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AUTHOR: Alan Durant TITLE: Meaning in the Media SUBTITLE: Discourse, Controversy and Debate PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2010
Seth Knox, Department of Modern Languages & Cultures, Adrian College, MI, USA
Alan Durant's ''Meaning in the Media'' is an exploration of what he terms ''meaning troublespots'' in public discourse and the meaning disputes that result. Approximately half the book is devoted to theoretical considerations of meaning, followed by two chapters on cultural and institutional frameworks for resolving meaning disputes, and closing chapters devoted to the legal resolution of defamation, disputed advertising claims, offensive discourse, and internet communication.
The three overarching questions of the book are summarized in the introduction: 1) ''Why are competing interpretations put forward so often about media discourse?''; 2) ''How are alternative interpretations in contention questioned and evaluated?''; and 3) ''What obstacles stand in the way of arbitration or settlement?'' (3; page references are from the paperback edition). In addition to outlining the structure of the book, the introduction makes two critical points that resurface throughout later chapters: 1) It can be challenging for linguistic theory to inform arbitration when legal professionals often dismiss linguistic expertise as mired in theoretical minutia; 2) The rapid advancement of communication technology has led to unprecedented levels of participation in meaning making and the development of a culture of public dispute over meaning in the media.
Chapter 1 distinguishes informal conflicts of interpretation (as is common in private conversation) from potential meanings in the media that are actively and publicly disputed and may involve formal arbitration procedures. This distinction is especially helpful for understanding why formalized dispute resolution can differ so markedly from informal resolution. The tension between theory and practicality is also emphasized in this chapter. In order for arbitration procedures to be appropriate, they must take into account theoretical knowledge of meaning making and interpretation (which, in mass media, is greatly complicated by multiple and diverse producers and recipients of meanings). There is, of course, a limit to how far arbitral bodies may indulge theoretical considerations; they are ultimately tasked with reaching a verdict.
Chapter 2 problematizes the sources of meaning contestation and divides them into three categories: use, effect, and meaning. ‘Use’ is further subdivided by its localization in the original producer of communication, an intermediary who transmits preexisting content, or the recipient of the communication (who uses the communication in a way not intended by a producer or intermediary). The legal definition of ‘effect’ differs from ‘meaning’ in that discourse effects describe a type of affective action, or what discourse ''does'' to recipients. ‘Meaning,’ in contrast, is considered as an active cognitive process (it is important to note that this is a legal distinction).
Chapter 3 enumerates several points of contention that may lie behind meaning disputes. Examples include questions of discourse veracity, fact versus opinion, assigning responsibility (which can be complicated in mass media discourse), questions of proper contextualization, the presence of bias, and proper identification of referents and claims.
Chapter 4 argues that the field of semantics can make only limited contributions to the arbitration of public meaning disputes. This is not a charge against semantics, but rather an assertion that the restricted scope of semantics is typically not sufficient for dealing with the inferential interpretations encountered in arbitration.
Chapter 5 turns to pragmatic constraints on inferential interpretations. The challenge for arbitration is setting the boundaries for reasonable inferences and thus determining if the producer of a communication can be held accountable for discourse effects claimed by the complainant.
Chapter 6 challenges the temporal assumptions implicit in the legal understanding of meaning. There is a jurisprudential bias toward online meaning making, i.e., an ‘audit point’ for meaning making is established at the discourse event (the time of reception in question). Yet, by the time meaning disputes reach the stage of formal arbitration, interpretations have been shaped and reshaped by a considerable period of reflection. Furthermore, the likelihood of accurately reconstructing the meaning audit point in a legal setting is called into question.
Chapter 7 begins the consideration of legal procedure in meaning arbitration. In order to consider meaning disputes efficiently, possible meanings must be restricted to contested meanings that are recorded formulaically at the start of arbitration (a measure to prevent opportunistic shifts in meaning claims during the course of a trial). Also discussed is the strategic maneuvering available to complainants and defendants through focusing on the illocutionary force or propositional content of a disputed communication.
Chapter 8 critiques the cultural constructs of the ‘reasonable man’ and ‘ordinary reader’ used as standards of possible meaning making in disputes of meaning in advertising and defamation claims, respectively. Such standards for authoritative interpretation are susceptible to considerable subjective, as well as cultural, biases.
Chapters 9 through 11 are each devoted to a specific area of meaning contestation in the courts: defamation, (false) advertising, and offensiveness. These chapters, similar to a case study approach, apply the linguistic theoretical and legal procedural material from prior chapters to specific contexts. The critical approach to each type of meaning dispute reveals procedural challenges, limitations imposed by practical compromises, and hidden ideological biases.
Chapter 12 concludes the book with reflections on the considerable challenges of resolving meaning controversies that emerge in internet communications. The question is posed as to where a healthy balance might lie between trust and skepticism of communication in modern media. When meaning disputes emerge, the author advocates careful pragmatic approaches to evaluating potential meanings in arbitration.
''Meaning in the Media'' is a concise and well organized introduction to the formal arbitration of meaning disputes. The book is aimed at scholars concerned with media studies and meaning making, and its considerable contextualized theoretical review make it ideal for use in a course that examines meaning disputes that arise from media language. It is particularly well suited as a text in an advanced undergraduate or graduate seminar exploring language and law (although it is not a textbook; other articles and/or texts would be required). It is highly recommended reading for researchers working at the intersection of linguistics, mass media communication, and law. Discussions of court procedure utilize examples from the legal systems of the United Kingdom and the United States, so it is suitable for use in both contexts.
