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Specialised journalism & discoursal mediation: the sum of all its parts

Journalisme spécialisé et médiation discursive: la somme de toutes ses parties
Shaeda Isani
p. 9-25


Cet article se donne comme objectif d’étudier les différentes facettes du discours spécialisé journalistique. Il démontre que le journaliste, en tant que médiateur entre le spécialiste et le lectorat non-spécialiste est appelé à posséder une compétence discursive multiple. Cette compétence opère à différents niveaux de spécialisation selon le statut professionnel de l’interlocuteur: ses pairs professionnels, le spécialiste du domaine source et finalement le lectorat du journal. Dans cette perspective, l’article examine le rôle du journaliste en tant que médiateur discursif et les différentes stratégies d’accommodation discursive mises en œuvre. Pour conclure, l’article examine ensuite les différentes cultures discursives qui convergent pour influer sur le discours journalistique spécialisé.

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Introduction: scope of study

1The focus of this study is not what is often referred to as “journalistic” discourse. On the contrary, it posits that the immense subject diversity of a newspaper makes the notion of a generic journalistic discourse too fragmented to be tenable. A typical mainstream newspaper will possess columns devoted to such heterogeneous and disparate discourse-specific domains as international relations, politics, crime, gardening, cinema and theatre, weather and sports, not to mention special weekly supplements devoted to law, education, literature, etc. More a mosaic than a melting pot, a newspaper is made up of different domain-specific genres which possess their own discoursal specificity and co-exist within the clearly defined typographical borders of its columns.

2Such richness of media domain diversity counters the notion of “journalistic” genericity, as confirmed by Crystal:

The world of the media is an area where it is important not to confuse the ‘object’ with the language. There are newspapers; there is radio; there is television. But there is no such thing as ‘a variety’ of newspaper language; or of radio language; or of television language. The media reflect all aspects of the human condition, and make available to the public in many varieties of language already well known elsewhere, such as those associated with religion, politics, science and literature and the more topic-directed aspects of conversation (e.g. discussion, interview, debate, argument, letter). (1995:380)

3According to Bell (1993 [1991]:13), there are only two genres common to all types of primary mass communication media: news and advertising. In the absence of an “umbrella” journalistic discourse genre, two broad categories of specialised journalistic discourse may be identified. On the one hand, there are forms of generic discourse specific to a particular medium, as for example, newspaper headlines (Isani 2007 forthcoming), “Letters to the editor” (Mémet 2005), editorials (Magnet & Carnet, 2006) or obituaries, etc., concerning print media, or weather forecast bulletins concerning broadcast media (Crystal 1995:385). On the other hand, there are domain-specific discourse genres adopted by and adapted for journalism which stem from specialised domains such as scientific, financial, legal or sports discourse.

4Why then does the notion of journalistic discourse genericity persist? One explanation may be that, as with a synecdoche, the whole may be reduced to a part in that a highly identifiable and characteristic discourse specific to one component is extrapolated to encompass the entire medium. Such is the case with the elliptical style of print press headlines, for example, often considered as “typical” of journalistic discourse as a whole in spite of the high prevalence of grammatically standard headlines and text.

5Another explanation may be that discourse specific to breaking news – as opposed to features and editorials, for example – relating to international and national news, events, politics, etc., often subsumes other journalistic genres.

With the media, news is the primary language genre. It fills pages of the daily newspaper and hours of radio and television time. Even in broadcasting, where it occupies a small minority of airtime, news is seen by both media organizations and audiences as the focus of media content. [T]his is the most researched and arguably the most central genre. (Bell 1993 [1991]:1)

6In a departure from conventional genre and discourse analysis focus, we propose to situate our analysis one remove away from the text as a finished product and end result, and focus on the “journalist” as a producer of journalistic text – the “draft” submitted to, rewritten and amended by editorial staff – and the nature of the discourse skills which fashion such production.

7Though the findings presented pertain to journalists working in all media – newspaper, radio, television and internet – in the context of our on-going research project in the framework of the broad research group called RAJ – Réseau d’anglais journalistique – this study focuses essentially on British newspaper journalism.

