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Hybridities in political media discourse

1. Political discourse in context

In the age of mediatized mass democracies, political discourse in the media is an important means for ordinary people to encounter politics (Lauerbach & Fetzer, 2007). This is particularly true of political debates and interviews, in which political information is transmitted in dialogue-anchored forms. Against this background, different discourse genres, such as political interviews, panel interviews or talk shows provide the opportunity, first, to translate politics, which has been frequently conceptualized as a macro structural phenomenon, into text and talk (Chilton & Schäffner, 2002); second, to transfer macro-domain oriented politics to the micro domain; and third, to personify party-political programs, agendas and ideologies. Furthermore, the dialogic nature of these genres allows for the presentation of symbolic politics (Sarcinelli, 1987) as a language game composed of questions and answers, in which the politician’s and journalist’s argumentation and their underlying reasoning and negotiation of meaning are made explicit. This sort of contextualization facilitates and supports the comprehension of macro politics, making it more accessible to the general public.

Political parties tend to focus on the production of politics, which takes place behind the scenes, while politicians tend to focus on its presentation, which takes place in the public stage. On that stage, public agents co-construct, negotiate and contextualize politics, and it is the job of the politician to use all possible means inherent to the contextual constraints and requirements of mass media to present her/his political agenda in a credible and responsible manner to a heterogeneous audience, whose members are potential voters.

Political discourse also feeds on a differentiation between politics as an ideological system and the management of politics in society (Charaudeau, 2005: 34). The latter considers political action, political decision-making processes and the traditional fields of action and control, such as law-making procedures, party politics and the relation between legislative and utive branches, and the administration, as well as the fields of public participation and opinion formation in politics (Wodak, 2008: 297). But politics is no longer a clear-cut domain. Its boundaries have become more and more blurred as they intersect with mass media and economy.

2. Hybridities in context

The concept of hybridity has not only been well established in postcolonial studies but also in dialogue-centered, critical-discourse-analytic and sociopragmatic approaches to language and discourse (Fairclough, 1995; Lauerbach & Fetzer, 2007; Linell, 1998). While the former focus on the connectedness between discourse, participant and context, dialogue-centered approaches examine how polyphony or multi-voicedness is reflected in the production and interpretation of text. Critical discourse analysis considers the dialectic relations between discourse and society, paying particular attention to conditions of production, reception and access, as is reflected in social practices and generic chains. Socio-pragmatics looks at how participants produce and interpret language in social context, accounting for communicative strategies, direct and indirect communicative action, and contextualization.

In the late modern discursive formation of political discourse, access to political decision-making processes and political action are no longer the sole privilege of the traditional domain of politics and its political agents. The major transformations in the public sphere concern the role and actions of civil society and its citizens who thus take part in the formation of political opinions. Because of that traditional politics and traditional politicians require the media to make their political actions more transparent. Against this background, the formation of public opinion takes place in the media and through the media. There are, however, different logics that control the public media space, namely those of technologization and commercialization. First, the technologization of communication enables the agents to have a greater number of mediated encounters using diverse genres, such as forum discussions, chats and weblogs. As a consequence, the contexts in which political topics emerge multiply (Charaudeau, 2005: 30) furthering the distribution of politics. Second, the media tend to be based on economic principles according to which they need to produce attractive and well-selling products, contributing to the commodification of politics (Fairclough, 1992). In this process, the task of the media to entertain has become as important as its task to inform. From a reception point of view, the public does no longer constitute a homogeneous construct (Lauerbach & Fetzer, 2007), but varies according to its options to access and its willingness to participate in encounters provided in and by the media, selecting topics ranging from local to global, and national to supranational.

3. The dynamics of political media discourse

Communication in general and political communication in particular is a dynamic endeavor, as has been examined above. This is particularly true of political discourse in the media, which is not only produced for, but also within a particular media event. At the same time, it is part of a larger chain of political discourses, in which it becomes recontextualized in the form of sound-bites, quotations, summaries or represented discourse (Fairclough, 1995; Fetzer & Lauerbach, 2007; Lauerbach, 2004).

