Linguistic Analysis of British Newspaper Texts on the Najaf Uprising

Seminar Paper, 2004

29 Pages, Grade: 1




News Values
Linguistic Structures
The Structure of News Stories
The Aspect of Time
First Results

Lexical Style
Syntactic Style
Information provided or withheld




1. Introduction

For this analysis I have chosen newspaper articles from five different British newspapers which were published on the same day and report the same event. I have chosen articles from three downmarket newspapers, each one with a slightly different perspective, or so it seemed at a first glance. The Sun is known for its sensational way of reporting, the Mail is somewhat less sensational and the Telegraph has been chosen for its right-wing traditions (although the former two are far from being left-wing). I have also chosen two upmarket newspapers, namely the somewhat liberal Independent and the Guardian, which is known to have slight left-wing tendencies in its reports. The subject of the reports chosen is a series of incidents in post-war Iraq which happened on Monday, 9 August 2004. The incidents include heavy fighting between UK forces and local militia which led to the death of a British soldier.

The aim of this analysis is to show how British newspapers treat such a subject and if there are striking differences between upmarket and downmarket newspaper reporting. In a second step I will look for underlying meaning or the author’s opinions and attitudes which are revealed by the use of language and the way the authors handle the information they have got. There are several works which deal with newspaper language. I have found that two works are especially relevant for my analysis and I have set my focus on these. One is Allan Bell’s Language of News Media, which is especially relevant for the first part of my analysis, because it has a strong focus on the structural elements of news stories. In the second part of this paper I will cling to Teun van Dijk’s Racism and the Press, which deals in large parts with underlying meaning and how to detect it in newspaper texts.

2. Basic Analysis

In what follows, I will give a basic analysis of the reports and show in what different ways the same event is being reported in the different newspapers. We will see how a subject like this is being treated by British newspapers and if there are striking (or subtle) variations from one newspaper to another, especially between upmarket and downmarket newspapers.

News Values

It is impossible to discuss news stories without considering their function. Each report features a set of news values which have a strong impact on the way the report’s story is presented. (Bell 155-156)

One of the most basic news values is NEGATIVITY. It is difficult to say why bad events make such good news, but it is undisputed that negative events like death, war, crime or catastrophe seem newsworthy and are thus an essential part of everyday news reporting. As expected, all the articles used excellently fit into the picture, as will every report about fighting and killing in a post-war area. (Bell 156)

Another basic news value is RECENCY which has to do with the fact that very often the latest news are felt to be the most interesting. All the articles chosen fulfil this prerequisite, since they report something that has happened yesterday. The aspect of TIME will be discussed separately and more detailed in its own section.

PPROXIMITY in this case is a very difficult matter. Under normal circumstances, there would hardly be any geographical closeness to a majority of British readers at all. But since there are British troops fighting in post-war Iraq, there might be another kind of emotional closeness because the British readers know that “some of them” are there in Iraq. As for CONSONANCE, it is likely that there is a high agreement of the news text and the script1 activated in the readers’ minds when they are confronted with a war-related subject. UNAMBIGUITY is another basic concept of news reporting. All the reports chosen keep the facts clear and leave little doubt about the content of truth, there are almost no if’s, but’s or maybe’s. The Guardian makes an exception, when a statement made by US military commanders is put in doubt. (Guardian line 45)

UNEXPECTEDNESS is another difficult case, because to the day of the incident reported in the newspaper articles, there had hardly been a day without fighting in post-war Iraq. It seems, however, that the British Army’s non-escalatory posture has led the British to think themselves safe from being the target of direct attacks. Indeed, the death toll among British troops in Iraq is comparatively low compared to that of the US troops. All in all, it can be concluded that a British soldier killed in post-war Iraq is unexpected enough for British readers to make a good news report.

SUPERLATIVENESS is, of course, hard to detect in reports about a process like that in post- war Iraq, in which violence never really stopped. In such a series of violent reports there can hardly always be such a thing like the bloodiest fighting, the most cruel torture or the most destructive explosion. There are some superlatives in the Sun (26) and the Telegraph (11). RELEVANCE in this context takes the same line as PROXIMITY as I have discussed it above. The news is relevant and has an influence on the reader’s life because British people are dying in Iraq. There is no acute consequence for the reader’s life, except the omnipresent fear of terrorist attacks, but the knowledge that fellow citizens are fighting dying in a foreign country perhaps creates at least a kind of RELEVANCE.