1. Situational variations & specialised discourse

8Specialised discourse-related communication is far from homogeneous. It presents a number of pragmatic variables according to the “specialised” status of the interlocutors. Gotti (2005:25-26) identifies three principal types of potential interlocutors, the specialist, the learner and the layman. In an earlier discussion on scientific discourse, Mortureux (1986:72), defines three levels along the same lines: “[C’]est le domaine des sciences qui a fondé la tripartition entre discours scientifique, pédagogique ou didactique et vulgarisateur.

1.1. Symmetrical peer-to-peer communication: specialised discourse

9The first situation concerns domain-related exchanges between specialists of the same discipline. According to theories of genre and discourse community developed by Swales (1990), members of a discourse community communicate about commonly shared “content schemata” (the specialised knowledge) through commonly agreed “formal schemata” (the genre). Given the twin requirements of specialised knowledge and codified genre criteria for its transmission, it is a form of symmetrical peer-to-peer communication restricted to initiated members of the discourse community.

1.2. Asymmetrical specialist/learner communication: pedagogic discourse

10A second situation concerns an asymmetrical situation of communication in which a specialist is called upon to discuss his specialisation with non-specialists who are neither peer nor lay. One notable example, according to Gotti, is communication in academic contexts. The non-specialists referred to here are interlocutors whose domain-specific capital of knowledge schemata is in the process of being constructed. As such, this type of situation may be described in terms of a specialist addressing future members of his own specialised discourse community. Specialised discourse, accordingly, is an integral part of content schemata objectives and an object of metalinguistic/metadiscursive didacticisation:

[S]pecialised discourse is presented therefore in ‘disciplinary’ terms, to equip the reader with conceptual and terminological resources suited to the subject content; terminological features are addressed systematically, removing any ambiguity of the meaning of new expressions appearing in the discourse as a form of training for new specialists. (2005:24)

1.3. Dissymmetrical specialist/lay communication: popularised discourse

11The third instance analysed by Gotti describes a situation in which the specialist addresses the lay public on matters related to his field of specialisation. To accommodate his audience, the specialist “translates” [Mortureux (1986:73)] specialised terminology, syntax and presupposition into lexicon and syntax close to general language and presuppositions related to the everyday life of the layman: “[P]opularisations remain as close as possible to the primary culture and its language, introducing select terms in a way that replicates the semantic content of general language.” (Gotti 2005:24).

12How do such situational variations of specialised discourse apply to the production of journalistic text? The first step to addressing the question consists of identifying the journalist’s professional interlocutors, an all important variable. In view of the above analysis, these may be defined as (a) professional peers, i.e. members of his own profession (b) specialist source interlocutors and, finally (c) the target lay public.

2. Journalistic discourse and interlocutor variables

2.1. Professional peers: intra-professional communication

2.1.1. Peer-to-peer technical discourse

13The romantic notion of the dashing journalist reporting from far-flung exotic destinations is a stereotype which refuses to die even though today most journalists are desk-bound. However, whether independent or not, whether “roving reporter” or internet-reliant, all professional journalists are umbilically anchored to the “newsroom”. To a profession which is essentially centripetal in its mode of functioning, the newsroom is both hub and converging point and thus a symbol of professional belonging. This may explain why journalistic professional discourse, whatever the media, is often referred to as “newsroom discourse”.

14Intra-professional communication is based on a commonly shared discourse reflecting the technical needs and realities of the profession and is used and understood by all members of the discourse community, whatever their focused area of specialisation. This specialised discourse is primarily marked by the technical terminology of the domain subject. A common phenomenon present in this respect is the diglossic co-existence of two registers of specialised technical discourse, the formal and the informal, as the on-line Chemistry Encyclopedia explains:

Technical terminology exists in a continuum of formality. Precise technical terms and their definitions are formally recognised, documented, and taught by educators in the field. Other terms are more colloquial, coined and used by practitioners in the field, and are similar to slang. The boundaries between formal and slang jargon, as in general English, are quite fluid, with terms sliding in and out of recognition.​chemistry/​Technical_terminology

15In the area of journalism, the formal register of professional technical discourse is fashioned by the newspaper’s technical “back-office” activities, such as editing and printing, for example. As always, this technical discourse, if perfectly accessible to the “insiders” who make up the discourse community, remains opaque to lay “outsiders” as illustrated by such layout-related terminology as deck, banner, mast, lede, flag, side bar, skybox, budget, jump, gutter.

