Interviewers' Use of Verbal Means of Power in News Interviews with Politicians Differing in Political Orientation

Erica Huls, Jasper Varwijk

University of Tilburg, Netherlands, The


Interviewers’ Use of Verbal Means of Power in News Interviews with Politicians Differing in Political Orientation.

News interviews have become one of the most important ways for politicians to present themselves and their ideology in public. With the capacity to reach and potentially influence mass audiences, the news interview has surpassed other more traditional means of political communication (Elliott and Bull, 1996). However, it differs from traditional political platforms, in which politicians are in total control of content and process. In their institutional role as talk managers, interviewers ask the questions, select who speaks and decide when a question is answered sufficiently. Furthermore, many studies show that interviewers have become increasingly aggressive and adversarial in their behavior towards political interviewees (a.o., Clayman and Heritage, 2002). This raises questions about the influence interviewers have on how politicians are presented.

Neutrality is considered to be an important condition for accomplishing good journalism (Schudson, 1978). The necessity for objectivity is laid down in professional rules of conduct. Nevertheless, there are signs that there is an increasing lack of neutrality in Dutch journalism. Politicians and supporters of small right-wing parties in particular complain about the so-called ‘left-wing bias’ of the media. Journalists are suspected to use the power they have as manager of the conversation and approach left-wing politicians more positively then their right-wing colleagues. On the other hand, most left-wing politicians, politicians of the large right-wing parties, and journalists themselves deny this. The aim of this study is to contribute empirically to this discussion by means of a comparative analysis of interviewers’ approaches in news interviews with right-wing politicians and left-wing politicians, focusing on the use of linguistic means of power wielding.

The analysis builds on the five measures of aggressiveness in questioning (initiative, directness, assertiveness, adversarialness, accountability) proposed by Clayman and Heritage (2007), adding persistence as a sixth measure. All six measures are operationalized in features of turn-design. The data consists of 12 50-minute clips from Dutch late night talkshow Pauw & Witteman: 4 clips featuring a left-wing politician, 4 featuring a right-wing politician, and 4 featuring politicians in the political centre. Results focus on differences in the aggressiveness of the interviewers and possible explanatory conditions for the found differences.

Clayman, S. E. and J. Heritage. (2002). "Questioning Presidents: Journalistic Deference and Adversarialness in the Press Conferences of U.S. Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan." Journal of Communication 52(4): 749-775.

Clayman, S. E., J. Heritage, M. N. Elliott, and L. McDonald. (2007). "When Does the Watchdog Bark?: Conditions of Aggressive Questioning in Presidential News Conferences." American Sociological Review 72: 23-41.

Elliott, J., and P.E. Bull. (1996). A Question of Threat: Face Threats in Questions Posed during Televised Political Interviews. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 6: 49-72.

Shudson, M. (1978). Discovering the News: A Social history of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books.

Session: Paper session
Television 3
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 10