Headline as a persuasive tool in publicistic discourse

A case study on headlines from the English-language periodicals during the presidential election campaign in France-2007

Term Paper, 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 8 ECTS (out of 10)


“The press has been, for the most part, the unwilling slave of error, and the instruments of kings, priests, aristocrats, and imbeciles, in carrying out their irrational, ambitious, uncivilised, and uncivilising designs”[1].

The Compositors’ Chronicle

I. Introduction

In this paper the headline of English-speaking newspapers and magazines has been studied as an independent and effective persuasive element of a text.

“In a world where mass communication plays an important part in forming our attitudes towards people, ideas, events and objects, the wording of a message may well be the most significant factor in persuading us to adopt a particular point of view”[2]. In this paper I want to discuss, how susceptible are we to linguistic style? How profoundly can the impact of a message be enhanced by the manner in which it is written, assuming that one and the same thought can be expressed with different stylistic tools?

The choice of words reflects not only differences in evaluations (positive or negative) or in emotions - it is also able to thrust reader’s attitude to the core of a message and to direct and control one’s perception and comprehension. The paper claims that language can be a very powerful and persuasive tool which draws the readers’ attention, being operated by skilful editors in a newspaper or magazine headline. In this regard, the purpose of the paper is to address and answer the research question: “How persuasion is realized linguistically across the English-speaking newspaper and magazine headlines?”

I want to study headlines from a number of modern European and American periodicals (“The Economist”, “The Guardian”, “The Observer”) covering the presidential election campaign in France in 2007. The last part of the paper investigates the use of rhetorical figures in headlines (on lexical level) from the point of view of pragmalinguistics. Using a corpus of 14 headlines I will examine rhetorical figures aimed at persuading the reader.

The choice of this subject for my paper is determined by the actuality of the problems of persuasion and of manipulation in mass media discourse, linked with the development of cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics and methods of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). The study of headline as a powerful and persuasive linguistic tool can be applicable to multiple spheres of public life and to various media of information (e.g.: political campaigns, slogans, advertising, publication of new directives issued by the European Commission, etc.). It is interesting to observe, what kind of stylistic devices and persuasive techniques news editors apply in headlines during the election campaigns in the European Union (namely in France in 2007) in order to create public opinion or to provoke a certain reaction from the readers.

Periodicals are cultural artefacts which are created and which function within a certain cultural context. That is, they operate within the value system of that culture. Schäffner noted that “any political action is prepared, accompanied, controlled and influenced by language”[3]. According to M. Foucault[4], who first introduced aspect of power in construction of meaning, things have no meaning in themselves, they gain meaning which varies from context to context. All cultural practices depend on meaning and are constructed within discourse. Consequently, language is not simply a medium carrying meaning, but a medium constructing meaning. This paper argues that a headline in newspapers and magazines holds a persuasive potential and is able to direct construction of a certain context for interpreting and affecting reader’s emotions. It gives grounds for claiming that same facts can be interpreted differently in different contexts.

II. Persuasion in mass media discourse

The twentieth is a century of information. Mass media are flooding the world with messages. The role of mass media in democratic societies is very important since they are the vehicles for informing citizens. The media have extensive power in that they represent the primary, and often the only, source of information about many important events and topics. Mass media shape social identities. They can move public attention from one issue to another, but they can drive government policy by mobilizing public opinion too[5]. They help people to orientate to political events, and “as instruments of the political elite, socialize, persuade and work on “public opinion”[6]. For DeFouloy the role of mass media is of providers of a “record of events” in society[7]. According to Nousiainen, “mass media can question and criticize political decisions and events and, such being the case, serve as gatekeepers and filters between politicians and the media audiences”[8]. Hence, it is very important to investigate what journalists think is newsworthy, what ideas they have about certain political events and with what linguistic means do they furnish information to the audience.