PERSONALIZATION is present in all the articles used. The death of a soldier is naturally more newsworthy than a fight without victims at all. Even though none of the reports confines the news to the dead soldier, his death is at least one of the first things to be reported, which is usually felt to be the place for the most important news.

ELITENESS is a slightly more complicated case. There is no real involvement of elite persons on both sides. The dead soldier is left name-less, so are all the other victims of the fighting. On the other hand, the news is being made more “important” by adding the information that the Iraqi militia is loyal to the prominent Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is mentioned if all five articles chosen. The citation of high military officers and politicians or at least their mentioning serves the same purpose. The Telegraph even mentions US President Bush once. (line 8-9)

The quality of ATTRIBUTION has to do with the eliteness of a story’s sources. This is important because it seems to have an effect on the success of a story to know that the source is one of high standards. (Bell 158) According to this, all authors except the one who wrote the Telegraph report have included several direct and indirect citations to make sure that their sources are clear. The Telegraph article, however, has only one place where the source is made vaguely explicit (line 11). This “flaw” is compensated by the fact that the author’s name is complemented with his title, namely “Diplomatic Editor” (line 2).

Finally, all the articles chosen follow the concept of FACTICITY and all contain a certain amount of numbers, sums as well as names of locations. The longer an article is, the more information of this kind can be expected, it seems.

After analysing the chosen articles in terms of their news values, we see that most of the values can easily be applied to all of the reports, no matter in which newspaper they are published. There are some which did not quite fit in so easily due to the geographical distance and the aspect of time. There are also some values in which one of the articles differs from all the others, namely UNAMBIGUITY and ATTRIBUTION. The deviation is in both cases rather vague, so that I will come back to this later and see if other results can bring more light to these findings.

Linguistic Structures

The use of linguistic structures as a means to express the personal opinion and the insights the reveal the writer’s attitude and political background will be discussed in the next chapter when I will have a closer look at style, rhetoric and underlying meaning. Now I will analyse the more obvious and countable syntactic features in the newspaper texts used. At first, the total amount of sentences gives an idea of how much space the editors have found proportionate for the incident reported. The sentence length gives more insight on the way the different articles are written. The following table shows the total amount of sentences, the average sentence length and the number of words of the longest sentence in each article. I have counted compound words which are spelled with a hyphen (such as ‘so-called’ or ‘non- escalatory’) as one word.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The Guardian article has the highest amount of sentences while the ones from Mail and Telegraph have a rather small number of sentences. Independent and Sun are somewhere in the middle. This looks like a surprisingly good result for the Sun article, but a quick look at the average sentence length shows it in its correct (or expected) light: While the other articles have an average sentence length of 19,29 to 24,97 words, the Sun article with its average of 12,73 words falls a bit short. This was one result which I half expected when I counted the words. The only surprising result is the relatively short average sentence length in the Guardian article, which I had expected to be longer. This is partly due to the sentence length in citations which are considerably shorter than in the rest of the text where the writer uses his own words. The longest sentence, counting 59 words, on the other hand shows that the Guardian as a typical upmarket newspaper does have somewhat longer sentences in comparison to downmarket papers like the Mail. The average sentence length of the Telegraph article is not very convincing either, because of its shortness and also because it is the only article used which totally lacks direct citations, which could have possibly reduced the article’s average sentence length considerably.

The sentence length certainly has an impact on the complexity of the sentences in each article. It is not surprising to see that the Sun and Telegraph articles have somewhat straightforward sentence structures since their sentences are relatively short. The Guardian and Independent articles have the most complex sentences with the highest amount of information. The Mail article appears to have at least a few complex sentences due to the number of words. But a direct comparison of the Mail ’s longest sentence with one of the Guardian text shows the difference:

Al-Sadr has vowed to defend the city “until the last drop of my blood”, and in a series of increasingly inflammatory public pronouncements has made clear that his supporters were ready to attack British, as well as American, troops. (Mail, line 15-17)

Iraq’s rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr vowed yesterday to stay in Najaf “until the last drop of my blood is spilled” as his militia fought gun battles across the country, including in Basra where a British soldier was killed and five others were wounded. (Guardian, line 6-8)

The number of words may be high in both sentences, but it becomes clear that the second example is more elegant because of the high concentration of information in one sentence. The Mail article, on the other hand, has less important information. It is moreover stretched by evaluative expressions like “increasingly inflammatory”.