The theoretical scope of ''Meaning in the Media'' is considerable. Durant has accomplished the task of distilling the foundational knowledge of meaning making and the relevant procedures of formal arbitration with impressive focus and organizational discipline. The result is a tightly composed book of less than 250 pages. Fortunately, the examples and explanations are well chosen and clearly written, so the text should remain accessible to students. A particularly noteworthy example of the clarity of Durant’s explanations is to be found in the chapter on defamation (Chapter 9). To illustrate the legal considerations of potentially defamatory language, Durant has written a brief, fictitious story that might be found in the society or gossip section of a newspaper. The story is then examined sentence by sentence to isolate meaning trouble spots and demonstrate relevant topics, such as distinguishing expressions of opinion from allegations of fact, testable propositions, the role of special versus common knowledge in interpretation, and the legal concept of the ordinary reader.
''Meaning in the Media'' has the potential to serve as an initial interdisciplinary bridge. Most linguists are probably aware that courts of law approach language quite differently than they themselves do, especially when it comes to legal evaluations of meaning (and potential meaning). ''Meaning in the Media'' explains how many of these differences originate in practical necessity (e.g. to manage the strategic maneuvering of claimants and defendants) and serve the ultimate purpose of meaning arbitration; to establish authoritative meanings amongst contested meanings and render verdicts. Legal professionals may view linguistic approaches to meaning with suspicion, convinced that theory is a sand trap of trivial details that needlessly delay or undermine a verdict. This book argues persuasively that linguistics offers a robust toolkit for reducing subjectivity in evaluating competing claims about meaning. It is also strongly argued that linguistics can reveal hidden cultural biases in legal standards of interpretation (such as the standard of the ‘reasonable person’).
As noted above, in Chapter 4, Durant claims that ''while semantics contributes important insights, the scope and goals of semantics as a field leave it mostly unable to contribute much to arbitrating in or resolving social disputes'' (67). Durant has in mind work in semantics that focuses on the relative stability of the linguistic code and truth conditions. Durant's point is not a charge of shortcomings in the field of semantics, but rather an observation that meaning arbitration has a very different goal, namely, to evaluate (and place judgment on) competing meanings that owe their existence to the instability of the linguistic code. This is a fair point, however, it could have been fruitful to consider the potential contributions of work in semantics that occupies the borderlands with other linguistic subdisciplines. An example that comes to mind is Nunberg's (1979; 1995) work on deferred interpretation that overlaps semantics and pragmatics.
The concluding chapter of the book introduces the fairly new and highly complex challenges of arbitrating meaning disputes that occur on the internet. The high public participation rates in social media (e.g. networks, chat rooms, comment boards, email chains, instant messages, texts, etc.), the sheer volume of language that can be produced rapidly across many different social platforms, and frequent participant attempts to achieve anonymity can make it extremely difficult to assign responsibility for meaning (Durant's categorization of meaning into ‘use,’ ‘effect,’ and ‘meaning,’ and further dividing ‘use’ into three types, is especially relevant here -- consider, for example, the use of meaning in Twitter retweets). The other notable difficulty is in establishing and reconstructing the meaning of ‘audit points’ (i.e. the original event of meaning reception) so favored in legal arbitration. Once this high tech detective work is completed, however, linguistics has potential toolkits available for analyzing these reconstructed audit points. A fuller treatment of this topic could easily diverge into tangential areas (including relevant areas of computer forensic techniques), which would doubtlessly compromise the concision that is a genuine strength of this book. Nevertheless, it would have been satisfying to have a deeper exploration of future research opportunities in this area that may contribute to the way courts can grapple with internet meaning in the future. An area of linguistics that holds some promise, and would have been worthy of brief, non-technical exploration, is computational work that utilizes cue-based algorithms to analyze illocutionary force (see, for example, Stolcke et al., 2000). As already noted, coverage of this area of research may have proved unwieldy and deleterious to the well organized structure of the book. Still, it is an area that scholars working at the intersection of language and law will want to keep an eye on.
In summary, ''Meaning in the Media'' is an excellent launching point for linguists, legal scholars and professionals, communications researchers, and journalists to consider the challenges of arbitrating meaning trouble spots.
Nunberg, Geoffrey. (1979): ''The non-uniqueness of semantic solutions: Polysemy''. Linguistics and Philosophy 3: 143-84.
Nunberg, Geoffrey. (1995): ''Transfers of meaning''. Journal of Semantics 12: 109-32.
Stolcke, Andreas, Elizabeth Shriberg, Rebecca Bates, Noah Coccaro, Daniel Jurafsky, Rachel Martin, Marie Meteer, Klaus Ries, Paul Taylor, and Carol Van Ess-Dykema. (1998): ''Dialog act modeling for conversational speech''. In J. Chu-Carroll and N. Green (eds.), Applying Machine Learning to Discourse Processing: Papers from the 1998 AAAI Spring Symposium, 98-105. Technical Report SS-98-01. Menlo Park, CA: AAAI Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Seth Knox is Assistant Professor of German in the Department of Modern
Languages & Cultures at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. His academic
interests lie primarily in cognitive and applied linguistics, and his
research focus is propaganda and manipulative discourse.