Emotionalisation of contemporary media discourse: A research agenda

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This special issue continues the discussion of the role of emotion in discourse (see Russian Journal of Linguistics 2015 (1) and 2018, 22 (1)) which, as testified by the burgeoning body of literature in the field, has become more prominent in different spheres and contexts of public life. This time we focus on emotionalisation of media discourse. We highlight the intensification of emotions in media and, showcasing contributions from international authors, critically reflect on constructions, functions and pragmatic purposes of emotions in media discourse. Our aim is to investigate emotions in the media from semiotic, pragmatic and discursive perspectives against the contemporary socio-political background in which traditional notions concerning the role of media are being noticeably changed. In this introductory article, we also put forward an agenda for further research by briefly outlining three main areas of exploration: the logics of media production and reception , the boundaries of media discourse, and the semiotic resources deployed to construct emotionality . We then present the articles in this issue and highlight their contributions to the study of linguistic representations of emotions. We then summarise the main results and suggest a brief avenue for further research.

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1. Introduction

Emotions are at the basis of human interaction and communication and, as testified by numerous studies in the field of psychology, sociology and linguistics, their role has been noticeably increasing in recent years (e.g. Alba-Juez & Larina 2018, Lerner & Rivkin-Fish 2021, Mackenzie & Alba-Juez, 2019, Scherer 2005, Shakhovsky 2008, 2018, Wetherell 2012, 2015, Wirth & Schramm 2015). This body of research has highlighted “the pervasive presence of emotionality in contemporary culture, where emotions become more important and formative than anything else” (Lerner & Rivkin-Fish 2021: 1), while it has shown how both explicit emotional expressions and implicit means of emotional appeal have broadened their functions in different social domains and discourses. The term emotionalisation has thus been used to refer to the legitimization and intensification of emotional discourse in collective spheres of life (Ahmed 2014, Holmes 2010, Lerner & Rivkin-Fish 2021, Sieben & Wettergren 2010, Woodward 2009). As well as in everyday interpersonal interaction, emotionalisation of institutional, professional and civic domains has been identified (Lerner & Rivkin-Fish 2021). Emotions are highly relevant in academic discourse (e.g. Gretzky & Lerner 2021, Larina & Ponton 2020, forthcoming; Lerner, Zbenovich & Kaneh-Shalit 2021), in classroom settings (e.g. El-Dakhs et al. 2019), in digital communication (e.g. Maíz-Arévalo 2018, Jus 2018). Appeals to emotions have increasingly been featured in what are otherwise regarded as non-emotional genres of discourses, for example diplomatic, economic and financial discourses (e.g. Belyakov 2015, Mackenzie 2018, Zappettini & Unerman 2016). Several scholars have also pointed out that it is extremely challenging to disentangle affect from ideology, since the feelings and ideas that trigger the emotions are closely bound up together (Wetherell 2012, 2015). As Breeze (2020: 22) notes, emotions are therefore an inherent component of political discourse too, “precisely because of [their] emotional/affective impact on target audiences” (see also Breeze 2019). Emotionalisation has also been pervasive in the media (e.g. Alba-Juez & Mackenzie 2019, Altheide 2002, 2006, Antipova et al. 2021, de Marlangeon 2018, Bartlett & Gentile 2011, Döveling et al. 2011, Furedi 2018, Kopytowska & Chilton 2018, Schwab & Schwender 2011, Vishnyakova & Polyakova 2017) where emotions can be used as a fundamental means of persuasion, since they are essential in understanding how media messages are processed, and have considerable impact on individual behaviour and public social life (Döveling, von Scheve & Konijn 2011).

