Audience orientation in news stories

A comparison between The Guardian and The Sun

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

52 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Newspaper and newspaper audience

3. Analysis of audience-orientation in The Guardian and The Sun
3.1. The British newspapers: broadsheets vs. tabloids
3.2. Description of the material analysed
3.3. Aspects of oral discourse – solidarity vs. authority
3.3.1. Typography and orthography
3.3.2. Syntax and morphology
3.3.3. Register
3.4. Polarisation – camaraderie vs. seriousness
3.4.1. Representation of Priklopil and Kampusch: vocabulary
3.4.2. Representation of positive information concerning Priklopil and of Stockholm syndrome
3.4.3. Representation of the parents: specificity of negative ingroup information
3.5. Different foci of Sun and Guardian articles – entertainment vs. information

4. Conclusion

Appendix: analysed newspaper articles of The Guardian and The Sun (text only)

1. Introduction

Every day new things happen. With modern technology, news can be distributed all over the world and faster than ever before. Additionally, the distribution of (and access to) news has become much cheaper. Consequently, the number of sources we can get information from has increased drastically throughout the last decades, as has the amount of information. In our modern information society, the mass media have come to play a decisive role. At the same time, it becomes more and more difficult to judge the reliability of the news. One of the oldest forms of mass media, which is still generally regarded as trustworthy, is the newspaper.

When it comes to newspapers, people usually prefer one (or two) specific news­papers to others. Every newspaper has its own specific image which includes some characteristics that it is generally known for. If all newspapers provided all the news there is and reported it in an objective manner, this would not make much sense. Indeed, with the amount of potential “news” emerging every day and the restrictions of the medium, it is impossible to cover everything – the newspapers must choose what to include in their coverage and what not to. Similarly, it is an illusion to expect news to be reported completely objectively. One reason for this is that the medium language inherently conveys connotations and values, which makes a purely objective coverage simply impossible. But apart from this restriction, it is a well-known fact that newspapers all have their particular perspective from which they contemplate and present news.

However, this is not solely the newspapers’ choice. Since they are financially dependent on their readers who buy their issues, they have to do their best in order to meet their readerships’ interests[1]. Considering that every newspaper has its own typical kind of readership, it should be possible to identify the means they use and analyse how they adapt to this specific group.

This paper will analyse one specific news story which was published in the course of a few days in two newspapers known to write for opposite types of readers. The aim is to show how news can be reported differently and how these differences can be explained in terms of an orientation towards different kinds of audiences. Before the actual analysis, however, the communicative context of newspaper discourse will be briefly contrasted to face-to-face discourse with special reference to the role of its audience.

2. Newspaper and newspaper audience

Newspaper discourse is in many ways different from face-to-face communication. First of all, due to the nature of the medium, sender and receiver – the producers of the newspaper and their readers – are separated temporally; the news only reaches the readers some time after they have been written and gone through the publishing process. Secondly, there is also a “disjunction of place” (Bell 1991: 85), which means that the readers and the producers normally are not at the same place; it is, after all, a feature of the mass media that they cover huge areas.[2] Consequently, this spatial separation not only applies to producers and readers but also to the readership itself (cf. Bell 1991: 85ff.). Since they are spread over a vast area, they do not normally know each other and have no means to communicate. Similarly, their opportunities to interact with the producers and provide them with feedback – something essential in face-to-face communication – are extremely limited; and even these interactions (e.g. a letter to the editor) have considerably less influence on the newspaper producers than audience interaction in spoken communication would have:

direct feedback by the audience is subject either to delay – influencing subsequent but not immediate production – or to reduction: the audience member’s response remains under the editorial control of the communicators. (Bell 1991: 87)

As a result, the newspaper readers do not have at their disposal the means that audiences usually have to influence the writers’ production. Seen from another angle, this also means that “[m]ass communicators are deprived of the usual access to recipients’ reactions” (Bell 1991: 87). The communicative situation of newspaper discourse is thus characterised by a lack of interaction between sender and receiver and between the receivers themselves.

It is a general presumption that newspapers write for their audiences. Yet the journalists who write the news stories have no possibility of knowing their readers. They do have the opportunity to draw some information regarding their actual readership from surveys, but these surveys can only be conducted after the newspaper’s issue has been finished and published, so that there always remains a temporal gap. Instead of knowing their audience, the producers must work with expectations about their readers when they design their newspaper; they adapt their output to a stereotyped image they have of the audience:

Beliefs and stereotypes about recipients and their speech patterns are the sole practical input to mass communicators’ linguistic output. Mass communicators can cater only to a stereotype of the audience’s own language. (Bell 1991: 90)

Similarly, the readers do not know the authors of the texts they read; they, too, stereotype the producers. Instead of seeing the text as a result of a complex process in which many individuals are involved or the creation of one single individual, they rather perceive the author to be newspaper as an institution, so that the newspaper’s voice is considered “institutional rather than personal” (Fowler 1991: 39) This institution is connected to a specific stereotyped image which the readers bear in mind when reading it. As a consequence of the impersonal communicative situation, both “writers as well as readers work with stereotypes of the supposed Other” (Bednarek 2006: 14).