16This formal register is rivalled by a prolific and imaginative informal register. Often qualified as “jargon” due to its status as an informal and unrecognised adjunct discourse, this second level of journalistic discourse is a form of highly metaphorical, acronymic, technical and often self-deprecatory in-house slang. Television journalism is a prolific source in this field as evidenced by web-sites1 devoted to reporting and elucidating “newsroom jargon” or “newsroom conversation”. Some examples of such use are anchorette (“A derisive term for a female anchor who’s attractive, but inexperienced.”), anchor-pak (“A package that’s written by someone other than the anchor but has the anchor’s voice on it.”), bird (“Satellite used to relay TV signals.), cluster-buster (“Content that is used to put separation between something else, either unavoidable back-to-back packages in a newscast or especially long commercial breaks.”), grip and grin (“A photo opportunity with a candidate who shows up to shake hands, smile and go.”) and kicker (“A light story that ends a newscast”).

2.1.2. Intra-professional cultural discourse

17A second source of specialised discourse is cultural. Just as general language is embedded in the culture that fashions it, specialised discourse derives from its professional cultural substratum. If professional terminology is undeniably one of its defining features, the concept of professional culture extends to embrace such other domain specific areas as the organisation of the profession, its legends, heroes and villains, contemporary key players, shared professional experience and values, intra- and inter-professional relations, codes of conduct, etc.

18One example of the “insider” nature of professional journalistic culture is lay ignorance of the professionals, processes and procedures involved in producing the paper. How many readers are there, for example, able to identify the specific role and tasks of such key functions as editor-in-chief, circulation editor, editor at-large, news editor, section editor, production editor, sub-editor and readers’ editor?

19This professional culture works itself into specialised discourse as convenient linguistic shortcuts based on shared professional cultural references. Some examples of such intra-professional cultural references are “the blue pencil” to refer to the sub-editor’s corrections and requirements, “the death-knock interview” when reporters interview the recently bereaved, “the toy department” for the sports department of a newspaper, “lobster/dog watch” for working in the hours after the publication has gone to press, “pork” for material kept for later use, “a sacred cow” for news material the publisher or editor insists on printing, or “a blind interview” for an interview with an unnamed source. Reserved for communication between members of the journalistic discourse community, this form of discourse is not reflected in the journalistic discourse produced for extra-professional interlocutors, except in the case of metadiscursive journalism when journalists write about the media.

2.1.3. Absence of disciplinary journalistic discourse

20To conclude with specialised peer-to-peer discourse, we note the absence of a disciplinary discourse specific to journalism i.e. discourse related to the domain as an academic discipline. The distinction between professional and disciplinary discourse becomes clearer when viewed in the context of such areas as law, for example, where the discourse of legal texts is quite distinct from that of professionals such as judges and lawyers in the exercise of their profession, or again in medicine where medical researchers and teachers do not share the professional discourse of practitioners.

21In this context we note that schools of journalism define the language and cultural needs of the profession in non-specialised terms, such as “good command of English” and “good general knowledge”. This generalist approach is also confirmed by the fact that if “J-Schools” do exist, graduation is not required for professional accreditation. One careers website contributor2 goes so far as to recommend avoiding media and communication studies: “If you are choosing a degree, it might make more sense to choose a non-media degree. That gives you a specialism to write about and you can always pick up the media training later.”

2.2. The domain specialist: specialised communication

22Journalists are defined as either generalists – capable of “covering anything from high school football scores to the current state of the economy” according to the website of Michigan State University’s Journalism School – or specialists. The specialised journalist possesses a degree of expertise in a particular subject domain acquired either through degrees and/or experience, or is a professional who “defected” to journalism, as for example, former BBC Science in Action journalist Chris Westcott who holds a PhD in nuclear physics. Other typical journalistic specialisms are economics, medicine, science, agriculture, music, the environment, particular areas of politics or international relations.

  • 3 However, this example needs to be nuanced in view of recent research presented by Carnet & Magnet ( (...)

