Discourse analysis of newspaper headlines: a methodological framework for research into national representations
by Christine Develotte and Elizabeth Rechniewski
Department of French Studies,
email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
The discussion of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in the discourse analysis of newspaper headlines which forms the basis of this research note, arises out of a study comparing the Australian and French press at the time of the crisis in Franco-Australian relations provoked by President Chirac's decision to recommence nuclear testing in the South Pacific in June 1995. This study formed part of a larger project: 'Xenophobia and xenophilia in Franco-Australian relations', undertaken by researchers from France and Australia and coordinated by Peter Cryle, University of Queensland, and Geneviève Zarate, ENS Fontenay/Saint-Cloud, which examined the representations of the two nations in a range of media over the months before, during and after the crisis. (1) To undertake the study of the press, a corpus was constituted from coverage of the crisis in both French and Australian daily papers.
One of the challenges posed by study of the press is how to arrive at valid conclusions, given that the time-consuming nature of discourse analysis makes it difficult to undertake the detailed analysis of a large number of articles. We thus sought a method which would allow us to gain an overview of an extensive corpus. The solution which we arrived at, the study of headlines, offers a number of distinct advantages which we outline in this article. A corpus of headlines facilitates quantitative analysis, for example, a longitudinal study of the frequency of headlines on a particular issue can reveal the evolution in the prominence given to a topic over time; a comparison between newspapers can reveal the relative importance each paper gave to an issue during a particular period. However this research note concentrates on the broader theoretical and methodological issues involved in using headlines in research and identifies the linguistic features which are typical of them. It argues further that headlines are particularly revealing of the social, cultural and therefore national representations circulating in a society at a given time.
Our research note addresses :
1. The characteristics which justify that particular attention be given to headlines in press analysis, namely:
- the prominence they acquire through diffusion;
- the role they play in orienting the interpretation of the reader;
- the shared cultural context which they evoke.
2. The constitution of a corpus of press headlines.
3. The typical linguistic features of newspaper headlines (using examples from our corpus).(2)
4. The identification of linguistic features relevant to the analysis of national representations:
1.Characteristics which justify that particular attention be given to headlines in press analysis
Headlines reach an audience considerably wider than those who read the articles, since all those who buy the paper will glance, if only fleetingly, at the headlines. Moreover their impact is even wider than on those who actually buy the paper, since headlines are often glimpsed on public transport, displayed on fliers etc. This is particularly true of front page headlines, which also of course draw the casual observer to conclude the importance of a particular issue which has been given prominence in this way. The impact of headlines on the reader is likely to be all the stronger because certain linguistic features of titles make them particularly memorable and effective: impact is deliberately sought (particularly but not exclusively in the popular press) through the use of puns, (3) alliteration, the choice of emotive vocabulary and other rhetorical devices. We will discuss some of these linguistic features in more detail later.
Perspective refers to the
role played by headlines in orienting the reader's interpretation of subsequent
'facts' contained in the article. As Claude Abastado argues (1980: 149)
headlines encapsulate not only the content but the orientation, the perspective
that the readers should bring to their understanding of the article. (4) With
much press news drawn from external news agencies and shared with competitors,
the headline is a newspaper's opportunity to stamp its individuality on what is
otherwise a mass-produced product. (5)
Headlines, as they succeed each other through the newspaper, structure a
particular view of the world by imposing on information a hierarchy of
importance: a hierarchy from top to bottom of the page; according to size of
headlines, font etc; and in order of appearance through the newspaper from
front to back. We add in passing that
this is even more true of section titles, which create
a rigid classificatory system that imposes (highly problematic) distinctions
between kinds of news items. For example, during the period of French testing
the reports in Le Monde were
sometimes shown under the section title '
Repetition both through
synchronicity (co-occurring headlines within one issue of a newspaper
) and diachronicity (repetition over time) 'trains' the reader to
develop certain expectations and imposes certain connections and interpretations.
Thus anaphoric references relate headlines to previous events and situations, creating forms of
classification that group under one heading possibly disparate phenomena.