Adjectives are few in Independent and Guardian and more frequent in Telegraph, Mail and Sun. The use of adjectives in the ones mostly serves to provide Mr al-Sadr with negative attributes (e.g. “radical”). The Guardian article replaces “radical” with “rebel”, which is the more neutral term. Sun and Telegraph use superlatives like “bloodiest” or “heaviest” to describe fighting.

The findings above are some of the most obvious features in the texts that already reveal hints in what direction the articles will lead. There are, however, more subtle differences which will be discussed in context in the next chapter.

The Structure of News Stories

Newspaper text usually consist of an abstract, attribution and the story proper. The attribution of where the story comes from is not necessarily explicit. (Bell 169) In the case of the newspaper articles chosen for this analysis this is handled in different ways. All articles feature the date. With the exception of the Mail, all newspapers mention the author by his name, in the former it only says “News Section”. As we have seen in the discussion of the news values, the Telegraph mentions the title of the writer, namely “Diplomatic Editor”. Guardian and Independent even include the aspect of place by giving information about from where the writer sent his report. (Najaf in Guardian, Baghdad in Independent).

The abstract consists of the lead and a headline. Headlines are mostly not written by the author himself, but are created by other editors. (Bell 186) They usually include a summary of the lead. A quick look at the headlines shows that the three downmarket newspapers have the killing of the British soldier in the headline, while the Guardian and the Independent seem to prefer less dramatic facts in their headlines. There are also already some differences in style in the headlines, but this will be analysed more deeply in the next chapter.

The lead normally includes the main event and possibly a second event. This usually goes together with some information on news actors and setting of the event. (Bell 169) It is interesting how differently the different newspapers set up the lead even though they report the same event. The lead in the Sun has the killing of the British soldier as the first event, which is usually also the main event, the most important information. It says when and where it happened. What follows is a vague description of how it happened and how many further casualties there were. The lead in the Mail is also brief, but has a different focus. Here the first information is that the British troops are on high alert in Basra. This is followed by something which reads like a short summary of the lead in the Sun, with the additional information on the militia that caused the casualties’ wounds and deaths. The Telegraph’s lead is also quite short and gives as much information as the Mail, but leaves out the alertness of the British troops. The Guardian ’s lead is more complex and adds extra information about al-Sadr and includes the main facts of the incident the former newspapers included in their leads. The Independent makes an exception. Its lead focuses on the political situation the new Iraq is confronted with as a result of the violence which includes the incident referred to above. The incident itself is merely the second event. This shift of focus (or figure and ground) in the lead already gives the article a different feeling because it activates a different schema, namely one from a political area, while the others are set in a more war-like area.

The actual story in all articles consists of events which are reported in episodes. In all episodes actors, setting and action are included, and sometimes they also contain additional attribution. Again, the main event of an episode is at the beginning and the other information follows. This information can be divided into three categories: FOLLOW-UP, which covers any action subsequent to the main action of an episode, COMMENTARY in which comments and observations of the writer or news actors are provided and BACKGROUND which covers any events or actions prior to the main event. (Bell 170)

FOLLOW-UP is represented in all five newspaper articles used. A good and simple example can be found in the Sun article.

Al-Sadr’s men also hit oil production for the first time when they warned pipelines would be targeted. Industry chiefs immediately stopped pumping from the fields into Basra. (Sun line 17-18)

The first sentence includes the main action of the episode, namely Al-Sadr’s “men” hitting the oil production by warning to target pipelines. The next sentence shows the direct consequence of the former and is therefore a FOLLOW-UP. The FOLLOW-UPs, being present in all articles, do however differ in terms of complexity; Independent and Guardian ’s FOLLOW- UPs are more detailed, while the other newspapers keep them more or less simple. The use of COMMENTARY shows somewhat more remarkable behaviour of the different journalists. While Sun, Guardian and Independent work with detailed direct citations, the Mail merely uses small parts of what the news actors said, as the following example will show.

Last night, the situation in the city was “tense but calm”, the Ministry of Defence said. (Mail line 12)

The article in the Telegraph does not represent any COMMENTARY at all. This may be due to the shortness of the article, but is still a symptom of the simplicity of the article. BACKGROUND is finally represented in all five articles, being an essential element of writing news stories, because the writers often refer to earlier news reports and represent kind of a “history” of the news story, above all when the writer has to deal with a whole series of events. (Bell 170)


1 For a good summary of scripts and frames see Taylor 87-8.

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Linguistic Analysis of British Newspaper Texts on the Najaf Uprising
University of Hannover
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Stephan Schuster (Author), 2004, Linguistic Analysis of British Newspaper Texts on the Najaf Uprising, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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