LINGUIST List 23.2968

Sat Jul 07 2012

Review: Discourse Analysis: Durant (2010)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 07-Jul-2012
From: Seth Knox <>
Subject: Meaning in the Media
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AUTHOR: Alan DurantTITLE: Meaning in the MediaSUBTITLE: Discourse, Controversy and DebatePUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 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 ''meaningtroublespots'' 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 resolvingmeaning disputes, and closing chapters devoted to the legal resolution ofdefamation, disputed advertising claims, offensive discourse, and internetcommunication.

The three overarching questions of the book are summarized in the introduction:1) ''Why are competing interpretations put forward so often about mediadiscourse?''; 2) ''How are alternative interpretations in contention questionedand evaluated?''; and 3) ''What obstacles stand in the way of arbitration orsettlement?'' (3; page references are from the paperback edition). In addition tooutlining the structure of the book, the introduction makes two critical pointsthat resurface throughout later chapters: 1) It can be challenging forlinguistic theory to inform arbitration when legal professionals often dismisslinguistic expertise as mired in theoretical minutia; 2) The rapid advancementof communication technology has led to unprecedented levels of participation inmeaning making and the development of a culture of public dispute over meaningin the media.

Chapter 1 distinguishes informal conflicts of interpretation (as is common inprivate conversation) from potential meanings in the media that are actively andpublicly disputed and may involve formal arbitration procedures. Thisdistinction is especially helpful for understanding why formalized disputeresolution can differ so markedly from informal resolution. The tension betweentheory and practicality is also emphasized in this chapter. In order forarbitration procedures to be appropriate, they must take into accounttheoretical knowledge of meaning making and interpretation (which, in massmedia, is greatly complicated by multiple and diverse producers and recipientsof meanings). There is, of course, a limit to how far arbitral bodies mayindulge theoretical considerations; they are ultimately tasked with reaching averdict.

Chapter 2 problematizes the sources of meaning contestation and divides theminto three categories: use, effect, and meaning. ‘Use’ is further subdivided byits localization in the original producer of communication, an intermediary whotransmits preexisting content, or the recipient of the communication (who usesthe communication in a way not intended by a producer or intermediary). Thelegal definition of ‘effect’ differs from ‘meaning’ in that discourse effectsdescribe a type of affective action, or what discourse ''does'' to recipients.‘Meaning,’ in contrast, is considered as an active cognitive process (it isimportant to note that this is a legal distinction).

Chapter 3 enumerates several points of contention that may lie behind meaningdisputes. 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 properidentification of referents and claims.

Chapter 4 argues that the field of semantics can make only limited contributionsto the arbitration of public meaning disputes. This is not a charge againstsemantics, but rather an assertion that the restricted scope of semantics istypically not sufficient for dealing with the inferential interpretationsencountered in arbitration.

Chapter 5 turns to pragmatic constraints on inferential interpretations. Thechallenge for arbitration is setting the boundaries for reasonable inferencesand thus determining if the producer of a communication can be held accountablefor discourse effects claimed by the complainant.

Chapter 6 challenges the temporal assumptions implicit in the legalunderstanding of meaning. There is a jurisprudential bias toward online meaningmaking, i.e., an ‘audit point’ for meaning making is established at thediscourse event (the time of reception in question). Yet, by the time meaningdisputes reach the stage of formal arbitration, interpretations have been shapedand reshaped by a considerable period of reflection. Furthermore, the likelihoodof accurately reconstructing the meaning audit point in a legal setting iscalled into question.

Chapter 7 begins the consideration of legal procedure in meaning arbitration. Inorder to consider meaning disputes efficiently, possible meanings must berestricted to contested meanings that are recorded formulaically at the start ofarbitration (a measure to prevent opportunistic shifts in meaning claims duringthe course of a trial). Also discussed is the strategic maneuvering available tocomplainants and defendants through focusing on the illocutionary force orpropositional 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 ofmeaning in advertising and defamation claims, respectively. Such standards forauthoritative interpretation are susceptible to considerable subjective, as wellas cultural, biases.

Chapters 9 through 11 are each devoted to a specific area of meaningcontestation in the courts: defamation, (false) advertising, and offensiveness.These chapters, similar to a case study approach, apply the linguistictheoretical and legal procedural material from prior chapters to specificcontexts. The critical approach to each type of meaning dispute revealsprocedural challenges, limitations imposed by practical compromises, and hiddenideological biases.

Chapter 12 concludes the book with reflections on the considerable challenges ofresolving meaning controversies that emerge in internet communications. Thequestion is posed as to where a healthy balance might lie between trust andskepticism of communication in modern media. When meaning disputes emerge, theauthor advocates careful pragmatic approaches to evaluating potential meaningsin arbitration.


''Meaning in the Media'' is a concise and well organized introduction to theformal arbitration of meaning disputes. The book is aimed at scholars concernedwith media studies and meaning making, and its considerable contextualizedtheoretical review make it ideal for use in a course that examines meaningdisputes that arise from media language. It is particularly well suited as atext 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 oflinguistics, mass media communication, and law. Discussions of court procedureutilize examples from the legal systems of the United Kingdom and the UnitedStates, so it is suitable for use in both contexts.