23Specialised journalists are rarely called upon to produce domain-specific specialised discourse targeting specialists. Contributors in specialised revues are seldom professional journalists as evidenced by the fact that The British Medical Journal or The Lancet, two British medical journals, require contributors to be doctors3. However qualified the specialised journalist may be to produce specialised discourse in his capacity as a former or affiliated member of the discourse community, in the context of professional exchanges with specialised source interlocutors he is essentially a receptor of subject-domain specialised discourse. However, he is not a “passive” receptor as members of the expert discourse community may be, since, in his Janus-like role of discourse mediator between source and target interlocutors, specialised discourse is a form of raw material to be constantly reprocessed and adapted.

2.3. The lay reader: mediated communication

24Journalism is often seen as mediation. The term “mediation”, however, needs to be nuanced since it is primarily used in relation to reconciliation of disputes and conflicts. Journalistic discourse as a form of mediation is not positioned between two adversarial parties with conflicting claims but as a facilitator seeking to bridge the factual and discoursal imbalance between different sets of interlocutors.

25Mediation in journalism is heavily influenced by two major factors: firstly, ideological bias which is a given underlying all human forms of mediation; secondly, the selection and elimination processes imposed by technical and time constraints specific to the profession which significantly impact journalistic discourse.

26Research in media studies has revealed profound changes in the ethos of journalistic information gathering and presenting. The traditional image of the “roving reporter” “chasing a lead” in pursuit of “a hot lead”, a “scoop” or first hand knowledge now applies to a small minority. Gone too is the culture of solo authorship. Bell reveals that journalists today “borrow” not only facts but also language; that “News language is frequently recycled. Text from a continuing story may come round again and again in little-changed format.” (1993 [1991]:58) and that “The smooth, unified surface of most news stories conceals a motley of origins.” (1993 [1991]:42).

27Furthermore, according to the same source, the notion of individualised text produced by a solo journalist has always been tenuous since journalistic text is, to a large extent, modelled on source interlocutors or texts:

[The] description of the journalist as sole originating author of stories is an extreme idealization. After all, the basic stuff of news is what people tell a reporter. Much of what a reporter writes is therefore paraphrased or quoted from what someone else said to him. That much is obvious, but journalists draw on written as well as spoken sources. Very few stories consist entirely of wording newly generated text by the journalist from his own observation or verbal interview. […] In addition, many stories contain material selected and reworked from documents generated by newsmakers or other media – reports, agendas, proceedings, transcripts, speech notes, news agency copy, newspaper clippings, press releases. (1993 [1991]:41)

28In view of such practices – called “churnalism” to denote journalism which consists of churning out rewrites of press releases – can the mainstream journalist continue to be regarded as a primary source of either information or text? Doubts about journalistic content and discourse being a product of cannibalisation and of “second-hand” nature are understandable. However, in the age of information technology this may also be an expected evolution. Abundant, ubiquitous and accessible information has transformed “the roving reporter” into a desk-bound internet browser and word-processing has turned him into a craftsman of text collation and collage, “a compiler and creator of text.” (Bell 1993 [1991]:42).

29What new light do these trends shed on the role of the journalist as a mediator between the “news” and the reader? One hypothesis may be that, given the strides in information diffusion and availability technology, the journalist’s role today is to mediate between the plethora and diversity of information and the news “consumption” needs, desires and habits of the target audience, as suggested by Bell:

When all that is said, however, the individual journalist remains the main channel where diverse sources converge into a single flow of copy. To mix the metaphor, the journalist gathers up scattered strands of information and weaves them into one text. (1993 [1991]:42)

30Such trends would seem to indicate that journalistic mediation today tends to focus more on selection of facts and knowledge rather than discourse. While this may, to some extent, be true, it does not significantly diminish the need to mediate between specialised discourse and the lay discourse of mainstream readership.

3. Converging professional discourse cultures

31Like most specialised discourse, journalistic discourse is a composite of several, often divergent, professional cultural substrata which impose their specific norms and expectations. The specialised journalist is the intercultural interface between five different discursive cultures: his profession, journalism; the newspaper or news outlet he works for; the subject-domain, the targeted readership and finally, himself. The pressures exerted by these different cultural substrata vary in degree from overtly prescribed to tacitly acknowledged or even unconsciously implemented.

