GSE Publications

Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version

April 1999


A metapragmatic expression denotes an event of speaking. An embedded metapragmatic construction embeds one metapragmatic expression within another, as in "Bush said Clinton lied." This article reports that embedded metapragmatic constructions, when used in television news coverage of U.S. political campaigns, most often predicate on the topic of lying. Simple metapragmatic constructions in this news coverage rarely describe lying, but embedded metapragmatic constructions often do. The article suggests two explanations. First, embedded metapragmatic constructions provide particularly rich opportunities for characterizing and evaluating the quoted speakers. Second, these constructions allow the reporter to make highly charged evaluations of the second embedded speaker, while placing the responsibility for such evaluations on the first embedded speaker. The article provides evidence to support these hypotheses, using as data the embedded metapragmatic constructions uttered on weekday newscasts on two networks, in the two months preceding the U.S. presidential elections in 1992 and 1996.

In recent years reporters have become increasingly bold in accusing politicians of lies and other moral transgressions (Wilson, 1990 and Patterson, 1993). Patterson documents how this adversarial and accusatory stance by the press has increased over the past four decades. In the 1960 US presidential campaign, for instance, 75% of stories about the candidates reported "good" news. By the 1992 US presidential campaign this figure had fallen to 40%. At the same time, however, the press still claims to be even-handed in reporting on politicians (Davis and Walton, 1983 and Waugh, 1995). Mainstream reporters do not want to express clear bias toward one political party, nor do they want to make unsubstantiated accusations. Reporters thus face a delicate situation when handling partly-substantiated allegations about politicians' lies or other moral transgressions - a situation which they face regularly in contemporary US political campaigns. The press wants to report this kind of story, but they do not themselves want to be accused of bias or of making unwarranted allegations.

This article describes how reporters sometimes solve this problem with recourse to a particular type of linguistic construction, which we have called "embedded metapragmatics" (Locher and Wortham, 1994). In an embedded metapragmatic construction the speaker reports what one speaker says about another's language use, as when a reporter says "Bush claimed that Clinton lied". This article provides evidence that reporters often use such embedded metapragmatic constructions to report allegations about politicians' lies and other moral transgressions. We explain this fact by describing how the construction allows reporters to express allegations against politicians without themselves taking responsibility for those allegations. When the accusation of lying is placed in the mouth of the embedded speaker (Bush's mouth, in the example above), the reporter becomes in Goffman (1979)'s terms merely the "animator" uttering the message and not the "principal" responsible for the content of the accusation.

The article fleshes out this account of embedded metapragmatics and politicians' lies by examining television network news coverage of the 1992 and 1996 US presidential campaigns. The first section of the article describes our approach to the social functions of language, which draws heavily on Bakhtin, and gives a more formal account of embedded metapragmatic constructions. The second section first describes the methods we used in collecting and analyzing network news coverage of the 1992 and 1996 US presidential campaigns. This section then reports the central result from our data analysis - that almost half the embedded metapragmatic constructions used by reporters describe events of lying or other moral transgressions by politicians - and presents two hypotheses to explain this finding. This section goes on to describe a more specific pattern in the data that shows how reporters use embedded metapragmatic constructions to avoid responsibility for accusations about political lies: the verb of lying virtually always appears in the second embedded slot. That is, reporters almost never make statements like "Bush lied about Clinton's claim", but they often make statements like "Bush claimed that Clinton lied". The last section draws conclusions about the ubiquitous social functions of language use and how these affect political reporting.


Postprint version. Published in Language and Communication, Volume 19, Issue 2, April 1999, pages 109-125.
Publisher URL:


metapragmatics, voice, double voicing, news discourse, media bias



Date Posted: 01 May 2007

This document has been peer reviewed.