The theoretical scope of ''Meaning in the Media'' is considerable. Durant hasaccomplished the task of distilling the foundational knowledge of meaning makingand the relevant procedures of formal arbitration with impressive focus andorganizational discipline. The result is a tightly composed book of less than250 pages. Fortunately, the examples and explanations are well chosen andclearly written, so the text should remain accessible to students. Aparticularly noteworthy example of the clarity of Durant’s explanations is to befound in the chapter on defamation (Chapter 9). To illustrate the legalconsiderations of potentially defamatory language, Durant has written a brief,fictitious story that might be found in the society or gossip section of anewspaper. The story is then examined sentence by sentence to isolate meaningtrouble spots and demonstrate relevant topics, such as distinguishingexpressions of opinion from allegations of fact, testable propositions, the roleof special versus common knowledge in interpretation, and the legal concept ofthe ordinary reader.

''Meaning in the Media'' has the potential to serve as an initialinterdisciplinary bridge. Most linguists are probably aware that courts of lawapproach language quite differently than they themselves do, especially when itcomes to legal evaluations of meaning (and potential meaning). ''Meaning in theMedia'' explains how many of these differences originate in practical necessity(e.g. to manage the strategic maneuvering of claimants and defendants) and servethe ultimate purpose of meaning arbitration; to establish authoritative meaningsamongst contested meanings and render verdicts. Legal professionals may viewlinguistic approaches to meaning with suspicion, convinced that theory is a sandtrap of trivial details that needlessly delay or undermine a verdict. This bookargues persuasively that linguistics offers a robust toolkit for reducingsubjectivity in evaluating competing claims about meaning. It is also stronglyargued that linguistics can reveal hidden cultural biases in legal standards ofinterpretation (such as the standard of the ‘reasonable person’).

As noted above, in Chapter 4, Durant claims that ''while semantics contributesimportant insights, the scope and goals of semantics as a field leave it mostlyunable to contribute much to arbitrating in or resolving social disputes'' (67).Durant has in mind work in semantics that focuses on the relative stability ofthe linguistic code and truth conditions. Durant's point is not a charge ofshortcomings in the field of semantics, but rather an observation that meaningarbitration has a very different goal, namely, to evaluate (and place judgmenton) competing meanings that owe their existence to the instability of thelinguistic code. This is a fair point, however, it could have been fruitful toconsider the potential contributions of work in semantics that occupies theborderlands with other linguistic subdisciplines. An example that comes to mindis Nunberg's (1979; 1995) work on deferred interpretation that overlapssemantics and pragmatics.

The concluding chapter of the book introduces the fairly new and highly complexchallenges of arbitrating meaning disputes that occur on the internet. The highpublic participation rates in social media (e.g. networks, chat rooms, commentboards, email chains, instant messages, texts, etc.), the sheer volume oflanguage that can be produced rapidly across many different social platforms,and frequent participant attempts to achieve anonymity can make it extremelydifficult to assign responsibility for meaning (Durant's categorization ofmeaning into ‘use,’ ‘effect,’ and ‘meaning,’ and further dividing ‘use’ intothree types, is especially relevant here -- consider, for example, the use ofmeaning in Twitter retweets). The other notable difficulty is in establishingand reconstructing the meaning of ‘audit points’ (i.e. the original event ofmeaning reception) so favored in legal arbitration. Once this high techdetective work is completed, however, linguistics has potential toolkitsavailable for analyzing these reconstructed audit points. A fuller treatment ofthis topic could easily diverge into tangential areas (including relevant areasof computer forensic techniques), which would doubtlessly compromise theconcision that is a genuine strength of this book. Nevertheless, it would havebeen satisfying to have a deeper exploration of future research opportunities inthis area that may contribute to the way courts can grapple with internetmeaning in the future. An area of linguistics that holds some promise, and wouldhave been worthy of brief, non-technical exploration, is computational work thatutilizes cue-based algorithms to analyze illocutionary force (see, for example,Stolcke et al., 2000). As already noted, coverage of this area of research mayhave proved unwieldy and deleterious to the well organized structure of thebook. Still, it is an area that scholars working at the intersection of languageand law will want to keep an eye on.

In summary, ''Meaning in the Media'' is an excellent launching point forlinguists, legal scholars and professionals, communications researchers, andjournalists 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, DanielJurafsky, Rachel Martin, Marie Meteer, Klaus Ries, Paul Taylor, and Carol VanEss-Dykema. (1998): ''Dialog act modeling for conversational speech''. In J.Chu-Carroll and N. Green (eds.), Applying Machine Learning to DiscourseProcessing: Papers from the 1998 AAAI Spring Symposium, 98-105. Technical ReportSS-98-01. Menlo Park, CA: AAAI Press.


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.

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