3.1. Professional discourse culture

32Schools of journalism all agree that journalistic discourse must be characterised by simple, concise and grammatically and lexically normative language – a requirement that disappoints many students who seek to enter the profession largely for their language and creative writing skills. The London School of Journalism, one of the oldest in the country, offers a module devoted to “Improving your English” which defines its objectives in terms applicable to any form of general writing:

This course was written specially to help those who need to write straightforward, correct English. It is completely up to date in the use of current language and idiom. The course shows the best way to deal with the complexities and anomalies of the English language, and how to improve the style and content of written English. It teaches students how to avoid the traps and pitfalls of English grammar, and corrects common misconceptions of what is right and what is wrong.​

33The University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism adopts a more “specialised”, albeit nebulous, approach:

Effective journalistic writing often has criteria different from other kinds of writing. It must be clear yet sophisticated, artful yet free of obvious embellishments, it must establish a voice of its own, yet be a window to credible facts.​tww/​WID/​journalism/​journalismindex.htm.

34Inversely, and diametrically opposed to the notion of clear journalistic writing, is another characteristic often associated with journalistic discourse culture, the much decried government and political “doublespeak” inspired by Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four (1948) in which words are used to alter meaning. Leo, a journalist from U.S. News and World Report describes the trend in Journalese, the native tongue of newsgatherers and pundits (1994):

A cardinal rule of Journalese is that one must appear totally balanced and fair-minded while doing someone in. The Washington Post wrote of Senator Alan Cranston that while “he has in many respects been a classical liberal … he has often found ways to accommodate his belief to monied interests.” Similarly, no Journalese-speaker would ever suggest in print that Teddy Kennedy seems to be afflicted with male nymphomania. Instead they will remind us of Teddy’s problem discreetly. […] Foreign affairs Journalese has its own idiom too. […] Any leader of a one-man quasi-permanent government is referred to as a “strongman” or a “junta leader” while alive, a “dictator” thereafter.​year/​94/​6/​journalese.asp

35Other discoursal characteristics considered as specific to the profession are the classic 5W1H approach (who, what, why, where, when and how) and the sacrosanct “inverted pyramid” organisation of a news story which appeared in the mid 19th century and requires journalists to organise their text “top down”, starting with the most interesting elements followed by supporting information in diminishing order of importance. Profound changes in journalistic writing have since taken place, as, for example, the arrival during the 1960s of New Journalism which Tom Wolfe describes in its own characteristic style:

And yet in the early 1960s a curious new notion, just hot enough to inflame the ego, had begun to intrude into the tiny confines of the feature statusphere. It was in the nature of a discovery. This discovery, modest, at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would … read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. (1973:21-22)

36In spite of such upheavals, the “inverted pyramid” and other conventions continue to reign supreme and are still widely used by journalists and taught by schools of journalism all over the world.

3.2. News outlet discourse culture

  • 4 That these style guides specifically target journalists is debatable since they are available free (...)

37Another professional culture which strongly influences journalistic discourse is that of the specific newspaper the journalist writes for. This “in-house” culture is described in “style guides”4 published by different media news outlets and which contributors must abide by. Some well-known British examples are The Times Style Guide and Usage, The Guardian Stylebook and The Economist Style Guide.

38Style guides are exhaustive in setting out the norms of the paper’s own “brand” of language use. The Economist Style Guide’s introduction alone, for example, covers such a wide range of items as metaphors, short words, unnecessary words, active, not passive, jargon, tone, journalese and slang, Americanisms, syntax. Style guides are also prescriptive. An interesting vintage example is provided by the Guardian’s5 1928 edition of The Guardian Stylebook which not only stipulates which dictionaries are to be used by contributors but also the deviations to be observed e.g. “All words ending with “ize” in both dictionaries are spelled in the “M.G.” with an “s”, as specialise”6.

