some language analysis of three articles
I suppose I have already beaten the dead horse with my post on Capital G Syndrome, of which I derive much of the argument of this essay from. But since I was required to write a language analysis essay comparing and contrasting three different articles on the same event for AP Language and Composition (ie. school), I suppose I shall publish it here.
For the record, the three articles mentioned are this, this and this respectively. I presume you know the rest. Yes, I wrote an essay on Singapore local politics in an American New England high school.
On 6 July, 2006, Singaporean daily tabloid Today "indefinitely suspended" the weekly column of Lee Kin Mun, who went by the pseudonym mr brown, taking effect on 7 July. This followed a letter written to the forum of Today by K Bhavani, the permanent press secretary of the Singapore Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). Bhavani's letter took issue with the last column mr brown had published in Today, a column entitled "Singaporeans are fed, up with progress!" that focussed on worrying demograpic and economic statistics concerning Singapore.
Three articles will be especially pertinent to analyse. The first is a report that was published on July 7 in The Straits Times following the suspension; the second one is a report by a journalism-related international activist group that is called Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF). The last one is by a Singaporean citizen journalist who published his article primarily online on Singapore Angle outside the mainstream media.
The first article was probably the article which was the most read that concerned the incident, given that it was published in a national Singaporean newspaper that had the highest readership in the nation. Its content would be of most interest to Singaporeans. The Straits Times is owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which in turn is owned by Temasek Holdings, a state-owned corporation. SPH also owns the tabloid Today, though both the register and the subordinate management of Today differ from The Straits Times. The Straits Times has a reputation among opposition supporters of being biased in favour of the Singapore government, employs a formal non-emotive register, and is the oldest newspaper in Singapore. I selected it because it represented the "official" national establishment view that most citizens in Singapore would be familiar with. It also retains formal grammar.
The second article represents the view of the international observer, looking at the incident as an outsider. Because it is written by an activist group, the article hints at outrage. The article would represent the views of most international civil rights activists in regards to freedom of speech.
The third article, published in the online Singapore Angle, was selected because there are no widespread and formally registered print newspapers in Singapore that are not internally regulated by, or linked to, the state. However, a thriving alternative media exists online through blogs and podcasts. The Singapore Angle in particular, is a project which attempts to create an online newspaper with a Singaporean focus that is free from government intervention. It tries to have a wide variety of regular writing staff with their own expert topics, supplemented by guest writers to create an editorial-based newspaper. This third article, entitled "On the rectification of mr brown", has the register of political analysis. I selected it because it represents the view of a Singaporean citizen, who is knowledgeable and deeply concerned about national issues such as this particular incident.
The incident was highly controversial, and up to this point, almost two months later as of September 5, 2006, Singaporean politicians are still mentioning it in their speeches. There were many blog entries, many newspaper articles, from The Straits Times and elsewhere, and many other international reports. However, the first article was chosen over the other articles printed by The Straits Times or other newspapers with government links because it was the most immediate and it was published the day after the suspension. Many of the following articles reported on the speeches that defended the suspension or responded to public concerns, and hence had the topic of the suspension by proxy. RSF is one of the oldest, most professional and most prominent journalist activist groups known internationally, and because of the activist register of RSF I chose the second article above other international reports.
The incident reverbrated outrage around the Singaporean blogosphere, which was no short of insightful essays regarding the incident. However, the third article's register most closely matched the type of register that would be found in a normal newspaper, the third article was also the most immediate. Many other further articles became tangential or had troublesome focus or organisation, despite the good content. Even the editorials published in The Straits Times following the incident, despite the professional reputation of The Straits Times, had rather troublesome arguments that had bad logical flow or was analysed to be messes by other citizens.
One of the properties I noticed about the langauge of the first article by The Straits Times is the use of a subjective grammatical reference when it prints "high cost of living here" that would only apply in a local context, despite its formal register. The second article by the RSF uses objective references grammar-wise, sticking to "Singapore", and not even the Singapore Angle uses such subjective references. I initially judged it as a slip up of a junior writer, since Chia Sue-Ann is a relatively new name to the public, especially since the government wanted to quell the fears or inquietude of Singaporeans more than anything else to the extent that the word "here" must have been stressed.
One thing I took especial issue with is the article's consistent capitalisation of the "G" in "government" to refer to various institutions of the political system of Singapore. This is part of a bigger practice of using blanket labels to avoid precise references in order to maintain a sense of monolithism for these political institutions. In a previous article I had dissected another Straits Times article for using weasel words, to the extent of reducing the source of some statements supposedly said by citizens to "some said".
The letter written to Today was written by K Bhavani, press secretary to MICA, not the entire government. The initial letter did not declare it represented the entire government, nor did it even declare it explicitly represented the views of MICA, other than signing her position at the end of the letter. However The Straits Times article uses very monolithic language, such as "Move comes after Gov[ernmen]t slams mr brown's latest piece", even though only a single individual wrote the response, with individualistic language that would seem to show that she was representing herself. Such a practice gives the subtle but false impression that the rebuttal was issued with the legitimacy of representing the opinion or consensus of the entire government. The article repeats this practice again and again with statements such as "the Government criticised', "the Government's rebuttal", and "the Government issued a strong response", all with a monolithic capital G.
The article does mention that K Bhavani issued a response, but it does not ever explicitly tie in "the Government response" with K Bhavani's response: it never links them together. This is despite the fact that "the Government response" and Bhavani's letter are one and the same. Rather, with the language used one could assume, if he or she were not aware of what other sources said, that the response of K Bhavani was one of many separate responses issued along with some official "Government response". In fact, I fear that possibly many people were deceived into such an assumption, as many rely on the state-linked The Straits Times as a primary news source and do not regularly check other sources, especially that of the alternative media online. Because of the language of this first article by The Straits Times, again the article gives the impression that the supposed rebuttal has more legitimacy or backing than it really has.
