News as Discourse

Article excerpt

VAN DIJK, TEUN A., News as Discourse Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1988. $29.95 cloth.

This book attempts the development of a "new, interdisciplinary theory of news in the press" (p. vii). It represents a very ambitious and somewhat speculative effort to weave together a broad range of existing news research approaches into a coherent, heuristic framework. Van Dijk succeeds in providing a useful summary of the literature in news research. Especially valuable is his discussion of recent European research. However, the overall framework is still at an early stage of development. Its utility remains to be demonstrated by future research.

For some time now, communication researchers have talked of passing paradigms and ferment in the field. With the decline of past paradigms, our discipline has been left with a hodgepodge of small-scale theories. This is particularly true in the area of news research where various narrative, discourse and information processing theories abound. Van Dijk's book may signal a new era, an era in which efforts will be made to integrate existing conceptual fragments into broader frameworks. His work may be seen as providing a model for others who seek to make sense of our current proliferation of theories.

Van Dijk's approach is centered in the tradition of discourse analysis, which evolved out of an integration of literary analysis and linguistics. However, he has aggressively modified earlier forms of discourse analysis in an effort to incorporate insights into the structure and interpretation of discourse derived from cognitive psychology. He is not content to simply apply discourse analysis to the evaluation of news stories. He recognizes the utility of constructing an approach which also considers the production of news by media practitioners and the interpretation of news by audience members. It is these broader concerns which set van Dijk's approach apart from previous analyses of news content.

A central concept in van Dijk's theory is the notion of story schemas, which are defined as implicit structures that underlie typical stories. These schemas permit the easy production of news and also facilitate its interpretation by news consumers. The schema concept is at once powerful and ambiguous. There is growing research evidence that demonstrates the utility of positing the existence of cognitive structures (schemas) in people's minds which are activated by content cues and guide interpretion of all forms of communication. The schema concept helps to explain why complex and seemingly ambiguous messages often are easily interpreted by audience members.

It also can explain why the same message can be interpreted in highly discrepent ways. If messages contain conflicting cues that lead people to activate different schemas, or if people don't share a homogeneous set of schemas, then it is likely that many contrasting interpretations of story content will be developed. But despite growing consensus concerning the utility of schema as a concept, researchers remain quite divided over both its definition and the type of research that will lead to the most useful findings. …