Rhetorical Analysis of the News

My friend was very ill, he called me and said: it’s enough to sit and do nothing, let’s do something at least. The main motivator was my friend, who saw in me the potential that I do not use. He was forbidden to go out into the cold, but he took the all medicines in his fist, drank and said: Photography is more important than illness!

Whether it’s the 24-hour nature of today’s news cycle; the accessibility of news from any device, using any platform, at any time; the political machine that uses media for “spin” more than content; or the emerging crisis of a global pandemic, the news pulls at our attention in constant and unprecedented ways. While the ability of media to every more strategically prey on our desires and target our specific interests makes us ever more vulnerable to the siren song of endlessly scrolling content and targeted ads, our ability to navigate, understand, and critically evaluate the news has not kept pace.

That’s where you come in.

During this week of crisis and crazy, of turmoil and turbulence, step back for a minute. Slow down, take a deep breath — assuming your respiratory system remains uncompromised, that is — and dive in to one example of today’s news to show your classmates just how the creators of that example use rhetoric to achieve their goals.

Selecting a News Source

Think broadly of the concept of “news.” Where do you get your updates? What sources do you consider authoritative, reliable, and timely? Present an example from a news media source that someone (not necessarily you) uses to keep informed.

This source can be about any type of news. Yes, it can involve politics, be from the newspaper, or discuss COVID-19 — but it doesn’t have to. Find a special-interest source or something that seems interesting or alarming to you. Then start breaking it down, using the analytical skills we’ve worked to develop this semester.

Analyzing Your Source

Start by examining the source itself — not the content, but the creator. Who produced the news sample you selected, and why? What qualifies them to report on the specific topic discussed in the source? Why should readers/viewers trust their reliability and perspective? As usual, be sure to be cynical for a bit. Don’t always assume positive intent. Check for other possibilities and other potential purposes.

Don’t forget to analyze the medium. Was your source using text, graphics, audio, video, or some combination? Why would that medium be most appropriate for the goals held by the authors/rhetors? Does that medium lend itself to certain rhetorical moves more than another? Consider the choice of medium from the perspective of the content creator and determine why that medium made the most sense for them.

Analyze the Content

This step in your process likely needs the least clarification, as it’s something you’ve been doing for a while now. However, keep in mind that wonderful concept known as intertextuality. How does the example you selected interact with other sources? Does it conflict with or challenge another source about the same subject? (That question gets fun to answer specifically regarding COVID-19 and the difference in information and confidence/fear levels among governments, international organizations, and health experts.)

Remember the comment from Tuesday’s class — journalists have a responsibility to interpret, translate, and fact-check information they provide to the public. Where does the example you selected fall in that process? Does your example generate information that needs interpretation — like a press release or press conference — or does it provide the interpretation and context — like a nightly news broadcast or late-night talk show? How does the rhetor use that position to further influence the audience, and how can you find evidence of that effort to influence in the words/content of the material?

The Assignment

Now that you’ve thought through your source and its content (and given consideration to the intended audience, which perhaps I should have emphasized a bit more above), you’re ready to complete the actual assignment. This one will feel a bit more “essay-ish” than before, as you should have more to say, a better understanding of the context, and a more sophisticated interpretation of the example you present.

Here’s the actual assignment text:

Select a recent news article in a genre of your choosing. Draft a comprehensive, essay-form rhetorical analysis of the article in which you apply the rhetorical theories you have learned thus far in this course to enhance readers’ appreciation of the rhetorical situation surrounding the article you chose.

From the syllabus

Based on our conversation in class on Thursday, I’m a bit worried that all our posts will emphasize ethos, logos, pathos, and maybe kairos, then sort of fizzle out. Make sure you use those appeals (or the use of fallacies, or the constituents of a rhetorical situation) as starting points for an analysis, rather than end goals. Identify what you’re reading, but then very importantly explain how those things influence or manipulate the audience. You might also consider taking ideas (or even quotes!) from your textbook readings. You have a lot of material support from there. Use it to make your case even more solidly.

When you’re finished, post your response here using the “News Analysis” category. We’ll do our normal show-and-tell next week.

One thought on “Rhetorical Analysis of the News

  1. A quick and extreme example (that violates the no-COVID rule *again*) of how Code Grooming and rhetorical appeals intersect: Any article published by the Associated Press that relates to COVID-19 now includes this standard boilerplate ¶:

    For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

    Every. Single. Article.

    And since the AP is my main news source, and since every news story out there is about this virus, I’ve seen this ¶ a lot. It’s to the point that I read five words and skip the rest.
    But notice how it’s phrased. The AP needs to balance several factors in one short ¶. They need to sound:

    • authoritative (appealing to readers’ ethos) to instill confidence in their brand,
    • reassuring (appealing to readers’ pathos) to prevent mass panic,
    • informative (appealing to readers’ logos) to help them process what’s happening, and
    • timely (appealing to readers’ kairos) to sound up-to-date.

    Notice how the opening and closing sentences emphasize moderate reactions, while the middle acknowledges the risk of death. The authors of this ¶ carefully crafted it to balance the two. They have to be honest, and part of that honesty involves creating appropriate reactions in the audience. They have to use clear, simple language presented with certainty to acknowledge the bad but end with optimism. Otherwise, they’d risk leaving people frightened or over-confident. Further, they include the bare minimum info needed for vulnerable populations to see: “older adults and people with existing health problems” says just enough to get the attention of those groups and cause them to look for further details.

    And remember, this ¶ is used in every single AP article about COVID-19. The writing has to be generic enough that it will fit in with anything newsworthy related to this virus. Most of the time, it works. Occasionally, it feels a bit more forced. But the editors needed to use language that should be able to fit in seamlessly with the writing of their entire journalistic staff. That’s hard to do…and very strategic.

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