The Straits Times article also heavily quotes K Bhavani in a very formal register, but through the quotes, her letter subtly dominates the article's viewpoint. Entire paragraphs of her letter are quoted, rather than paraphrased with the reiteration that it is a subjective viewpoint of her beliefs, with the effect that many of her statements and imperatives (which would be later nicknamed the Bhavani Commandments) seem to be the stated view of the article, the writer, and The Straits Times, all the while maintaining a formal register.
In contrast, the weight The Straits Times article lends to other views is considerably less, stressing their subjectiveness. Whereas Bhavani is implicitly given authority in the article by using "her parting words" and "said" to invoke the lengthy quotes of her, the responses of many other citizens are lumped together and their weight and legitimacy lessened. This can be seen through the statement, "...received more than 400 responses ..... most of which were critical of Today's decision". The language of the statement hints at the idea that most of the dissenting citizens mainly just have tired and cynical critical opinions which can be generalised easily.
The views of the two individuals (Tan Tarn How and Cherian George) that are less fond of the establishment are respectively invoked using reported speech or some paraphrasing. The article places "the Government" shortly after. This has the unfortunate case of marring the original statements. For example, Tan Tarn How might not have exactly meant "intended by the Government" and used such a monolithic term to describe the source of the criticism. He might have possibly stated "intended by Bhavani" or "intended by MICA". By cutting the quote short, to a ridiculous "probably intended", The Straits Times can generalise the source of criticism implied in the reported speech to "the Government". The way the article manages to gracefully avoid explicitly linking Bhavani's response with "the Government response" as one and the same almost seems like intentional wordplay on either the part of the writer or the editors. The remaining areas where the quotes of Tan Tarn How and Cherian George are not paraphrased in this playful manner, seem to be taken out of context such that it seems that the quotes make concessions towards the establishment view and have a register reminiscent of the imperative or jussive mood. This is the same way the article previously quoted Bhavani, hinting at the imperative where the material favours the establishment. It almost seems as if the article is mandating that its readers know that it is not necessarily acceptable to tolerate in a "more public platform" an individual who is tolerated online.
The second article by RSF has in contrast a clear slant against the establishment and the government of Singapore, but it makes less generalisation and misleading paraphrase. The RSF refers to itself in the third person and too uses a formal register like the first article by The Straits Times. The register is slightly different because whereas The Straits Times tries to adopt the perspective of the third person as much as possible, and though the RSF report only invokes the third person, the article is centred around the perspective and views of one entity: Reporters Without Borders. The tone almost implies a narration, using the third person to refer to itself.
The RSF article uses many of the same techniques to achieve its slant that The Straits Times did to achieve a slant the other way round. It hints that its views are imperative, though grammatically not so. This can be seen with its use of reported speech: "it is not the job of government officials..." It further directly quotes itself, though its dominance is less than that of the quotes from Bhavani's letter in the first article. Unlike The Straits Times however, it dedicates a relatively long paragraph to quote its opponent, which is in this case from the letter of Bhavani.
It further differs from The Straits Times by not conflating the concept of government criticism and individual criticism by Bhavani. It explicitly states that it was "an opinion piece by an official", rather than a response of the entire government. It does not use the monolithic "capital G" to invoke the word "government". It states that she "defended her government's policies", and reiterates again that it was an individual behind the letter, not a monolithic government. In this case the RSF article has less misleading language, though the language is not neutral.
The third article published in the Singapore Angle retains some formality in its register, but also has more familiarity than the previous two articles. It adopts a register which resembles more like an editorial. Unlike the previous two reports, the article does little to introduce what the author presumes is well-known knowledge: that Lee's column was suspended. Because it also uses an online medium, it introduces what it can through links and presumes the reader is well-read with what has happened, or expects the reader to click on the appropriate links otherwise. Though aiming to be a newspaper, like other blogs, it is nested in a network of links to other blogs, news articles or pages, effectively part of a community. In print form, these helping links do not exist - the reader is already expected to be familiar with the concepts that the editorial will invoke, just like in print editorials in general.
Like any editorial, the third article does not assume a register of objectivity, and immediately states its own views as fact - as an expository argument. The article is written with the air of an expert, as can be seen through the implicit tone of the phrase "was not unexpected", because the language reflects the idea that the writer has an insight that others may not have, and is not merely reporting the facts.
The article has a register which is generally aimed at a local audience. Although it still has a rather formal register, it imports several creole or non-standard loanwords characteristic of local speech. "Cheeminology" meaning "pedantry", for example, is a creole word derived from a word from Chinese dialect meaning "profound", and is a word most local readers would be familiar with. It also invokes many parentheses as side, somewhat intimate remarks, making it more informal than most editorials. Like the original column of Lee Kin Mun which sparked the entire controversy, it might temporarily and directly assume another register to poke fun at it or to suggest familiarity. For example, the article has dialectical phrases such as "sometimes comprain gahmen why they so liddat", without quotes while in the indicative mood, in order to convey the idea that the subject in question (Lee Kin Mun) is a common Singaporean. Despite this, the third article pubished in the Singapore Angle is still very much a formal argument, with logical connectors such as "however" and "in contrast" to convey its observation, to clarify and distinguish its viewpoints from other viewpoints, or to rebut other viewpoints.
All three articles have some evident bias, even as news sources, but it is this bias which lends themselves distinct voice, register and language.