one reason why pure objectivity can never be reached.