Mouillaud and Tétu (1989: 120) give the example of the use of the rubric 'La
crise', an anaphoric reference to a general socio-economic situation supposedly
previously defined, yet whose exact definition and boundaries are almost
certainly unclear to most readers.(7) A
similar process is at work in the use of terms such as 'ethnic cleansing',
'violence in schools' etc. To speak of the 'proletariat',
or 'la Crise' or in our case '
Headlines are a particularly rich source of information about the field of cultural references. This is because titles 'stand alone' without explanation or definition; they depend on the reader recognising instantly the field, allusions, issues, cultural references necessary to identify the content of the articles. (9) They thus rely on a stock of cultural knowledge, representations and models of reality that must be assumed to be widespread in the society if the headlines are to have meaning. Common shorthand in headlines such as references to the 'PM', 'le Président', 'Canberra', suppose not only a certain minimum of political and general knowledge, but also help to situate the readers within a national framework, since they must assume that the 'PM' referred to is their own. We have explored elsewhere the forms of national identification that are revealed in headlines. (10)
The recognition by the reader of various types of puns and plays on words also relies on general and cultural knowledge. This wordplay is a very typical feature of headlines and is generally confined to the headlines and found far less often in the body of articles. It can take several forms :
- A play on double meaning :
Ondes de choc (Libération,
Testing times leave legacy of bitterness (Australian,
- References to specific historical events (the 'phony war' of September 1939-May 1940; Gough Whitlam's injunction in 1975 to 'maintain the rage') :
Drôle de guerre dans le Pacifique (Libération, 2/9/95)
Frustrated islanders try to maintain their rage (Australian,
or to specific cultural items such as the title of a
well-known book (The Grapes of Wrath)
or film (
merchants brace for the grapes of wrath (Australian,
Mururoa mon amour (Libération,
These references often involve the reworking of fixed formulae, a process which Fiala (1989) refers to as 'défigement':
Mururoa, son lagon, ses coqs, son Café de Paris (Libération, 29/30/6)
Les Français, la bombe et le mimétisme (France-Soir, 5/08/95)
(these headlines resemble the title of a fable by La Fontaine)
Australie : les raisons de la colère (Libération, 22/8/95)
Commenting on what he refers to as PVC, 'palimpsestes verbaux culturels' Robert Gallisson (1995) argues that such reworkings of linguistic and cultural forms constitute a 'conspiratorial wink' in the direction of the reader. They help to create and maintain a sense of shared community and collective identity. (11) More generally it is clear that this may be true of all the cases in which cultural knowledge specific to a certain society must be mobilised to aid understanding: successful decoding proves that the reader is an 'insider'. It is the particular characteristic of headlines that they rely to a greater extent than the articles themselves on the reader supplying the missing cultural links.
2.Constitution of the corpus
Analysis of headlines in the print media poses a number of questions in relation to the constitution of the corpus, notably :
- over what period the headlines should be collected;
- the choice of which newspapers to include : national and regional ? with different socio-economic readerships, political orientations etc ?
- the criteria to use in the choice of headlines. A simple keyword search, involving a list of words such as 'French', 'testing' etc. will not identify all the relevant articles and headlines, precisely because of the inventiveness of the headline writers.
The decisions become even more complex when the corpus is to furnish material for comparison between countries, as in the case of our project. These additional problems include :
-the need to constitute a corpus of similar size in each country : this may involve gathering headlines over periods of different lengths : in our case, there was considerably more press coverage of French testing in the Australian press, than of Australian reactions in the French press.
- the need to include newspapers with comparable publics in each country.
Our corpus was constituted of
headlines appearing over a period of one month (
The French corpus was
constituted from 5 national newspapers published in
As to the criteria used in the identification of relevant headlines, we included all titles heading separate articles - on front page and internal pages - which addressed the nuclear testing issue, including those where Australia or France were not mentioned directly.
3. Typical linguistic features of newspaper headlines
Previous research into
newspaper headlines has raised the question of whether similar features can be
found in the press of varying cultures and languages; studies have not however
involved headlines from a wide enough range of countries to allow for
conclusions to be drawn. According to Kniffka, quoted in
Mouillaud and Tétu (1989: 125) analysing Le Monde, suggest the following features as typical of headlines:
a) the suppression of spatial and particularly temporal markers;
b) the use of the present tense of verbs (where they are used) as opposed to - or in place of - any other tenses;
c) the replacement of verbs by nominalisations;
d) the suppression of declarative verbs and the disappearance of signs of speech (quotation marks; personal pronouns). (13)
These studies have helped us to identify certain recurring linguistic features of the headlines in our corpus. We are not aiming here, however, to provide an exhaustive account of the linguistic features of headlines in our corpus, nor to compare French and English headlines, although our corpus allows for this possibility. Because of our research into expressions of xenophobia and xenophilia, we have sought rather to identify those linguistic features of headlines which are of particular relevance to the study of national representations.