Our special issue focuses on the above-mentioned dynamics as they are constructed by and reflected in the media. Our aim is thus to investigate emotions in the media from semiotic, pragmatic and discursive perspectives, against the contemporary socio-political background in which traditional notions concerning the role of media, its ownership and professional practices, are being revolutionized by new technologies which allow, for example, for more interactive forms of communication performed through social media (Assimakopoulos 2018, Bou-Franch & Garcés-Conejos Blitvich 2019, Breeze 2020). On the back of these changes, we see the emergence of new participatory opportunities (for example citizens’ journalism), which has the potential to democratise the informative function that has typically distinguished traditional forms of media. New media platforms, meanwhile, pose new challenges to how information is produced, distributed and consumed, as distinctions between public and private mediated spaces have increasingly blurred. These issues have implications for discursive affordances in all realms of social life including political debate, and the infinite variety of social themes with which it is concerned.

2. Emotionalisation of media discourse: Areas of exploration

In a changed media landscape, we thus need to interrogate language and society along lines of enquiry that reflect the key themes outlined so far. Our special issue does this through the lens of emotionalisation, and from a critical perspective. Our exploration of the ways in which language framing may intersect with the emotionalisation of media discourse is guided by what we see as key questions that need addressing in particular around the whats, whys, and hows of media discourse. We would therefore like to put forward a media and emotions research agenda in relation to three key areas of exploration in which the whats, whys and hows of media discourse interplay significantly with each other.

The first area of exploration is concerned with the logics of media production and reception. Information and entertainment goals, along with social, political and commercial agendas, have always driven media production. While emotions have often been mobilised by the media to achieve those goals (for example by sensationalizing a piece of news to make it newsworthy, or to support one particular editorial line), one key question is how the media is now performing these functions in an ever-shifting social landscape. For example, how is the press performing its persuasive function in relation to, for instance, new multimodal and digital forms of communication? Crucially, moreover, for whose benefit or what political gain is this being done? Researching the emotionalisation of media discourse should therefore help us understand not only what discourses are produced by the media but also why they are circulated.

The role of the media in creating and swaying public opinion can hardly be overstated. Constructing and appealing to emotions must therefore largely be seen as instrumental to media persuasive strategies. For example, the question of ‘moral panic’, as fuelled and amplified by the media has been widely debated since the Sixties (Cohen 2011) and has now re-emerged around new discursive foci such as the politicization of the ‘immigration debate’, which has centered around emotional responses of fear and resentment (Kopytowska & Chilton 2018, Wodak 2015, Zappettini 2019, 2021). In this sense, the newsworthiness of media coverage should primarily be seen as lying in specific communicative agendas that ultimately respond to basic social anxieties (Delanty 2008) and fears of having ‘strangers at our door’ (Bauman 2016). If “the prevalence of fear in public discourse can contribute to stances and reactive social policies that promote state control and surveillance” (Altheide & Michalowski 1999: 476), then we should also explain how the media mobilisation of fear-mongering, and other emotions, can also serve the legitimation of various political projects or commercial imperatives (see Cap 2017, Kopytowska & Chilton 2018, Sedláková & Kopytowska 2018, Doudaki & Boubouka 2019, Koschut 2020, Ozyumenko & Larina, this issue, Trajkova 2020).

Within this first area of exploration, we believe that the emotions play a crucial role, not only in how and why media discourses are produced but also in how and why they are received and consumed by their audiences. Although much research has shown how frequent exposure to certain media narratives can sediment into a ‘cumulative effect’ (Bell 1996) that would explain some readerships’ attitudes, the direction of causality (who influences whom) between media and audience is not linear, and the ‘media effect’ (Wirth & Schramm 2005) is better to be assumed as mutually constitutive (that is, the media reinforces certain views already formed among their audiences, who in turn select media aligned with their views). We would thus need to consider different potential discursive sites of production and consumption (van Dijk 1988) in which media emotionalisation is taking place.