In the process of communication, participants do not just produce utterances at random, but they produce utterances in accordance with the contextual constraints and requirements of a larger, more stable frame of reference: a discourse genre, which – depending on the methodological frameworks employed – is referred to as communicative genre (Luckmann, 1995), activity type (Levinson, 1979), macro speech act (van Dijk, 1981) or communicative project (Linell, 1998).

Changes within the social practices of a speech community manifest themselves in changing contextual constraints and requirements anchored in these larger frames of reference. To account for them, a dynamic framework is required, accommodating a top-down perspective considering the genre as a whole, and a bottom-up perspective considering the constitutive parts of the genre. The former is informed by the sociocultural context in general and by discourse identity, discursive style, medialization (Fairclough, 1995) and turn-taking in particular. The latter considers local-level language use as is reflected in communicative strategies and other semiotic practices.

In a sociology-anchored outlook on communication, the larger frame of reference is called communicative genre which represents a ‘universal formative element of human communication’ (Luckmann, 1995: 177) operating ‘on a level between the socially constructed and transmitted codes of ‘natural’ languages and the reciprocal adjustment of perspectives’ (ibid.). In pragmatics it is the activity type which is ‘a fuzzy category whose focal members are goal-defined, socially constituted, bounded events with constraints on participants, setting and so on, but above all on the allowable contributions’ (Levinson, 1979: 368). In the discourse genre of a political interview, for instance, the fuzziness of a genre allows the traditional dyadic political interview to accommodate the multi-party configuration of a panel interview. Closely connected with the cognitive concept of fuzzy category are inferential schemata, which guide participants in their production and interpretation of communicative meaning.

Political discourse in the media has undergone a process of hybridization in which hybridity also emerges locally with respect to structural configurations, for instance deviations from the strict question-and-answer sequences in political interviews, where members of the audience take on the interviewer role and ask the politician political questions. These can be performed directly, or they can be mediated – that is ‘translated’ – by the professional interviewer. The deviation from the prototypical structural configuration has consequences on the construction – and status – of the discourse identities and on the discursive styles employed. For instance, in a political interview, private-domain anchored members of the audience take on a temporarily professional public discourse identity, thus assigning relevance to the non-professionalized, private domains of society (Fetzer & Bull, 2008). This also holds for the discourse topics in political media discourse, which have become more and more private-domain anchored, and for the discursive styles which display more and more instances of conversationalization and more and more instances of meta-talk (Fairclough & Mauranen, 1995; Fetzer, 2006).

4. Hybridization and taken-for-grantedness

The hybridization of discourse genres makes manifest their multi-layered status, blurring taken-for-granted boundaries thus turning a once predictable event into a fuzzy, locally non-predictable media encounter. By acting in dis-accordance with constraints, for instance by presenting themselves as multiply voiced, social agents that transcend boundaries and go beyond linearity and predictability. In those local non-defaults, the staged performance of the encounter is surfacing. An example par excellence is the political interview between the renowned British journalist Jeremy Paxman and the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the year 2003 dealing with Britain’s stance towards the war on Iraq. Paxman asked Blair about his religious beliefs, whether he prayed together with George W. Bush, the US American President, and how he felt about the whole situation. In his response, Blair answered to the point, but presented a rather non-prototypical response, viz. he smiled at the interviewer. That non-default reaction was taken up by the interviewer and turned into an object of talk. Additionally, hybridity and multi-layeredness are reflected in staged antagonism (Lauerbach & Fetzer, 2007; Schegloff, 1989), in conversationalization and medialization (Fetzer & Weizman, 2006), in acts of confiding (Fetzer & Johansson, 2007), in the presentation of self (Johansson, 2008) and in small stories told in political speeches, interviews or election campaigns (Duranti, 2006).