39Similarly, the following extract from The Economist Style Guide (2007) requiring its journalists to use “short words”, while confirming the profession’s cultural preference for clarity and sobriety, reveals a curiously ethnocentric and conservative trend surprising in a newspaper which prides itself on being a “wordsmith”:

Short words: Use them. They are often Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin in origin. They are easy to spell and easy to understand. Thus prefer about to approximately, after to following, let to permit, but to however, use to utilise, make to manufacture, plant to facility, take part to participate, set up to establish, enough to sufficient, show to demonstrate and so on. Underdeveloped countries are often better described as poor. Substantive often means real or big. “Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.” (Winston Churchill).​research/​styleGuide/​index.cfm

40The Queen’s English is, however, not a tenet common to all journalistic culture and other British newspapers adopt a diametrically opposed approach by claiming a more deviant culture of journalistic language use. One example is Britain’s most famous tabloid, The Sun, which prides itself on its dubious and offensive headlines – e.g. “Up yours, Delors” (1990) – and use of a distinctly popular register of language.

41To conclude on this point, the following joke currently circulating on the Internet provides humorous confirmation of discourse characteristic of specific news outlets:

Figure 1

Figure 1

How the media will handle the end of the world

3.3. Subject-domain discourse culture

42Specialised journalism – or writing in specific fields, as it is also called – is the intersection between journalistic and subject-domain discourse cultures. Journalists specialising in the hard sciences are often cited as examples of such fusion but other fields of specialised journalism present equally complex subject-domain discourse cultures. One example is financial journalism. Like scientific journalism, financial journalism is a media subset which requires solid grounding in the discipline’s specialised knowledge and conceptual schemata. Mainstream financial journalists are sometimes found wanting in this respect as Burton (2003), columnist for The British Institute of Contemporary and Political Studies, claims:

Ignorance is part of the equation. Financial journalists are often unable to bring any particularly strong analytical skills to bear on subjects under discussion. Few of them can make any sustainable claims to be “experts” on, for instance, the tricks of the accountancy profession or the bullshit of management consultants. They may be rather more numerate than some of their peers and they may have a higher boredom threshold when it comes to the minutiae of the financial world, but they are seldom in a position to challenge the assumptions and projections behind financial models. htt://

43This raises the enduring question of how specialised the discourse of specialised journalism should be, and its corollary, the profile of the readership targeted.

44The financial section of The Financial Times – “the stockbroker’s Bible” – clearly caters principally to business and financial professionals and produces specialised peer-to-peer discourse. The financial sections of more mainstream newspapers target a more complex readership profile. A preliminary remark to be made is that such sections seldom attract the merely curious reader as is the case with sections dealing with international or national news, the environment, health, the arts, etc. Secondly, given the diversity of finance and the complexity of each subset, interest is inevitably fragmented giving rise to what may be termed “pocket” communities of readership. One such example is related to the rise of “popular investment” and readers with “vested” financial interests and resultant specific information needs. Such readers possess a degree of initiation relative to their personal areas of financial interest which sets them apart from both specialist and lay readers alike, and calibrates the degree of specialisation of the journalistic discourse produced. Freelance, the National Union of Journalists online revue reports financial writer Willsher identifying one such pocket of readership as “little capitalists” and describing his writing for such readership as “a decoding operation, putting City and financial information into understandable language so people can make sense of personal investments, pension plans, insurance policies and savings” – the traditional role of the journalist as a mediator.

3.4. Lay reader discourse culture

45As already seen, generalist journalism consists of mediating facts while specialised journalism consists of mediating both facts and discourse. The specialised journalist’s role consists of receiving knowledge expressed in specialised discourse and transposing the same into the syntax and lexicon of the type and style of language used and recognised by the newspaper’s targeted readership. The BBC Science in Action journalist, Chris Westcott, himself a PhD in nuclear physics, as noted earlier, sums up the situation in an interview with Vuillaume (1997:653):

And so what we always try and do is to make the story understandable to everybody. The important point about Science in Action as a programme is that it is a science news and current affairs programme, and should be accessible to everybody as any other kind of news and current affairs programme would be. The only difference is that Science in Action deals with the scientific stories of news and current affairs whereas other current affairs programmes deal with politics and economics and social issues. […]. Having said that, it is […] difficult to turn what may be very arcane language, very complicated constructs, indeed very complicated concepts that you find in many scientific publications into something that everybody can understand. And that is the challenge and also the thrill in the job because if you do that well, you succeed, if you do it badly, then you fail.