The term 'national representations' has been coined as an extension of Serge Moscovici's category: 'social representations'. In a 1973 foreword Moscovici describes social representations as: '[...] cognitive systems with a logic and language of their own. [...]They do not represent simply 'opinions about', 'images of' or 'attitudes towards' but 'theories' or 'branches of knowledge' in their own right, for the discovery and organisation of reality... systems of values, ideas and practices with a two-fold function: first, to establish an order which will enable individuals to orient themselves in their material world and to master it; and secondly, to enable communication to take place among members of a community by providing them with a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of the world and individual and group history'. (14)
In a later article Moscovici (1984) emphasises the role of social representations in constructing the knowledge systems on which we rely to interpret and react to events. He argues elsewhere that this 'knowledge' does not resemble the rational, reified universe of scientific discourse, but is a common-sense, consensual universe, into which have infiltrated, certainly, fragments of scientific knowledge, but in popularised and half-understood forms, and mixed with other types of knowledge. Generated and maintained in the realm of public discourse, social representations constitute 'a whole complex of ambiguities and conventions without which social life could not exist', and 'an implicit stock of images and ideas which are taken for granted and mutually accepted'. (15) Social representations, then, 'establish an order', they make the unfamiliar, familiar, enabling the new and the unknown to be included in a pre-established category; and they enable communication to take place, communication based on a shared code.
We use the term 'national
representations' to refer to the knowledge systems that encapsulate knowledge
about other nations and nationalities. The term can apply both to
representations of one's own nation, people and country, and to representations
of other nations. The interrelationship of
these two categories of representation, the contrasts and binary oppositions
that can be created, and the role played by representations of the other in
defining one's own nationality and identity, these are issues which we have
explored elsewhere (Develotte & Rechniewski 2001). In this article we have
given examples of representations of France and the French in the Australian
press, and of
4. Specific linguistic features relevant to the analysis of national representations
Designation: the processes of naming
Les kangourous n'ont pas de complexes (France Soir, 3/8/95)
All Blacks et surfeurs contre les essais (Libération, 10/7/95)
Les anti-froggies se calment (Libération, 1/7/95)
In all these French examples, the terms used to describe the Australian reactions are demeaning: one can hardly take seriously protests emanating from a people better known for their sport and their strange animals.
Similar processes can be identified in the Australian corpus:
As Jacques would say : "Let
them eat yellowcake" (title of Letters
In this example, the use of the first name robs the president of his authority; it is possible, too, that the name Jacques/Jack is not one that can be taken very seriously in English, since it recalls expressions such as 'I'm all right Jack'. Moreover the pun on yellow cake refers, of course, to the phrase supposedly used by Marie-Antoinette and inscribed in history as symbolic of her regal indifference to the plight of the poor; here it is mobilised to portray Chirac as an arrogant monarch indifferent to the opinions of the Australians. Such headlines only work, we suggest, because Australian readers are ready to interpret Chirac's actions as an expression of arrogance.
Two other aspects of the designation process are interesting in relation to the study of national representations : the processes of generalisation and personification. The examples above illustrate an extremely common procedure: designations such as 'the French', are used to refer to decisions and actions in fact taken by the French president, government or its representatives. This is a form of synecdoche, where the whole represents a part: in this case 'the French' represent the French political elite.
French refuse to parley or even answer phones (SMH,
(in fact the article refers to staff at the French Embassy)
French caught red-handed (Telegraph,
(refers to the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior)
La reprise prochaine des essais nucléaires français est vivement condamnée par les pays du pacifique (Le Monde, 15/6/95)
The nationality adjective can perform the same function: in the Australian press we find frequent references to the 'French tests' and the 'French decision'.(16) A similar process is at work in the use of the nation's name: as Moscovici (1984: 43) points out in a powerful article on social representations, naming a nation creates a fictitious entity which is almost invariably then personified:
L'Australie accuse la France de "bluff" (Le Figaro, 5/8/95)
Moreover the motives and
actions of these fictive entities are then frequently explained by recourse to
ill-defined terms taken from popular psychology such as 'inferiority
complex'.(17) Processes and motivations which may, perhaps, explain actions at
an individual level are thus attributed to countries, to provide explanations
of geopolitical phenomena. A further result of such a procedure may be to
associate all members of a nationality with traits of character or actions
attributed to the objectified national community, and thus to justify general
retaliation: witness the discrimination that took place against French people
A further feature of
headlines that tends to contribute to this kind of generalisation is the
suppression of spatial and temporal markers, a feature identified by a number
of the theorists already quoted: Mardh,
Why the French don't
give a damn (SMH,
Les kangourous n'ont pas de complexes (France Soir, 3/8/95)
illustrate both the use of the present tense and the suppression of spatial and temporal markers in headlines. These characteristics tend to place the event in a dehistoricised, static present. It is thus possible to read these headlines both as a comment on a current situation and as a description of perennial attitudes. Particular events or reactions are included in a series or class of events, creating unfounded generalisations. (18) Comments about the behaviour or attitudes at a particular time are thus transformed into statements about unchanging characteristics - in this case, about national characteristics.