According to I.R. Gal’perin, “mass media is a primary or a unique trustworthy source of information”[9]. Due to time deficit, the attention of the addressee is capable to hold short, capacious messages similar to slogans. Such messages can conciliate, gain sympathy, inspire, mislead, cause admiration, curiosity, anger, fear, etc. With the use of the various psycholinguistic and pragmatic influencing techniques mass media imposes on the recipient a certain point of view. Very often, a typical form of persuasion is substitution of a rational argumentation by an emotional influence, which is not based on reasonable or logical thinking, but on instant impression from catchy and puzzling messages. It will be very interesting to study this problem in the context of the European mass media by the example of French presidential election campaign.

The public’s preference for publications is in most cases defined by the novelty and originality of catchy and creative headlines. For this very reason, many messages are hyperbolized, emotionally colored and dramatized (e.g.: “Paris discovers its playboy President”[10], “The Sarko show”[11], “The smell of Tony”[12], “L'hyperprésident”[13], etc.). Quite often a persuasive effect can be achieved with the help of images and stereotypes (e.g.: “Defining Sarkozism”[14]). As a result of a particular textual structure (important information is implied; arguments are presented in a veiled way; text is overload with evaluative vocabulary, etc.) a reader gets an illusion of the independently made conclusions.

F. Ungerer claims that “all texts must “seduce” their audience if they want to put across their message successfully. They must tempt them into reading and into accepting the message”[15]. No wonder that media texts are saturated with strategies designed to win the audience and keep it interested and impressed. Thus, looking at the seductiveness of media texts more closely, we can single out two aspects: “the attention-getting aspect” and “the persuasive aspect”[16] that will be discussed in the next chapter.


[1] The Compositors’ Chronicle, 1 Oct. 1842, p.213. In Jones, Aled. Powers of the Press. Newspapers, Power and the Public in Nineteenth-Century England. Aldershot: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.10.

[2] Sandell, Rolf.Linguistic Style and Persuasion. London: Academic Press, 1977, p.4.

[3] Schäffner, Christina. Analysing political speeches. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1997. P. 1-4.

[4] Foucault, Michel.The order of things: an archeology of the human sciences. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971.

[5] Downs, A. An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

[6] Nousiainen, Jaakko, Hodgson, H. John.The Finnish political system. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

[7] DeFouloy, C.D.The Role of the Media in Engaging Citizens,2005, in EULobby Publisher at URL: http://www.eulobby.net/eng/Modul/Abstract/ReadAbstract.aspx?Mid=1457&ItemID=641

[8] Nousiainen, Jaakko, Hodgson, H. John.The Finnish political system. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

[9] Gal’perin, I.R.Tekst Kak Objekt Lingvisticeskogo Issledovanija. Moskva: Nauka, 1991 (Text as an Object of Linguistic Analysis).

[10] Day, Elizabeth, Paris discovers its playboy President, The Observer, (23 December, 2007).

[11] The Economist, 28 June, 2007, <http://www.economist.com.hk/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9407824&CFID=13531188&C FTOKEN=5175803302155f99-854E00AC-B27C-BB00-01297CEBC69CCDF7>

[12] The Economist, 7 February, 2008, <http://www.economist.com/world/britain/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10641073>

[13] < http://www.economist.com.hk/research/articlesBySubject/displaystory.cfm?subjectid=548041&story_id =10498956>, The Economist, 2007.

[14] Pedder, Sophie,Defining Sarkozism <http://www.economist.com/theworldin/europe/displayStory.cfm?story_id=10091994&d=2008>, The Economist.

[15] Ungerer, Friedrich.English media texts, past and present: language and textual structure. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2000.

[16] Ungerer, Friedrich.English media texts, past and present: language and textual structure. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2000.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Headline as a persuasive tool in publicistic discourse
A case study on headlines from the English-language periodicals during the presidential election campaign in France-2007
University of Groningen
M.A. "Euroculture: Europe in the Wider World"
8 ECTS (out of 10)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
459 KB
Headline, English-language, France-2007, ECTS
Quote paper
M.A. Arts Nadia Ptashchenko (Author), 2008, Headline as a persuasive tool in publicistic discourse, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/133215


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