The second area of exploration delves into the boundaries of media discourse. Here we would like to draw attention to at least two significantly interrelated trends. One trend is that, arguably, the tones of mediatized socio-political debates are shifting away from logos towards pathos or indeed towards the realm of irrealis statements. In other words, from reasoned debate about the issues of the day to a more direct appeal, based often on various forms of emotionality or constructs which are no longer connected with any truth-based logics, the so-called ‘fake news’ which is so pervasive in a post-truth society (D’Ancona 2017). However, even rejecting the claim for a diminished reliance on logos, Haidt’s (2001) social intuition model tells us that moral reasoning is only subsequent to moral intuition (that is, a ‘gut feeling’ evaluation based on basic emotions), thus underlining the importance of pathos-oriented discourses. Emblematic of these processes are social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which have enabled interaction by “shift[ing] the boundaries between private and public domains; [by] combin[ing] reflections of individual interiority with the process of making sense of social relations and the constitution of collective identity” (Lerner & Rivkin-Fish 2021: 6). Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are to be seen not simply as platforms but rather as social and political actors/institutions in their own right, as they have the power to gatekeep and polarise debates and to control our interaction via algorithms which ultimately are based on our emotions. This raises questions around discursive opportunities and affordances, and more generally the institutionalization of social reality (Berger & Luckman 1966).

Arguably, the appeal of recent US presidents such as Barack Obama and, to an even greater extent, Donald Trump, depended in no small measure to the way in which their emotional appeal, transmitted via the affordances of emergent technology, resonated with receivers in the intimacy of their relations with the new media platforms. With Trump, in particular, a new phenomenon was witnessed, in which the emotional responses of a political leader were directly transmitted to subjects – in a literal sense, followers – allowing for the bypassing of all the previously known filters that have always characterised traditional media. This phenomenon, which also highlights pathos over logos, was not limited to Trump, but has become a feature of political discourse more generally. Other social media platforms such as Youtube or Facebook have effected similar alterations, enabling for more direct engagement between the parties involved in the political process, and at the same time permitting the expression and exchange of emotive talk, which readily slips towards the high intensity end of the spectrum. Insults, critiques, dismissals, ad hominem attacks, rants, diatribes and feuds are more frequently encountered than their opposites – hyperbolic admiration, emoji-fuelled expressions of adoration or love, exaggerated praise or abbreviations signalling degrees of amusement (lol, lmao, etc.) – though the latter also feature. As Bassols, Cros & Torrent (2013) suggest, both positive and negative emotions have the effect of capturing and holding the interest.

A second trend, namely the heightened emotionalization of media language regulation, also needs consideration. Ideologies and interests have been able to harness the power of new media such as social networks, for better or for worse. Such media affordances have the potential to appropriate the internet as a propaganda tool and, in some cases to promote hate speech, seemingly shifting the threshold of what is now sayable and accepted in the public sphere (Wodak 2019). In response, we are seeing increasing debates around issues of political correctness in language produced or allowed by the media (Assimakopoulos et al. 2018). The extent to which ‘verbal hygiene’ (Cameron 2012) should be applied (if at all) is not something that we can cover in the space of this article, however, as it involves the larger question of prescriptivism, but would be worth further investigation.

The third area of exploration covers the semiotic resources which have been deployed by the media, and their associated pragmatic implications. As linguists, semioticians and social scientists we need to adapt our investigation of “affective-discursive practices” (Wetherell et al. 2015: 57) and strategies to the changing media landscape by focusing both on verbal means of construing emotionality through lexico-grammatical resources such as metaphor, simile and other rhetorical devices (Emanatian 1995, Handa 2013) and non-verbal means (font size, large text in headings, use of colour, pictures, etc.) recognizing thus the importance of multimodality in realising discourses (e.g. Dancygier & Vandelanotte 2017, Ponton 2016). Arguably, the multimodal construction of meaning in the ‘image-texts’ (Mitchell 1986) encountered in memes (Denisova 2019, Mina 2019, Jus 2019), above all privileges the emotional dimension of communication. Indeed, through the symbolic language of emoticons it is possible for skilled users to communicate a range of emotional responses to posted content, and thus an interactive dimension is constructed that both permits and encourages the underlining of the emotional component. Though in its early stages, Multimodal theory (Kress & Van Leeuwen 2010, Bateman et al. 2017, etc.) represents an invaluable contribution to the theoretical and practical approaches favoured in Discourse Analysis generally (Alba-Juez 2009, Ponton & Larina 2016, 2017), since it aims at explicating meanings in the prevalent semiotic practices of the computer age. These frequently depend on the emergent codes, widely shared among the proficient, mainly young users of the new generations, inherent in colour, number and other forms of contemporary symbolism (Faliang et al. 2017). Finally, it is important to remember that any ‘sign’ (whether it be text or image), makes sense within a communicative context that must be shared by the producer and receiver of any message. As some of the contributions in this issue implicitly demonstrate (e.g. Musolff, Solopova & Kushneruk, Zappettini) the semiotic resources tapped into by the media analysed in their studies are predicated on specific cultural repertoires that the analyst must interpret from an emic perspective.

