Constructing Readers and Writers
Whilst hardly new, it seems obvious that the current period in human history is marked by a tension between a desire to express views freely and the tendency on the part of some to declare opinion in ways that are widely regarded as offensive. Public discourse, the Marxist may say, is a site of struggle. One only has to consider highly publicized debates that emerged following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 or, at the time of writing, the political discourse of Donald Trump to recognize that what we say and how we say it is of potentially tremendous consequence.
Students of English A Language and Literature must be given the opportunity to engage with current debates, and their deeper underlying ethical and linguistic issues, if they are to develop into critically minded and compassionate men and women. Teachers must, in their classrooms, provide the opportunities for such debates.
With this in mind, the following lesson idea considers the ways that texts – here, newspaper editorials – construct identities for both writers and readers of texts. Students are encouraged to understand the linguistic strategies that seek to shape identities and subject positions. And, with this knowledge, students should be encouraged to engage judiciously with texts, recognizing that, as critical readers, they are far from condemned to accept any old rubbish.
The lesson begins with modeling a series of strategies – or ‘linguistic moves’ – that seek to establish a relationship between text producers and text interpreters, evidenced in a contemporary random sample of newspaper editorials from the British tabloid The Sun. Thereafter, there are opportunities for students to engage in limited research, applying their knowledge to other texts. In this way, it is suggested, students will gain wider insight into how public discourse is shaped and spread through the mass media. There are also opportunities to take the lesson for a ‘TOK spin’. The sample texts are below, and teachers should read these now.
Newspaper editorials, readers, writers, and texts: What students (and their teachers) need to know
Below, are a series of notes, considering some of the most salient features of the sample texts. However teachers decide to introduce the texts and concomitant ideas, it is unlikely that students will be able to ‘discover’ everything for themselves. Some explicit instruction is required, including the introduction of relevant terminology. Awareness of this terminology is not, of course, tantamount to understanding, but it does provide a vehicle for expressing understanding.
Readers and writers of texts are remote from each other. Those who write newspaper editorials (and other kinds of mass media text) do not really know their reader. Despite this, editorials often write with a voice that suggests intimacy between the writer/text and the reader. To do this, an imaginary reader is constructed; a form of narratee or idealized reader.
Let’s, now, consider how this is done in The Sun. Whilst The Sun has its own readily identifiable idiolect, many of the strategies it frequently adopts are commonplace features in many other text types.
Texts such as The Sun’s daily editorial (titled ‘The Sun Says’ no less!) use a technique that is often labeled as synthetic personalization. As the term, coined by Norman Fairclough, suggests, synthetic personalization seeks to establish the idea that the text producer and its reader know one another personally.
The Sun’s daily circulation, if it helps you to think about this, often approaches 2 million.
We think of speaking, most frequently, as a dialogic social practice (and we tend to worry when people talk to themselves!). Separated by space and time, text producers often incorporate adjacency pairs, such as questions and answers to interact with readers. In Text 1, for example, the first sentences are, ‘when is a pension not a pension? When it’s a War Pension and officials need an excuse for short-changing those getting it’. Although the writer both asks and responds in this instance, it is assumed that the reader knows, or at least agrees, with the response as a matter of simple ‘common sense’. In this way, the reader is encouraged to engage in a form of dialogic consent with the text producer.
The use of pronouns is perhaps the most obvious linguistic strategy through which text producers establish intimacy with readers. The pronoun you when used by a text producer has the effect of apparently addressing the reader – any reader – directly. Inclusion can also be signaled through the pronoun we. In Text 2, the introductory sentence begins, ‘there are few more chilling illustrations of the threat we face from Islamic terrorism than the revelation that the ringleader of the Paris attacks may have been in Britain just months ago’. Almost any reader of this editorial is apparently embraced by the claim, and is ‘at one’ with the writer. The same is true in Text 3, in the assertions ‘we should not tolerate Sharia courts…’ and ‘we should empower migrant women…’. However, the identity of the writer may shift within a text. In the above examples, we seems to suggest ‘one of us’. But we may also express a degree of exclusion. In Text 4, for example, the claim is made that ‘Prince Charles, we are astonished to learn is sent them all’. Indirectly, of course, the reader ‘learns’ this (i.e. Prince Charles is sent state secrets) too, but it is the writer, as part of a powerful media institution, who has ostensibly made this discovery. The writer positions herself as part of a larger, influential organization that has both the ability and power to uncover injustices.