When journalists write their news stories, they have their expected audience in mind and try to adapt to their expectations as best as possible. This influences both content and presentation of their news stories. Firstly, newspapers obviously do not report on everything that happens in the world; they have to select the events they want to include in their issues. They do so according to a set of news values, which determine the newsworthiness of events and originate from “general values about society such as ‘consensus’ and ‘hierarchy’; journalistic conventions; nature of sources; publication frequency and schedule; and so on” (Fowler 1991: 13). They include, for example, cultural proximity, which means that events which happen in countries with a similar cultural background are considered more newsworthy than those happening in a culture with different values. They also include unexpectedness which means that an event is generally more newsworthy if it happens unexpectedly and is unusual (cf. Fowler 1991: 13ff.). Since these news values are constructed from social beliefs and attitudes and are shared between newspaper and readers, they “are to be regarded as intersubjective mental categories” (Fowler 1991: 17). These categories are themselves stereotypes, which sort events and individuals (and thus making them comprehensible) and are presupposed by both parties (Fowler 1991: 17). These news values do not only determine “whether or not to report an event” (Fowler 1991: 19), but are also “features of representation” (Fowler 1991: 19), deciding which details are included in the reports and which features are to be emphasised. Since different newspapers, however, have different kinds of readers, they will adapt the criteria determining the newsworthiness of events to their respective readership, so that the individual newspapers will differ in terms of selection of their news stories and in their content.

Secondly, the presentation of news stories is also closely connected with what the news­papers believe that the audience expects. This involves the manner in which news are presented, i.e. the language and style employed by the writers. The newspapers will adopt a linguistic style which they belief comes close to the audience’s expectations. For a successful communication, the readers, on the one hand, bring to the text what Fowler calls “a mental model of the expected style” (Fowler 1991: 40), which must be recognised intuitively when reading a news story. On the other hand, the newspaper must cater for it and take the corresponding linguistic options. This means that the newspaper cannot write in an arbitrary way, but has to consider the kind of language that the audience is used to and expects from it. The resulting linguistic style is what Hall calls the public idiom of the media:

Of special importance […] will be the particular part of the readership spectrum the paper sees itself as customarily addressing: its target audience. The language employed will thus be the newspaper’s own version of the language of the public to whom it is principally addressed: its version of the rhetoric, imagery and underlying common stock of knowledge which it assumes its audience shares and which thus forms the basis of the reciprocity of producer/reader. (Hall 1978: 61)

This means that the newspapers employ a linguistic style they expect their stereotyped audience to be familiar with in order to attract them and present the news stories in a way which makes them easy to understand for it. Although it is the newspapers’ choice as to what news they cover and how they present them, it must not be forgotten that the audience plays a powerful role, too: they choose which newspaper they want to read, and if a newspaper’s style does not meet their expectations, they can easily switch to another one. The newspapers, after all, are economically dependent on their readers. This means that, at the same time that the newspapers write for a specific audience, “the media [also] attract the audiences which suit them” (Bell 1991: 107).

The readership thus is an important criterion in the production of news stories; the newspapers’ target audiences and their expectations about them is one of the factors which determine what and how the newspapers write.

3. Analysis of audience-orientation in The Guardian and The Sun

3.1. The British newspapers: broadsheets vs. tabloids

The British national daily newspaper market is traditionally divided into quality (also called broadsheet) and popular press (or tabloid)[3]. While all the different newspapers, whether broadsheet or tabloid, differ with regard to their political partisanship[4], there are also a number of differences characteristic for the two groups:

First of all, both types of newspapers aim at different readerships. As Bell (1991: 109) points out, 80% of the readers of quality papers belong to the middle classes, while the tabloids, conversely, draw about the same percentage of their readers from the working classes. Consequently, the respective audiences differ in terms of financial means as well as in terms of education and interests.