3. Outline of contributions to the issue

The contributions to this issue address some of the key issues outlined above and they do so from a variety of methodological approaches and with different analytical foci.

Bull and Waddle’s contribution focuses on emotionality in audience responses to (televised) political speeches. Building on and extending Atkinson’s work on interactive behaviour between speaker/audience, Bull and Waddle explore in detail dynamics of invited and uninvited audience responses (e.g. applause and booing) in a variety of national contexts. This study illuminates the subtle interplay between rhetorical techniques used by politicians to invite responses which, as claimed by the authors, may be seen to reflect differing degrees of audience emotionality. The significance of Bull and Waddle’s paper is not simply based on propositional content but also largely depends on affective and emotional elements. The authors’ analysis can thus be extended further to corroborate our understanding of political communication.

Our issue also features three papers that deal with emotionalization of media discourse in the debates and unfolding of events relating to Brexit. Musolff analyses a corpus of politicians’ speeches and interviews and press texts in relation to the proverb ‘You cannot have your cake and eat it’ to argue that the hyperbolic use of such proverb was instrumental in driving highly emotional discourses associated with metaphorical scenarios of liberation (in the specific instantiation, the UK liberating itself from the EU’s yoke). Musolff goes further, suggesting that the escalation of the cake metaphor – upon which many Leave and Remain arguments rested – “led to a polarisation and radicalisation of political discourse in Britain”.

Similar views are put forward by Zappettini who, focusing on the language of the British tabloid press, shows how emotionally laden representations of Britain and the EU as victim and bully respectively drove many public discourses during the negotiation stages of Brexit. Zappettini also critically points to how the emotional language of the tabloid press has been instrumental in shaping public opinion on the UK/EU relationships not only in the context of Brexit but also in the larger historical coverage of Euro-news as it effectively managed to drive the Brexit agenda along ‘pathos over logos’ lines. Crucially, such emotional framing of Brexit also became the dominant discourse of the Leave campaign and gained traction vis-a-vis the Remain arguments which were primarily perceived as based on ‘cold facts’ (Zappettini 2019).

Dancygier’s contribution also focuses on discourses of Brexit during the negotiation stage, looking in particular at emotional responses to narrativized similes (‘Brexit is/feels like…’). However, rather than focusing on how emotions are construed in/by the media, Dancygier’s analysis is concerned with how different similes, or ‘patterns of figuration’ can signal different stances. Dancygier gives us a detailed account of how similes were used by speakers/writers to communicate their different emotional stances on specific aspects of Brexit with a focus on how ordinary citizens conceptualized Brexit and how they responded to its delivery. Like Zappettini and Musolff, Dancygier demonstrates the relationships between linguistic forms and the emotional responses they are meant to convey, reasserting a view of media discourses as crucial in connecting citizens’ attitudes and socio-political changes.

Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk and Pęzik explore the emotional impact of Polish media texts within an interpretative framework that views them as exemplifying the presence of an inherently persuasive, political function, which often manifests in covert rather than explicit ways. The paper outlines a theoretical innovation in the shape of the notion of ‘emergent impoliteness’, which is deployed to categorise examples from the representation of Polish political discourse. This method allows us to appreciate subtle shading in the instrumental use of the emotions in politics, where instances of overt rudeness or insulting language may be supplemented by nuanced innuendo which allows the politician to achieve emotional impact while maintaining an apparently polite public façade.