Modality is crucial in establishing the identity of text producers. In Text 5, the reader is told that ‘the very existence of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team is a national scandal’. The declarative sentence contains no modal verb, and therefore we may suggest that the modality is unmarked. Nevertheless, the sentence leaves little scope for doubt, and we can therefore suggest that the modality is high. In the same text, the imperative sentence, ‘Defence Secretary Michael Fallon must halt this disgusting gravy train now’, does contain a modal auxiliary verb. In this instance, we can say, given the presence of a modal, that the modality is marked. And, the modality remains high, given the certainty expressed. In this way, both examples suggest that the speaker in the text is confident and authoritative. See this lesson for more on modality.
The identity of the text producer may also be signaled by the ways in which the words of others are reported. Several of the texts in this sample include what Norman Fairclough has called scare quotes. Text 1 refers to “compensation”, Text 4 to “being in the public eye”, and Text 5 to “crimes” and “evidence”. Not only do these quotations suggest that they belong, not to the speaker in the text, but to someone else, but that the speaker regards the quotations as problematic. Readers are required to infer, but it is fairly obvious that, for example, the “crimes” referred to in Text 5 are to be regarded as exactly the opposite of criminal acts.
A further strategy used by text writers to establish common ground between the producer and implied reader of a text is to mimic the vernacular of the reader. This can be seen, for example, in expressions such as ‘gravy train’ and ‘pen-pushers’ in Text 5. Students may be inclined to suggest that such simple, colloquial language is ‘easy to read’ for the ‘uneducated working man’ – or something similar. Maybe. But a more compelling explanation is that the inclusion of such language establishes solidarity between producer and reader.
We have seen, above, a few examples of the ways in which texts typically establish identities for the narrator and narratee of texts. The strategies described are commonplace and, in the case of The Sun newspaper, endemic to their editorial section. The small sample of texts reveals a limited field of interest for The Sun – might one say that it is ‘Britannia rules and Islam is a problem’, or something to that effect. Whilst some may take this view, others, including this writer, find such views abominable and grossly simplistic. It needs to be pointed out to students that texts do not, in the last analysis, position them. Students – and anyone else – have the autonomy to resist subject positions. Texts, in this view, have no fixed meaning. Working with the five samples, teachers may ask students to discuss potential oppositional readings.
Teachers may like to have students research a range of media texts, either from one publication, as here, or from a variety of sources, aiming to reinforce their appreciation of the relationship between producer and interpreter of texts.
Teachers may choose to provide the following guiding questions to scaffold this:
- Who is speaking to whom, and what pronouns are used?
- What identity or identities does the producer establish for themselves? Consider modality; how confidently are claims made?
- What assumptions are made about the reader? Is it presupposed that the speaker and reader share ‘common-sense’ views?
- How ‘friendly’ is the text producer? What vernacular or idiomatic features are used? What is the role of questioning, including rhetorical questions and adjacency pairs?
Links to Theory of Knowledge (TOK)
There are many ways in which teachers may develop links to TOK when working with the ideas and texts on this page. Teachers may ask students to consider the extent to which language influences thought. Since newspapers like The Sun have a mass daily readership, how and to what extent do they influence thought and action? This page has limited itself to the analysis of five texts. Probably, the ideas exemplified could be achieved through consideration of one, well-selected text. Alternatively, many more samples could have been considered. How much evidence then, do we need before we may arrive at any general conclusion? How provisional should we regard such conclusions?