46Speech accommodation theories – which study how addressors accommodate speech according to the interlocutor targeted – provide useful insight into the mediation processes of specialised journalistic discourse, notably with regard to the concepts of upward and downward language convergence. Applied to specialised journalism, the journalist’s speech, when communicating with the expert, would tend towards upward convergence since it accommodates to the specialised discourse of the expert. Inversely, speech produced for the lay reader would tend towards downward convergence, as the specialised journalist adapts his discourse to the everyday language of his reader. The final discoursal product may be described as downward divergence away from the specialised discourse of the expert and convergence towards the everyday language of the lay reader.

47A classic lexical accommodation strategy consists in textually embedded juxtaposition of divergent and convergent discourse as illustrated by these excerpts from The Economist: “Distressed-debt traders, who buy bonds no one else will touch, and turnaround specialists, who pull companies back from the brink…” (March 31st, 2007:77) or “The country’s terms of trade (the price of its exports divided by its imports)…” (March 31st, 2007:82). (My italics)

48A study of lexical accommodation in The Economist reveals inconsistent patterns of lexical accommodation according to the presumed degree of specialised knowledge possessed by its readers. In an article about finance and economy – the eponymous subject domain of interest to its readers – the newspaper seems to operate a somewhat random selection of specialised terminology it considers in need of lexical accommodation. Hence, in an article on corporate borrowing, (March 31st, 2007:78), terms such as “subprime meltdown”, “a percentage point”, “private-equity groups”, “loan securitisation”, “an underwriting fee” are considered accessible to its readers and benefit from no reader accommodation. Other technical terms, however, are the object of textually embedded metalinguistic aid placed within brackets: “… Moody’s says the spread (or excess interest rate)…”; “…second-lien loans (which give a lesser claim to a company’s assets than prior loans)…”; “…the biggest buyers of high-yield (or leveraged) loans…”

49Surprisingly, analysis of articles pertaining to non-economic areas suggests The Economist presumes a much lower level of content and discoursal schemata concerning general subjects as the following examples of reader facilitation in an article on twins would seem to indicate: “Most human twins are either identical (ie, sharing all their genes because they started as a single fertilised egg), or fraternal (coming from two eggs fertilised independently at the same time).” And a little further on, “One twin is male and the other is hermaphrodite – technically both male and female.” (March 31st, 2007:90). Surely an egregious case of unnecessary “dumbing down” in view of the readership targeted?

3.5. Idiolectal journalistic discourse

50To this mosaic of journalistic professional discourse culture can be added a fifth non-professional influence, that of the journalist’s ideolectal discourse culture, defined by Richards, Platt & Platt as:

The language system of an individual as expressed by the way he or she speaks or writes within the overall system of a particular language. In its widest sense, someone’s idiolect includes their way of communicating; for example, their choice of utterances and the way they interpret the utterances made by others. In a narrower sense, an idiolect may include those features, either in speech or writing, which distinguish one individual from others.” (1992:172)

51While idiolectal journalistic discourse is generally the hallmark of broadcast journalism – accent, intonation, signing-off signatures (Edward R. Morrow’s “Good night and good luck”, Walter Cronkite’s “That’s the way it was”), etc. – it is nevertheless also perceptible in print journalism, particularly in by-lined articles. Hence, Walter Winchell (1897-1972), a well-known American print journalist was famous for coining words (“cupiding” for romance) and Ernie Pyle (1900-1945), another American print journalist wrote his columns in an inimitable “folksy and chatty” style. Humour is equally a journalistic hallmark and we note The Economist’s tongue-in-cheek titling of letters to the editor. In a broader perspective, other journalists are identified with more dubious editing practices such as “Dowdification” after New York Times’ journalist Maureen Dowd who was accused of altering quotations to change their import.

Conclusion: other professionals of discoursal mediation

52The journalist’s role as a mediator of knowledge and discourse may be extended to other professions, such as doctors and teachers, for example. Vuillaume (1997:656) in particular, suggests a parallel with that of the ESP teacher. Lato senso such a comparison is tenable in that the ESP teacher is called upon to mediate content and discourse. Stricto senso, however, it may be argued that even in the case of the numerous ESP teachers who possess a degree of specialised content schemata to qualify as subject-domain specialists – like translators and interpreters, for example – their primary focus bears on English (or Italian or German) as a foreign language and ensuing cross-linguistic considerations. In this respect, “ordinary” teachers of economics, law, history, physics, philosophy, etc., come closer to being mediators of knowledge and discourse in the same line as journalists.

