Ideological Language in Newspapers. A Comparison of Presentations of the Petraeus-Case

Essay, 2012

5 Pages, Grade: 1,7



From left-wing to right-wing

Ideological language in newspapers

Newspaper headings like “David Petraeus: run to ground” and “For Petraeus, echoes of other warrior David” raise the question: why are there different ways to report on the same event? According to Annabelle Mooney in Language, Power and Society different “representations are often the result of particular habitual ways of thinking.” (Mooney, 35) Both headlines emphasize different aspects by giving more or less importance to particular words. These differences in reporting on the same issue reflect on distinct ideologies various newspapers represent. In pursuance of Mooney, in language, “ideologies work like filters, changing the way things are represented according to the values of the ideology.” (Mooney, 36) But how is ideology expressed through language? The French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault considers language as ‘discourse’, which implicates that language is always something mediated, it is a discursive practice. Language which is used to express knowledge and to mediate information is always determined by the ideology of the authority using it. In order to capture the predominance of ideology in newspapers being expressed through language and content aspects, we will compare four articles from different newspapers dealing with the resignation of the former CIA Director David Petraeus on November 9, based on an extramarital affair with his biographer.

The first article “David Petraeus: run to ground”, published on November 14 is from The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper; here a left-wing attitude is expressed through language. The article is mainly written in a formal and complex language (“physical prowess amid a group”), therefore rather addressing intellectual readers. The Guardian strongly criticizes the National Security Agency, as it was not able to keep the affair a secret and retain control (“are they running the system, or is it now running them?”). It also strongly disagrees with Petraeus' political actions, for example his military strategies (“Mr Petraeus played a key role in convincing his president to repeat in Afghanistan the same counter-insurgency formula used in Iraq[...].”) as well as the indispensable role he created for himself, making it possible for him to gain power (“[…] fashioned for himself a role, which is much more significant than top generals have”). In the end, the article emphasizes on the misplacement of a personality such as Petraeus in important positions (“should […] top Pentagon generals have dominated wiser heads in State Department [...]?”) and formulates this as a caution (“let us hope the real lessons are learned”). These aspects show that The Guardian is a left-wing orientated newspaper with a political influence on its reader. It should also be mentioned that in a vote on the newspapers' website, most readers of The Guardian think this love affair should not be the cause of Petraeus' resignation. Looking at this article, one can see that there is no reference to the actual love affair; it concentrates on the political aspects of this issue only.

In contrast to the previous article’s left political leaning, the second article entitled “Holder, Mueller face mounting questions on why Petraeus probe kept under wraps” which was published on on November 14th conveys a right political ideology and gives an account of the Petraeus affair from a military perspective. Both are enunciated by means of language which is determined by this ideology and analysed in the following paragraph. Already the article’s heading reveals that its main concern is the question why the affair had been kept secret which as a result has raised a great amount of questions. The word “mounting” which is used here, accentuates this consequence whereas the expression “kept under wraps” hints at the critical attitude of the article. Throughout the text the reader comes across phrases such as “fired off letters […] demanding answers” and “openly questioning” which illustrate the importance of the issue. Furthermore, one finds several expressions which additionally emphasize the fact that the Pentagon has not been informed: “The White house insisted that it was not aware […]”, “Holder should have notified the White House […]”, and “President Obama was surprised”. These passages, contrary to the ideology of the article from the Guardian, lay open an obvious negative and alarming attitude towards the situation implying that such issues should urgently be clarified early enough. It is repeated twice that the Petraeus probe might have had an “impact” on Petraeus’ decisions and statements about the “Libya terror attack”. In essence, the article on critiques Eric Holder’s and Robert Mueller’s approach to the situation implying that such an affair has a great impact on political and military decisions and it is a unacceptable negligence not to inform the White House at once.