Three contributions focus on Russia, with two articles (Dobrosklonskaya, Solopova & Kushneruk) dealing with the specific topic of Russian political communication and one (Ozyumenko & Larina) with that of media discourse about Russia. Dobrosklonskaya’s paper analyses press coverage of the 75th anniversary of victory in WWII, from a Media Linguistics, multimodal perspective, using a theorization of press functioning that dates back to the influential model proposed, in 1965, by Galtung and Ruge. Drawing on a previous paper of her own (Dobrosklonskaya 2020), Dobrosklonskaya argues that the stage at which the press ‘interpret’ the events for their readers is the most relevant for focusing on emotional effects. The analysis enables us to appreciate the role of emotional discourse in fostering a sense of national unity; more precisely, that emotions are central in mediated political interpretations of significant public events.

While Dobrosklonskaya’s study regards media discourse within Russia, Solopova and Kushneruk present a diachronic study that explores the role of emotional press discourse that centres on the image of Russia itself in western eyes, and how variance in these patterns across time reflects alterations in the geo-political landscape. The study, like Dobrosklonskaya’s, focuses on the Second World War, when Russia’s status as a key ally in the fight against Nazi Germany encouraged the use of positive discursive frames regarding Russia, in press discourse emphasizing her heroic qualities, her military might, her friendship with Britain. The warmth of these representations may surprise readers more accustomed to see Russia framed as a bear with the “surly, uncouth, burly, shambling, enraged, violent” features of a wild animal, as she is apt to appear in contemporary press discourse. The study accounts for these changes and their corresponding emotional valences in terms of a theory that views press frames as subservient to wider political goals of the specific national groups in question.

Following on from this paper, that of Ozyumenko and Larina enlarges on its discussion of the innate social forces that drive such strategies of framing, arguing that we are witnessing an authentic strategy of emotional manipulation on the part of western media, in the service of creating fear of a so-called ‘Russian threat’, with the aim of justifying hard-line policies of containment and aggression. With ample reference to existing literature on the role of emotional discourse in political life, the paper uses data from British and American press sources to support its far-reaching thesis. As in the paper by Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk and Pęzik, the authors distinguish between implicit and explicit emotional effects, and also identify nuances, or degrees, of feeling in representations of political discourse regarding Russia. In terms of explicit effects, they discuss the press’ use of idioms, hyperboles, metaphors, word play, cultural images and animalistic symbols. What emerges is a view of western media that, in recent times, has increased its reliance on emotional discourse, in collusion with a political class that has its own reasons for wishing to create a state of ‘panic’ about Russia amongst the general public.

Finally, the contributions of Ponton and Way point to how multimodality has been deployed in social media as a form of satire, parody, and critique. Their papers focus on memes as a new form of persuasive media discourse that has leveraged the emotions considerably. Way looks at public reactions to former US President Donald Trump as they were posted on an Alt-Right website, and finds that these memes lean on emotional discourses about nationalism, racism and authoritarianism. Significantly, Way reminds us that all memes are now part of a new politics which does “not communicate to us in logical arguments, but emotionally and affectively through short quips and images that entertain”. This, of course, has often been the case with satire in the media but new ways of producing, distributing and consuming such messages, as well as the capability of multimodally combining different discursive forms should make us reflect on the extent to which both satire and extremist discourses are entangled with emotions and media. Ponton’s work explores the pragmatic potentialities of this new communicative genre the meme, seeing them largely in terms of the traditional canons for political satire, i.e. ‘speaking the truth to power’. Naturally, the emotional mainspring of these multimodal productions tends to be laughter, though nestling within this initial response are other emotions such as disgust, anger, frustration, fear, etc. Ponton’s perspective on satirical political memes sees them as aligned with other persuasive political artefacts, subverting the viewers’ opinions, and in ideal cases producing alignment. Like the viruses to which they are frequently compared, they may enter cognitive systems and produce their unpredictable effects largely without reference to the viewers’ wishes or will.

