Van Dijk’s News as Discourse revisited

One of the pioneering works in the study of news from a discursive perspective is Teun A. van Dijk’s (1988) News as Discourse. The book presents an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of news structures, news production processes, and news comprehension in terms of social cognition. Social cognition is a sub-topic of social psychology, which “attempts to measure the stages of social information processing or […] the mechanism by which social perception translates to social response” (Fiske and Taylor 2013, 17). Although proposed some three decades ago, van Dijk’s approach is still one of the most comprehensive approaches to the study of news, integrating linguistic, discourse, psychological, and sociological analysis. The theoretical framework proposed by van Dijk can be also constructive for research on news translation, a relatively new domain in translation studies. In fact, van Dijk’s theoretical discussions on the analysis of news products and news-making processes, as presented in the 3rd and 4th chapters, can be useful for describing translation product and process in news institutions. This blog post summarises these two chapters of van Dijk’s 1988 book and discusses their relevance to research on translation in global news organisations.

In the 3rd chapter of his book, van Dijk introduces some of the basic principles of discourse analysis and applies them to news texts. Syntax (i.e. sentence forms), semantics (i.e. meanings), and pragmatics (i.e. speech acts) are three main aspects of discourse that can be studied from micro and macro perspectives. Whereas, at a micro-level, news discourses are described in terms of forms, semantics, and speech acts within sentences taken in isolation, a macro-level of analysis accounts for the overall forms of discourse, the meanings of whole paragraphs or sections of written discourse, and the speech act accomplished by the whole text. From a cognitive point of view, semantic analysis looks at the means by which journalists aim to get their message across so that audiences are able to comprehend what is being said about a specific situation. A pragmatic analysis looks at how journalists want their audiences to perceive what has been said; for instance, was the message intended as an indisputable fact, a request or a warning?

News discourse is intent on persuading audiences that the truth is being reported. To achieve this, journalists substantiate their assertions with statements from reliable sources who in many cases are representatives of well-established institutions. As a result, news discourses often implicitly promote “the dominant beliefs and opinions of elite groups in society” (p. 83). Persuasion is therefore a major aim and function. Accordingly, rhetoric, or what and how things are said to convince the reader, is an aspect of discourse that can be studied in terms of content and form. The content aspect of rhetoric often involves argumentation, i.e. providing “good reasons and evidence” (p. 83) to enhance the chance of a proposition to be accepted by audiences. More or less independent of the content is the way propositions and arguments are formulated. Form serves the purpose of emphasizing content through text structure, such as hierarchical organization.

In the 4th chapter, van Dijk argues that journalists seldom observe news events directly, and that the information they use to produce news is often obtained from various “source texts” (p. 96). Hence, the analysis of news production should primarily focus on processing source texts. Also, it is argued that the processes of producing news discourses are primarily based on “situation models” (p. 106), rather than information input. A clear explanation of the term “situation model” is provided in another book from van Dijk (1987, 161), where he explains that discourse is about some fragment of the world which is called situation, and a model is “a cognitive counterpart of such a situation: it is what people ‘have in mind’ when they observe, participate in, or hear or read about such a situation”. In the process of news production, journalists select a particular situation, build a model of that situation, and convey their own model to audiences. This means that the various transformations of source texts (e.g., selection, summarization, stylistic and rhetorical reformulation, etc.) are model-based and involve group-based (professional as well as ideological) norms and values (van Dijk 1988, 118).

Researching news translation using van Dijk’s concepts

As mentioned earlier, van Dijk’s theoretical discussions on the analysis of news-making processes and news structures are pertinent to research on news translation. What has made several translation scholars (e.g., Kang 2007; Bielsa and Bassnett 2009) interested in the analysis of news production and product is primarily the linguistic diversity of information sources in news institutions. Van Dijk provides a categorization of different types of source texts which includes, for instance, reports from various organizations, articles published in foreign newspapers, and dispatches of national and international news agencies. This categorization implies that journalists produce news using the information that they gather from various linguistic sources, a process in which translation is indispensable. In fact, whenever the information input is in a different language from that of the news agency, various transformations of source texts occur either through translation or edition. Hence, translation constitutes an important aspect of describing the processes of news production.

The role of translation in the process of news-making cannot be simply defined as transferring information from one language to another. Translation is practised as part of the overall process of news production, which is geared to the goal of conveying a specific model of a situation to news users. In fact, journalists translate and manage the information in ways that can contribute to the establishment of institutional policies and ideologies. In this regard, a comparative structural analysis of source texts and translated news texts allows for studying the similarities and differences between the information that they provide to their respective target audiences and also the social responses that each specific set of information is intended to produce. Also, the fact that information sources in news organisations involve foreign-language news articles may imply two models of a given situation: one conveyed in the text used as the source of information and the other one built in the news item produced for a new target linguistic community. The analysis of news discourses from a translation perspective can also involve comparing two models of one situation, where models, according to van Dijk, serve to update the knowledge and beliefs that media users already have regarding a given situation.

Overall, van Dijk’s approach to the analysis of news production primarily as source-text processing sets the ground for enquiries into the role of translation in the production of news discourses. Furthermore, the various aspects and levels of analysis offered by van Dijk can be used for comparative investigations of parallel or comparable translation corpora. A translation approach to the structural analysis of news discourses allows for comparing the informative and persuasive functions of the translated sections of news discourses and their information sources. The results of such a comparative analysis could be linked to the institutional policies and ideologies of news agencies, and ultimately to the dominant norms and values governing the whole process of news-making as a social practice.