It is clear that the processes of naming are involved in the appraisal of the other nation. But in addition to the analysis of designation, it is necessary to identify other forms of appraisal: adjectives, verbs, adverbs which convey the perspective of the writer.
In the headline: Heavy-handed
Chirac shatters rapport (Australian,
French examples include: L'Australie
A number of the features of
newspaper headlines that we have discussed can also be seen as examples of
presupposition. Dominique Maingueneau (1996: 67) uses the term ' le préconstruit'
to refer to those elements in discourse which are presupposed, which are
presented as self-evident and unproblematic. The 'préconstruit' is often found
in nominalisations: an example from our corpus: A president runs rings
around world nuclear consensus (title, Letters
Maingueneau (1996: 68-69) identifies two main forms of presupposition: the first is inscribed in the linguistic structure, the second derives from the relationship between the énoncé and its context and carries pragmatic significance.
Linguistic presupposition :
a. deriving from syntactic structure:
In the headline: Why
the French don't care (SMH,
Similar examples include: Why
the French insist on attracting world outrage (Australian,
Pourquoi les Français sont des connards (SMH 15/6/95 - in French)
Pourquoi l'Australie dit non aux essais nucléaires (Le Monde, 28/6/95)
b. deriving from anaphoric/cataphoric use :
Dare the French do it again ? (SMH,
Le Pacifique pour tous
This form of the implicit relates to the action or reaction expected of the reader and derives from the relation of the énoncé to its context, including the context of the discursive 'rules' which ascribe to certain forms of language, certain pragmatic functions.
Sending a frigate would maintain the rage (SMH,
The French lepers (Telegraph,
In the first example, the fact that information concerning the originator of the idea of 'sending a frigate' is suppressed transforms the headline into an appeal to the reader for agreement, if not action. The headline The French lepers can be interpreted as a call to boycott, avoid, or fear the French. It is difficult to draw a clear line between an informational headline and one which has a pragmatic function since much depends on the context and the readership. Headlines such as Boycott could help turn deficit round (SMH, 15/6/95) can be taken as simply informational, or can be seen as adding to pressure for such a boycott, presented implicitly as a patriotic and commercially sound act.
It is of course possible - indeed common - to find a number of forms of implicature in the same headline, as the following example illustrates:
: French arrogance explosive(Telegraph,
- that all French are arrogant, a presupposition that it is not necessary to argue because such a representation of the French will be 'recognised' as familiar and valid by an Australian readership;
- that French arrogance explains the decision to restart tests: the title supposes an explanatory link between a character trait and the decision to resume testing;
- that French arrogance is dangerous: the headline could imply a warning.
The power of all forms of implicature and presupposition derives from the fact that they remove what is presupposed or implied from direct contestation. A discursive 'sleight of hand' slips the presupposition as an established fact under the guard of the co-énonciateur. Presuppositions reveal what is likely to go unchallenged: the stock of national representations circulating in a society. The advantage of working on a corpus of French and Australian newspaper headlines is that it enables the researchers to suspend the 'complicity' which normally binds the reader to the national perspective implicit in the media. It is not easy to gain such distance, since, as Billig (1995: 12) argues, 'nationalism has seeped into the corners of our consciousness; it is present in the very words which we might try to use for analysis'. A comparative study of the two constituent parts of the corpus, belonging to different national traditions, encourages the questioning of the classifications and categorisations of the world which may appear self-evident to the nationals of each country.
The headlines in our corpus
offer a powerful insight into the national representations circulating at a
period of crisis in Franco-Australian relations: crises, Moscovici (1984: 54)
argues, are particularly revelatory: 'the character of social representations
is revealed especially in times of crisis and upheaval ... collective memories
are stirred ... the divisions between social representations appear unadorned,
private and public worlds become blurred.' In the case of the corpus of French
newspaper headlines we find constant associations of Australians with the sea,
with surfers, fauna ('kangourous') and sport. The representations are rather
impoverished: little knowledge about
Importantly, such representations provide the building material for the framework of argument, opinion and explanation that are constructed by the press around the events, as the headline 'French arrogance explosive' illustrates. We see at work in the headlines an extension of networks of representations, a reformatting of mental models, as new events are 'connected up' to existing representations in a process which Moscovici (1984: 27) describes as one of the essential functions of social representations: making the unfamiliar, familiar: through the process of anchoring: 'a process which draws something foreign and disturbing that intrigues us into our particular system of categories and compares it to the paradigm of a category which we think to be suitable'(1984: 29). Thus phenomena from daily life are assigned to pre-established sets and sub-sets, are compared to paradigms and prototypes (the latter often in the form of exemplary members of the group, or ideal types), in order to make the world in which we live meaningful, so that we can function within it and satisfy physical, psychological and social needs.
