Review of Meaning in the Media
|AUTHOR: Alan Durant
TITLE: Meaning in the Media
SUBTITLE: Discourse, Controversy and Debate
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
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
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
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
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
''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.