As already mentioned, this distinction has considerable consequences for both “selection (content) and presentation (language, style)” (Bednarek 2006: 13), since the newspaper producers try to appeal to their respective (stereotyped) audience: on the one hand, they try to meet their interests as best as possible, e.g. they select the news they write about according to what they believe their readers consider most news­worthy. This means that the quality papers, aiming at a middle-class audience, are more likely to cover news about politics or economics, and foreign news, generally, than the tabloids, whose focus is more on “crime-based or personality-based news” (Bignell 2002: 82). On the other hand, the way the newspapers write is also influenced by the audience: there are a number of differences in the form[5] as well as in the kind of language their articles employ. As far as language is concerned, it can be observed that there is “a close reflection of audience status in linguistic style” (Bell 1991: 109), which means that tabloids use certain stylistic techniques in their articles which they believe suit their target readership – the working classes – as best as possible. This includes, for instance, the application of a less formal and detached kind of language. In other words, as the newspapers are economically dependent on their audiences, they try to reflect their audiences’ inferred interests and expectations in both the choice of events or topics they decide to cover, in structuring it in a way they find most attractive and in resembling the kind of language that the readers are most likely to be comfortable with.

3.2. Description of the material analysed

The British are known to be a nation of newspaper readers. Two of Britain’s daily newspapers are The Sun and The Guardian. According to the National Readership Survey (conducted between July 2005 and June 2006; open_topline/newspapers/index.cfm) , The Sun, w ith 16.8 per cent of readers among all Britons, is the tabloid selling the most copies, and is thus the most widely read daily newspaper in the whole country. The Guardian, with a readership of 2.5 per cent, takes the third place within the broadsheets, preceded by The Daily Telegraph with 4.2 per cent and The Times with 3.7 per cent. These numbers also make it obvious that there is a large gap between the quality and the popular press in terms of circulation: the circulation of the most widely read broadsheet newspaper (The Daily Telegraph) amounts only to a quarter of that of the most popular tabloid (The Sun).

The material analysed in this paper are articles from the online edition from The Guardian on the one hand and The Sun on the other. They all report on the same events and were published between 24th and 27th August 2006.

To find a news story both of the newspapers cover is not as easy a task as one might imagine. Since the two follow different selection criteria, there is sometimes not a single news event that is covered by both of them, or they vary considerably in length and detail, so that they do not offer comparable material. The news story covered in the articles here, however, obviously meets the selection criteria for both quality and popular press: both The Guardian and The Sun published a significant number of articles on it during the first ten days after the initial event, namely the escape of Natascha Kampusch, an Austrian girl who had been kidnapped eight years before at the age of ten, from her kidnapper on 23rd August. Both newspapers published an online news update on the next day, when her reappearance was made public (G1, S1). During the following days, as more and more details about the kidnapping itself, the subsequent police investigations about the years she was kept prisoner and her escape become known, the “story” about her reunion with her family begins to develop and the woman starts reclaiming control of her life (e.g. by asking the media to stop revealing intimate information about her). The newspapers continue to write about it and as a consequence of their distinct audience-orientation, focus more and more on diverging aspects. For this paper, the material analysed will be restricted to the articles published during the first four days, to the point where Kampusch asks the media to “[r]espect [her] privacy” (G3: headline). It consists of three articles from The Guardian (G1-3)[6] and four from The Sun (S1-4).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The Guardian’s online edition ( is to a large extent identical with its print edition and it is always stated at the beginning of an article where it was first published. Only G1, the first article, was not published in the print medium, because the news was made public after that day’s newspaper was printed; consequently, it is clearly marked with 5pm update and Guardian Unlimited (G1). In contrast to this transparency, The Sun seems to mix articles published in print and contributions made specifically for the paper’s online edition ( Unfortunately they cannot be classified without doubt. Which of the articles of those used in this paper have been published in the actual newspaper can only be inferred from the information given about the author of the text and additional information which is sometimes given under the headline. In this manner, there is no doubt that S1, saying “By SUN ONLINE REPORTER” (S1) is written exclusively for the online edition. It is quite a different matter with the articles S2 and S3: they were both published on the same day, and are very similar: many passages of the text are completely identical, although S2 is slightly longer and they feature different headlines and photographs and emphasise slightly different aspects. From the fact that S3 adds the date (“August 25, 2006”) to the author’s name – a piece of information that is missing in S2 – it seems likely that S3 corresponds to the article published in the print edition, while S2 is the result of its modification for the purpose of its publication on The Sun’s website. After all, it is not very probable that two substantially identical articles should appear in the same printed issue. S4 gives the same information about its author as S2 (that is, it merely states the author’s name without a date). From this, one could draw the conclusion that this article is only – like S2 – featured in the online edition. On the other hand, however, it sounds unlikely that The Sun, specialist in reporting on shocking crimes and scandals, should miss the opportunity to publish such an article in its print edition. As a consequence, it remains unclear which of The Sun’s articles are only available online and which of them have been published in print as well.

