News talk: Investigating the language of journalism

News talk: Investigating the language of journalism. By Colleen Cotter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 280. ISBN 9780521525657. $32.99.

Reviewed by Louisa Buckingham, Sabanci University Writing Center, Turkey

This text offers an introduction to journalism and addresses how media practice influences the discourse and language of the news. Colleen Cotter adopts an approach that is informed by the traditions of sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, and linguistic anthropology. The research is based on C’s previous experience as a journalist in the US and on a broad array of data gathered from fieldwork, text analysis, and interviews with practitioners.

The book’s ten chapters are arranged in four sections (‘The process and practice of everyday journalism’, ‘Conceptualizing the news’, ‘Constructing the story: Texts and contexts’, and ‘Decoding the discourse’), a division which reflects the news gathering and production process. Each chapter contains numerous examples from interviews or journalistic texts, begins with a list of key points, and ends with a summary. A final conclusion is followed by a glossary and an index.

Ch. 1, ‘An interactional and ethnographic approach to news media language’ (15–29), situates the author’s approach within previous research on media studies and briefly describes factors that affect news discourse. In Ch. 2, ‘Craft and community: Reading the ways of journalists’ (30–48), C discusses journalism as a craft involving intersecting communities of journalists and recipients (readers or listeners), and journalists’ conceptualization of their craft. Ch. 3, ‘The ways reporters learn to report and editors learn to edit’ (49–64), explores how the skills developed as journalists are socialized into the profession, ranging from reporting, news writing, and editing, to issues concerning reporting ethics.

Ch. 4, ‘News values and their significance in text and practice’ (67–87), analyzes the treatment of newsworthiness in textbooks and by journalists. Ch. 5, ‘The “story meeting”: Deciding what’s fit to print’ (88–109), provides a detailed ethnographic description of the speech event of a story meeting (i.e. daily meetings between editors to discuss the news format of the subsequent day’s paper). Ch. 6, ‘The interaction-based nature of journalism’ (110–32), examines the interactive nature of journalistic practice, in terms of the journalist’s relationship as a participant in a community, with the audience, and the influence this has on evaluations of newsworthiness.

Ch. 7, ‘Story design and the dictates of the “lead”’ (135–70), discusses the design of a good news story, focusing on the ingredients of journalistic writing such as attribution, background, and crafting the lead. Ch. 8, ‘”Boilerplate”: Simplifying stories, anchoring text, altering meaning’ (171–86), explores the contextualization of news through the boilerplate technique, involving the repetition of certain material in stories that run for more than a day. A description of the features and the implications of choices made in the boilerplate is provided. Ch. 9, ‘Style and standardization in news language’ (187–214), examines the style and standardization of written and spoken news language, and news media’s insider attitudes towards language usage. In addition to the conservative and prescriptive approach to language use enforced by news editors, C also discusses language standardization as an opportunity for interaction with the audience (e.g. letters to the editor and language mavens), and as a means of forging links with the audience through using marked linguistic choices.

The final chapter, ‘The impact of the news process on media language’ (217–29), briefly outlines aspects of the news delivery process and discusses insights that a linguist may bring to the field of journalism.

News talk is suited to undergraduate students with some linguistic training, but with little or no background in media operations. Those with an understanding of the media world, but with little knowledge of how linguistics can contribute to the description of journalistic practice, may also be interested in the role that language plays in this profession.