In the third article “For Petraeus, echoes of other warrior David”, published on November 14th, 2012, the conservatively oriented newspaper USA TODAY reports on David Petreaus’ adultery with his biographer Paula Broadwell from a religious and military perspective. On the level of content, the first half of the article focuses on the comparison of Petraeus to the biblical character “King David” who committed adultery, too. The author describes King David as “another proud and powerful warrior” and states that the Bible considered King David except for his single sin of adultery as a devout man. In the second half of the article on the one hand the author includes several statements from political and military personalities that refer to essential morals of military which condemn adultery and the statutory duty senior officers underlie. On the other, some of the chosen statements excuse the conduct of men in military affairs such as in the case of Petraeus. These statements emphasize conservative ideological ideas as well as the conservative orientation of the newspaper since the issue of Petraeus is looked at through the value judgments of the Bible and the military. The content aspects mentioned are underlined by linguistic means. The author employs strong adjectives with positive connotation, such as “proud” and “powerful” to characterize the biblical figure of King David to whom David Petraeus is compared. In the last paragraph which mostly conveys the main message of the article an evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson is quoted. Robertson accuses Paula Broadwell to have seduced Petraeus by “throwing herself at him”, which is a subjective negatively connoted way to refer to an issue.

Finally, and in contrast to the previous ideologies, language also can be voiced in a nearly non-political, but populist and polemic way, likely to read in “The Sun”, a British tabloid newspaper which targets large print run, without attending objectivity or political background to render them interesting for populace. Regarding the dimension of content in the article “Love rat war hero quits as boss of CIA”, published on November 10th, 2012, the focus lies on the basic information of the Petraeus Affair and particularly the superficial aspects come to the fore. Both, the political career of Petraeus (“who led allied forces in Afghanistan“) and the professional background Paula Broadwells’ („his biographer [...] [who] spent a year working with him in Afghanistan“) are only touched upon briefly. The description of Broadwell also limits to her physical and familial attributes, see “[a]tractive brunette “and” married mum-of-two“. On the linguistic, more precisely on the semantic level, the author works with easy, lurid words and buzzwords, such as “cheating” for having an affair, “mistress” instead of Paula Broadwell’s name or “boss” for „director“. Especially the colloquial term “[l]ove rat” operates as an eye-catcher within the heading. Also, the simple sentence structure, like “Petraeus and his wife have a son and a daughter” allows to conclude that the article is written to reach the mass-market. Deductively it is to say that the linguistic instruments of this article, like by the commitment of plain language and the limitation to spectacular information, are only used to satisfy the readers’ sensationalism. Due to the minimal presentation of facts and the commitment of colloquial expressions, the article does not appear objective. As well through the little alluded political and professional backgrounds, it seems like the target audience is not interested in politics, what emphasizes the almost non-political, populist and polemic way to express language.

After having looked at four different newspaper articles which deal with the ‘Petraeus affair’ we can conclude that in spite of reporting on the same event, every single newspaper conveys a distinct ideology expressed in language. Syntactically, these different attitudes are reflected in the choice of words and the usage of different expressions and styles: they strongly vary from article to article ranging from rather formal and complex to colloquial and lurid. Semantically, the newspapers demonstrate different positions by focusing on certain aspects of the issue being dealt with. Whereas the article, for instance, relates to the timing of the notification, the article which appeared in USA Today exclusively concentrates on religious aspects comparing Petraeus to a biblical figure. All in all, one can state that language in newspapers is not a pure reflection of reality but rather mediates reality from different perspectives.

Works cited

Burke, Daniel. “For Petraeus, echoes of other warrior David.” USA Today Online. 14 Nov. 2012. 25 Nov. 2012. /11/14/petreaus-king-david/1705321/.

"David Petraeus: run to ground." The Guardian Online. 14 Nov. 2012. 24 Nov. 2012 <>.

Herridge, Catherine and Pergram, Chad. “Holder, Mueller face mounting questions on why Petraeus probe kept under wraps.” 14 Nov. 2012. 23 Nov. 2012.

Holborow, Marnie. The Politics of English. London: SAGE Publications. 1999.

Mooney, Annabelle, et al. Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge. 2010.

Samson, Pete. "Love rat war hero quits as boss of CIA." The Sun Online. 10 Nov. 2012. 22 Nov. 2012.


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Ideological Language in Newspapers. A Comparison of Presentations of the Petraeus-Case
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik)
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Media, Language, Analysis, ideology, newspaper, petraeus, cia
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Anonymous, 2012, Ideological Language in Newspapers. A Comparison of Presentations of the Petraeus-Case, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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