Since the material consists of newspaper articles from both newspapers reporting on the same events, the characteristic differences between the two types of newspapers regarding selection (see page 6) can be neglected for the analysis as far as it concerns the general selection of news stories they write about. There remains, of course, a finer level of selection, that is, the details and background information the papers mention in their articles about a selected news story, a decision which has still got significant power to change the tone of the coverage. Differences that can be explained by this and the other criterion mentioned above, that is, the linguistic and stylistic presentation of the news, will be collected and interpreted with the help of two linguistic approaches regarding the style of newspaper language and a principle of conveying ideology and values in newspaper texts. As the analysed story is not political but gains its importance rather from its social and criminal significance, the remaining basic distinction between The Guardian and The Sun – its political orientation (the former is left-wing, the latter right-wing)[7] – can be neglected.

After accumulating and classifying elements and aspects in which the coverage of the two newspapers differ, these differences will be explained as serving different functions. These functions, in turn, can be accounted for by the newspapers’ orientation towards different audiences.

3.3. Aspects of oral discourse – solidarity vs. authority

One of the most obvious differences between the articles in The Guardian and The Sun is the linguistic style they employ: while the quality paper makes the impression of reporting objectively and relatively detached, the tabloid’s language seems to be more partial, informal and less complex. One approach which aims to account for this observation is Fowler’s claim that the newspaper language adopts features characteristic for oral discourse (Fowler 1991: 59-65). He argues that there is a “discursive gap” (Fowler 1991: 59) between the characteristic mode of a newspaper as an institution (print) and that of the reader as a person (speech). While the concept of print brings with it a certain degree of detachment, “formality and authority”, the typical face-to-face conversation is characterised by involvement, “familiarity and solidarity” (Fowler 1991: 59). In order to attract their readers, Fowler argues, the newspapers make an effort to narrow this gap by adopting elements in their writing that suggest the presence of speech, thus reflecting the language of their readers.

The categories of features that Fowler distinguishes are: typography and orthography, syntax and morphology, register, deixis, modality and speech acts (Fowler 1991: 62-65). As the first three are most striking in the analysed articles, I will restrict the comparison in the different newspapers’ style to them.

Considering this approach and the fact that The Guardian as a broadsheet and The Sun as a tabloid aim at socially distinct audiences, it seems logical that the articles published on their respective websites should employ such features to a significantly different extent. The broadsheets, writing for a wealthier middle-class audience, are likely to draw less upon those strategies to appeal to them; their readers do not expect their paper to convey familiarity, but to supply information about what is going on in the world (in politics, economics and sports rather than in the world of celebrities and everyday life that the tabloids are concerned with). Additionally, being better educated, the habitually addressed middle-class Guardian reader is less likely to encounter any difficulties in dealing with a more formal kind of language than his working-class counterpart reading The Sun.

In the articles analysed in this paper, there are, however, not as many differences in the use of the features Fowler describes as could be expected: although the coverage of the two newspapers differs significantly with respect to some of them, others are employed by both The Sun and The Guardian to a similar extent, so that it is not possible to draw conclusions from it in terms of orientation towards a different kind of audience.


[1] However, newspapers do not only write in order to conform to their readers – this would make them entirely dependent on them. Every newspaper has its own attitudes and priorities, and it must not be forgotten that the papers also try to influence their readers just as they are influenced by them.

[2] This especially applies to the online editions of newspapers, because their availability is not dependent on the printed newspapers’ restricted area of circulation.

[3] Among the national daily newspapers, the broadsheets are: The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Financial Times; papers such as The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Mirror, The Star and The Sun are classified as tabloids (O’Driscoll 2000: 152).

[4] For an overview over the political orientation of the national daily newspapers see O’Driscoll 2000: 153.

[5] This includes “quantity, design, typography, the use of photographs and other visual techniques” (Bednarek 2006: 13)

[6] G3 was, in fact, published in The Observer. This can be accounted for by the fact that its publishing date, 27th August, was a Sunday. The Guardian is a national daily and is sold only on weekdays; on Sundays, it is replaced by The Observer, which is part of the same group. For this reason, I do not make a distinction there and consider this article as belonging to The Guardian.

[7] According to O’Driscoll 2000: 153

Excerpt out of 52 pages


Audience orientation in news stories
A comparison between The Guardian and The Sun
University of Augsburg  (Lehrstuhl für Englische Sprachwissenschaft)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Audience, Guardian
Quote paper
Elisabeth Fritz (Author), 2007, Audience orientation in news stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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