As we argued earlier, headlines draw at least part of their power and meaning from the pool of shared cultural, political and general knowledge on which they draw. Not only can they intrigue and awaken interest, they 'reward' the reader through the intellectual satisfaction gained in successfully decoding them. (20) They also reinforce the sense of belonging to a community, both through the references to one's own society and nation, and through stereotypical representations of other nations and peoples. The comparison of national characteristics is often held to be one of the constitutive factors in the development and maintenance of national consciousness; if the press provides one of the most powerful vehicles for such comparison in modern society, it could be argued that headlines - because of their diffusion and visual and linguistic impact - play a key role in maintaining the constant presence of these representations in our daily lives.
(1) A number of articles relating to this project can be found in the December 2000 issue of Mots, no 64.
(2) Headlines are shown throughout the article in smaller type.
(3) According to Pierre Fiala the use of puns has become widespread in media discourse, and particularly in headlines and subtitles. Fiala, Pierre and Habert, Benoît (1989) 'La langue de bois en éclat: les défigements dans les titres de la presse quotidienne française', Mots no 21, December, p. 83.
(4) 'Les titres sont le moyen
d'une mise en condition des lecteurs. En principe ils devraient annoncer le
sujet des articles; en fait ils servent d'accrochage et orientent l'opinion.' Abastado,
Claude (1980) Messages des medias,
Kniffka, Hannes (1980) Soziolinguistik
und empirische Textanalyse: Schlagzeilen-und Leadformulierung in amerikanischen
Billig, Michael (1995) Banal
(7) Mouillaud, Jean-François &Tétu (1989) Le journal quotidien, Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon.
(8) Charaudeau, Patrick (1997) Le discours d'information médiatique, Paris: Nathan.
(9) Maingueneau refers to this as 'encylopedic knowledge': Maingueneau, Dominique(1996)Les termes clés de l'analyse du discours, Paris: Seuil, p. 34.
(10) Develotte, Christine and Rechniewski, Elizabeth (2001) 'Expressions de l'identité nationale dans les titres de journaux: une étude comparative de journaux français et australians pendant une période de crise', in Malewska-Peyre, H., Tanon, F. et Sabatier C (eds), Identité, Altérité, Acculturation. Perspective francophone, Paris, L'Harmattan (in press).
(11) 'C'est donc ce qui donne aux interlocuteurs le moyen de se reconnaître, de baliser leur espace de communication. C'est aussi ce qui permet à l'émetteur de faire basculer le récepteur dans son camp [...]', Gallisson, Robert (1995) 'Les palimpsestes verbaux: des actualiseurs et révélateurs culturels remarquables pour publics étrangers' , Etudes de linguistique appliquée, no 97, jan-mars 1995, p. 106.
(12) Mardh, Ingrid (1980) Headlinese: On the Grammar of English Front
(13) '[...] le titre tend à effacer les marques du discours et à les remplacer par des marques de procès ou d'état', Mouillaud and Tétu (1989: 125).
(14) Moscovici, Serge (1973) foreword to C.
Herzlich, Health and IIlness: a Social
Moscovici, Serge (1984) 'The phenomenon of social representations', in Farr,
Robert M and Moscovici, Serge (eds), Social Representations,
(16) There are few examples of the use of 'The Australians' in the French corpus, reflecting in part the different roles played by the two countries during the crisis.
(17) In an article by Greg Sheridan published in The Australian, 15th June 1995, 'Why the French seek to provoke world outrage', Sheridan proposes an explanation of Chirac's decision by portraying France as an attention-seeking 'hooligan': 'Now, as nothing more than a troublesome middle power, the only way France can gain the sort of attention it craves is through perpetrating acts of outrage.' His article contains a number of references to the 'strange psyche of the French'.
(18) According to Mouillaud and Tétu (1989: 126): 'L'événement tend à se transformer en classe. Celle-ci produit une sédimentation du présent qui fait disparaître la dynamique de l'ouverture.'
Cryle, Peter, Freadman, Anne & Hanna, Barbara (eds)
(20) Gallisson (1995: 106) writes of this satisfaction in relation to the decoding of cultural palimpsests.