How neutral? Journalists taking a stance in political news interviews

Live interviews with politicians on Greek news

Evening news is largely offered to Greek national audiences through the process of live conversation among journalists, or between journalists and politicians, appearing in a visual format of multiple electronic ‘windows’ (Patrona 2009), as in the photo below:

 

Mega channel: central news bulletin (anchor at the top centre)
Mega channel: central news bulletin (anchor at the top centre)

Mega channel: central news bulletin (anchor at the top centre)

My research in Greek commercial political news interviews from 2005 to date has revealed that the interviewer’s stance of professional neutrality, traditionally viewed as a universal journalistic practice in the Anglo-American literature, needs to be re-examined. More specifically, the analysis of discourse and conversation in Greek news programs has brought to light manifest deviations from the interviewer’s cautious communicative stance.
In the following extract from a news interview of the vice-minister of labour, the journalist (K) challenges the vice-minister on the grounds that he has failed to fulfil his pledge to appoint new doctors at two branches of I.K.A. (Institution of National Insurance):

Extract 1

(G: Gerasimos Giakumatos, vice-minister of labour; K: panel journalist and editor)

14 K      no – eh eh friend Gerasimos, [my friend -] my>>
15 G      [this week,]
16 K      >>friend – [my sweet friend, =
17 G      [they were hired
18 G      = no ( ) one moment – one moment – and
19         [seven hundred doctors –Nikos,=
20 K      [don’t – don’t go on -]
21 K      = don’t go on – =
22 G      = one moment I’m finishing – =
23 K      you haven’t been well informed

Lines 14-23 come from an extended disagreement between K and the vice-minister. In line 14, K intercepts the vice-minister’s previous turn in a distinctly informal tone. The use of the vice-minister’s first name followed by ‘(my) friend’ shows familiarity (‘no – eh eh friend Gerasimos, my friend – my friend – my sweet friend,’), creating a type of discourse untypical of the formal occasion of prime-time news. In lines 20-21, K escalates the challenge, continuing his talk in the informal second-person-singular form of address (‘don’t – don’t go on’ / ‘mi – mi sineçizis’), while, in line 23, he directly accuses the vice-minister of ignorance (‘you haven’t been well informed’). Register shifts to the colloquial language serve the rhetoric of persuasion, aiming at emotionally involving the audience in the discourse (Patrona 2009).

In addition to face-to-face interviews with politicians, the Structured Panel Discussion (Patrona 2012) involves multi-party live interaction between the anchorperson and a panel of political commentators. In contrast to the conventional news interview, here, political actors and news protagonists are talked about in the news studio, but are notably absent.

In the news excerpt below from MEGA channel news, the panel journalists criticize politicians for spreading rumours about early parliamentary elections. At the beginning of 2009, there were widespread rumours that the New Democracy prime minister would call early general elections in the hope of securing a fresh mandate for economic reform. The journalist (P) takes a stand against those disseminating “election talk”, on the grounds that early elections would harm the country’s already embattled economy:

Extract 2
(P: panel journalist)

8 P     yet, because I don’t like ((lit.)) chewing my words, (.) whoever today, talks,

9        or thinks about elections in Greece, does enormous, harm, to the country … ((turns omitted))

15      whoever talks and whoever thinks, (.) is committing a major national faux

16      pas (.) because it is impossible, (.) for someone to watch the news bulletins,

17      from the tenth minute onwards, (.) and not see all that we showed, in the

18      beginning (.) it is impossible, for politicians today in Greece to behave –

19      talking or thinking about elections, as if they live in a cage, as if they live in a

20     glass, as if they live in a laboratory, protected from all that happens in the

21      world (.) so – this, personally, allow me to say this, I consider, unacceptable

In lines 15-21, P upgrades his criticism in the same categorical tone. Again, his point is cast in the form of statements conveying certainty (‘whoever talks and whoever thinks, ((pause)) is committing a major national faux pas’, lines 15-16). The same rhetorical effect is achieved by repeating ‘it is impossible’ (lines 16, 18). In lines 18-21, through a three-part simile marked by the repetition of ‘as if they live’, the journalist accuses politicians of being detached from the commonsense world of viewers: ‘as if they live in a cage, as if they live in a glass, as if they live in a laboratory, protected from all that happens in the world’ (lines 20-21).