Political discourse in the media is a multilayered dynamic process which requires the explicit accommodation of different genres which provide political agents and audiences with a conventional format to construct and interpret political meaning. This does not only hold for the communication of direct, explicit meaning but also for indirect, implicit meaning. It is at the interface of micro-meaning construction, constrained by the formal requirements of genre, which has become blurred through hybridization, where the multilayeredness of political discourse in the media surfaces, recontextualizing old formats and opening new ones.


Charaudeau, P. (2005) Le discours politique. Les masques du pouvoir. Paris: Vuibert.

Chilton, P., Schäffner, C. (2002). ‘Introduction: themes and principles in the analysis of political discourse’, in: P. Chilton and C. Schäffner (Eds.) Politics as Text and Talk: Analytical Approaches to Political Discourse. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 1-41.

Dijk, van T. (1981) Studies in the Pragmatics of Discourse. The Hague: Mouton.

Duranti, A. (2006) ‘Narrating the political self in a campaign for U.S. Congress’, Language in Society 35: 467-497.

Fairclough, N. (1992) Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fairclough, N. (1995) Media Discourse. London: Edward Arnold.

Fairclough, N., Mauranen, A. (1997) ‘The conversationalisation of political discourse: A comparative view’, Political Linguistics, Belgian Journal of Linguistics 11: 89-120.

Fetzer, A. (2006) ‘”Minister, we will see how the public judges you”. Media references in political interviews’, Journal of Pragmatics 38(2): 180-195.

Fetzer, A., Bull, P. (2008) ‘”I don’t mean you personally, forgive me, I mean generally”. The strategic use of pronouns in political interviews’, Journal of Language and Politics 7(2): 271-285.

Fetzer, A., Johansson, M. (2007) ‘”I’ll tell you what the truth is”: the interactional organization of confiding’, Journal of Language and Politics 6(2): 147-177.

Fetzer, A., Lauerbach, G. (Eds.) (2007) Political Discourse in the Media: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: Benjamins. Fetzer, A., Weizman, E. (2006) ‘Political discourse as mediated and public discourse’, Journal of Pragmatics 38(2): 143-153. Johansson, M. (2008) ‘Presentation of the political self. Commitment in electoral media dialogue’, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, in press.

Lauerbach, G. (2004) ‘Political interviews as a hybrid genre’, Text 24(3): 353-397. Lauerbach, G., Fetzer, A. (2007) ‘Introduction’, in: A. Fetzer and G. Lauerbach (Eds.) Political Discourse in the Media. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 3-30.

Levinson, S. (1979) ‘Activity types and language’, Linguistics 17: 365-399.

Linell, P. (1998) Approaching Dialogue. Talk, Interaction and Contexts in Dialogical Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Luckmann, T. (1995) ‘Interaction planning and intersubjective adjustment of perspectives by communicative genres’, in: E. Goody (Ed.) Social Intelligence and Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 175-188.

Sarcinelli, U. (1987) Symbolische Politik. Opladen: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag.

Schegloff, E. (1989) ‘From interview to confrontation’, Research on Language and Social Action 22: 215-240.

Wodak, R. (2008) ‘The contribution of critical linguistics to the analysis of discriminatory prejudices and stereotypes in the language of politics’, in: R. Wodak and V. Koller (Eds.) Handbook of Applied Linguistics ‘The Public Sphere’ (Vol. IV) Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 291-316.


Anita Fetzer is a Professor of English Linguistics at the Leuphana University of Lueneburg (Germany). She has had a series of articles published on rejections, context, political interviews, and intercultural communication. Her most recent publication is Political discourse in the Media (2007, co-edited with Gerda Lauerbach). Her research interests focus on the interdependence between natural-language communication and context.


Marjut Johansson is Professor of French Language at the Department of French Studies, University of Turku, Finland. Her research interests lie in the areas of pragmatics, interaction analysis and foreign language teaching and learning at the university level. She has been working on different genres of mediated interaction, especially on political media interviews. She is also interested in multilingualism, language policies and ideologies concerning language practices.

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