53In light of this, a relatively new profession deserves its place in this debate: the author of specialised thrillers or what is now called FASP, or fiction à substrat professionnel. (Petit 1999, Isani 2004), a recently identified literary genre in which fictional suspense is embedded in and dependent on the practices and procedures of a profession. Some typical contemporary FASP authors are John Grisham (American legal FASP), John Mortimer (British legal FASP), Robin Cook (American medical FASP), Tom Clancy (techno-military FASP), Iain Pears (Art FASP), Kathy Reichs (Forensics FASP) and, last but not least, Denise Mina (British journalistic FASP). One of the distinguishing characteristics of FASP authors is that, with rare exceptions, they are or have been members of the profession they instrumentalise for their fictional writing: John Grisham is a lawyer, John Mortimer was a practising barrister, Kathy Reichs is a forensics expert, Iain Pears has a degree from Oxford in the History of Art, etc. Others use extensive research such as Denise Mina who is an academic researcher herself or Tom Clancy and Arthur Hailey who hire professional researchers. Such authors may legitimately be considered as discoursal mediators since one of the generic characteristics of FASP novels is the gap between specialised discourse and everyday layman English as this telling excerpt from Robin Cook’s Shock illustrates:

“I’d like the web server to recognize and authenticate us,” David said. “Then we’d have the run of all their files. What I’m going to try now is to fill up the buffer on their new patient form and see if I can throw in some assembly-level commands in the space after the buffer to bypass the authentication. It’s like riding in through the CGI on the patient-form coattails.”
“Could you tell me that in English?” Deborah said.
David looked up to Deborah’s face. She was watching over his left shoulder. “I was actually simplifying the process when I just described it.” (2001:105)

54Other professions no doubt have a claim to discoursal mediation. In conclusion, however, it may be worth elevating the debate to more divine heights by suggesting that one of the earliest professions entitled to lay claim to the title of discoursal mediator is undoubtedly that of the priesthood in its role as mediator between God’s Word and His people…

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1 Newsroom Jargon


3 However, this example needs to be nuanced in view of recent research presented by Carnet & Magnet (2006), analysing a corpus of 200 editorials from The Lancet and The British Medical Journal. Their analysis suggests that the discourse and content of the editorials of these two specialised revues target an audience beyond the immediate community of medical and paramedical practitioners as, for example, journalists and other indirect stakeholders.

4 That these style guides specifically target journalists is debatable since they are available free online. Furthermore, if certain aspects of The Times Style Guide and Usage do indeed target journalists – don’t say “adult literature” but “pornography” – other aspects appear to target an undefined readership as illustrated by the following extract regarding one of the basic legal institutions of the land :
“Criminal cases : Most of these are dealt with by magistrates’ courts, presided over by magistrates, who are lay justices (JPs). The busiest have full-time paid judges, formerly called stipendiaries but now known as district judges (magistrates’ courts). Refer to them simply as District Judge Joe Smith etc. The more serious criminal cases are heard in the Crown Court, of which the most famous (in the City of London) is the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey (either form acceptable). Always cap Crown Court and never use crown courts in the plural.” article986718.ece.
Directives such as « Refer to them as District Judge Joe Smith”, “Always cap Crown Court” etc., clearly target the journalist, but factual details like “… magistrates, who are lay justices (JPs).” belong to the domain of nationally shared content schemata and as such are surely out of place with regard to professional British journalists.

5 Then The Manchester Guardian.


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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende How the media will handle the end of the world
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Shaeda Isani, « Specialised journalism & discoursal mediation: the sum of all its parts », Cahiers de l’APLIUT, Vol. XXVI N° 3 | 2007, 9-25.

Référence électronique

Shaeda Isani, « Specialised journalism & discoursal mediation: the sum of all its parts », Cahiers de l’APLIUT [En ligne], Vol. XXVI N° 3 | 2007, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 16 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/apliut.1893

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Shaeda Isani

Shaeda Isani est Professeur des universités à l’Université Stendhal Grenoble 3 où elle enseigne dans le département d’anglais appliqué de la filière LEA. Ses domaines de recherche sont la didactique des langues et cultures spécialisées.

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