In line 8, the panelist takes a personal standpoint (‘because I don’t like’) and resorts to the idiomatic expression ‘to not chew ones words’ meaning ‘to speak directly, openly’, while portraying himself as an outspoken critique of what he sees as political misconduct (‘whoever today, talks, or thinks about elections in Greece, does enormous, harm, to the country’, lines 8-10).yet, because I don’t like ((lit.)) chewing my words, (.) whoever today, talks, or thinks about elections in Greece, does enormous, harm, to the country … ((turns omitted)) whoever talks and whoever thinks, (.) is committing a major national faux pas (.) because it is impossible, (.) for someone to watch the news bulletins, from the tenth minute onwards, (.) and not see all that we showed, in the beginning (.) it is impossible, for politicians today in Greece to behave – talking or thinking about elections, as if they live in a cage, as if they live in a glass, as if they live in a laboratory, protected from all that happens in the world (.) so – this, personally, allow me to say this, I consider, unacceptable

In line 21, once more, he foregrounds, his personal opinion as an expert analyst, in a resonating critique of politicians: ‘this, personally, allow me to say this, I consider, unacceptable’.

As the extract illustrates, the journalists’ monologues function much as opinion articles in the print press. They aim at the audience’s identification with the views expressed by means of an elaborate, ‘poetic’ rhetoric.

Conclusion

The Greek versions of the political news interview illustrate the need to re-examine modern journalistic standards of impartiality, by taking into account the contextual properties and special characteristics of different socio-cultural settings.
On the whole, live interaction on the news serves as a vehicle for expressing different journalist views. Journalists portray themselves as experts (Patrona 2005). Furthermore, they are allowed the communicative space to make their stance transparent to the viewing public, unlike the older practices of public service broadcasting, and the formal ‘question-answer’ flow in political interviews. These conversational practices reflect the empowered role of Greek media vis-à-vis political authority (see also Patrona 2006, 2009), and lead to the formation of public opinion via projecting concrete ‘readings’ of political actions and events, at the expense of alternative ones, in the process of creating entertaining programming. Journalists not only render their personal involvement transparent; they also mobilise an array of rhetorical resources as means of holding politicians to account, while achieving persuasive impact on the audience.

In sum, I have tried to illustrate that, by focusing on the conversational practices of journalism, research can shed light on the socio-cultural processes at work in the media and the wider society, and the ways in which these are brought to life in media discourses and interactions.

Appendix

Transcription conventions

The transcription symbols used in the conversational excerpts are the following:

[                         onset of overlapping talk on two successive utterances
[

]                         offset of overlapping talk on two successive utterances
]
>>                     continuous utterance by the same speaker with no actual break, which is cut in order                            to accommodate the placement of overlapping talk.

=                        continuous utterances
(( ))                    editorial comments, transcriptionist’s description
(.)                       pauses of less than 0.1 seconds
,                         continuing intonation
Underlining     signals that the word or segment is delivered with a marked intonation.
–                         an abrupt cut-off or self-interruption of the sound in progress
( )                       inaudible or unintelligible word/utterance

Abbreviation
lit.                       Literally

References

Patrona, Marianna. 2012. Journalists on the news: the Structured Panel Discussion as a form of broadcast talk, Discourse & Society 23(2): 145-162.
Patrona, Marianna. 2009. ‘A mess’ and ‘rows’: evaluation in prime-time TV news discourse and the shaping of public opinion. Discourse & Communication 3(2), 173-194.
Patrona, Marianna. 2006. Conversationalization and media empowerment in Greek television discussion programs. Discourse & Society 17(1), 5-27.
Patrona, Marianna. 2005. Speaking authoritatively: on the modality and factuality of expert talk in Greek television studio discussion programs. Text 25(2), 233-267.

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