4. Concluding remarks

As with many other types of scientific enquiry, our exploration of the emotionalisation of media discourse has only been able to provide a snapshot, rather than a full picture of the complex interplay between media, emotions and discourse. Nevertheless, we believe we have provided some solid evidence for how the mediatization of emotions is a feature of every-day social life and for how language (in its wider interpretation as a system of signs) and discourse (in its larger social ramifications) are inextricably part of it.

By way of summarising the contribution of this Special Issue to the advancement of the literature in the field, we would like to highlight some of our key findings. We have suggested that emotionalisation has increasingly become one of the pivotal features of media discourse, and that this has primarily been achieved through a discursive shift from logos to pathos whereby rational arguments give way to the tendency to leverage on feelings. We have critically suggested that a crucial driver of this shift, and in general of the use of emotions by media actors, has been the aim of achieving effective persuasive strategies. Methodologically, we have demonstrated that adopting a critical approach (such as Critical Discourse Analysis) can help us understand the potential impact of such persuasive strategies and their pragmatic and perlocutionary effects on audiences and, more generally, on the implementation of specific political and ideological goals. These processes can only be fully explicated by taking the context and its socio-political, historical and cultural dimensions into account. To put it simply, an interdisciplinary approach to linguistic enquiry has numerous practical advantages. We have also highlighted the merit of exploring the analysis of emotional discourses via a multimodal approach that looks at language in its different semiotic realisations. As our studies show, such a diversity of methods and approaches should be helpful in triangulating and thus corroborating the interpretation of our results.

It is our hope that this Special Issue will not represent a terminus but rather a point of departure for future investigations of the emotionalisation of public discourse on the back of the research agenda that we have just outlined, and in the light of any topical issues that our societies will be faced with. We would particularly encourage any further research on the emotionalisation of media discourse that focuses on the production of emotions in different media (such as the press, TV, social media), and genres (news items, commentaries, interviews, political speeches, political debates, etc.), and their reception among different audiences.

The editors would like to take this opportunity to thank our contributors and compliment them on the quality of their contributions to this Special Issue. Thanks to them, a lively, interconnected debate has been presented on this topical issue, that will add to the growing body of linguistic research on these important themes. We are open to suggestions of the form these might take; seminars, conferences, individual or group initiatives, and so on. Most of all it is our hope that readers will be inspired by these papers to contribute their own research in these areas, and that they will find practical tools that will assist them with their analytical projects.


About the authors

Franco Zappettini

University of Liverpool

Author for correspondence.
Email: franco.zappettini@liverpool.ac.uk
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-7049-4454

Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Research in Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool, UK. His research focuses on the textual/discursive analysis of different forms of political and organisational communication including mediated forms of populism, such as tabloid populism and Euroscepticism in the British press. He has published internationally in peer-reviewed journals and book series. His latest publication is the monograph Brexit: A Critical Discursive Analysis forthcoming for Palgrave MacMillan

Foundation Building, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool, L69 7ZX, UK

Douglas Mark Ponton

Catania University; Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University)

Email: dmponton@gmail.com
ORCID iD: 0000-0002-9968-1162

Associate Professor of English Language and Translation at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Catania. His research interests include political discourse analysis, ecolinguistics, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, pragmatics and critical discourse studies. Recent publications include For Arguments Sake: Speaker Evaluation in Modern PoliticalDiscourse and Understanding Political Persuasion: Linguistic and Rhetorical Aspects. As well as politics, his research deals with a variety of social topics including tourism, the discourse of mediation, ecology, local dialect and folk traditions, including proverbs and the Blues

Via Vittorio Emanuele II 49, Catania, 95131, Italy; 6 Miklukho-Maklaya, Moscow, 117198, Russia

Tatiana V. Larina

Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University)

Email: larina-tv@rudn.ru
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6167-455X

Doctor Habil., Full Professor at RUDN University. Her research interests embrace language, culture and communication; cross-cultural pragmatics, discourse analysis, communicative ethnostyles, and (im)politeness theory with the focus on English and Russian languages. She has authored and co-authored over 200 publications in Russian and English including monographs, course books, book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals

6 Miklukho-Maklaya, Moscow, 117198, Russia


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