Doing things with words in local broadcast interviews

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AIREEN BARRIOS-ARNUCO

As an applied linguist, I have always been fascinated at how words “do things” (loosely borrowed here from J.L. Austin) in different speech situations. Interestingly, at the time when the unfortunate siege of 2013 took place in Zamboanga City, I was in my hometown, right in the center of the action, from where I could obtain data and experience the situation firsthand. It was only years later when I decided to examine the data, and in the process I found nuances in broadcast talk that “did things.”

Broadcast talk does not differ hugely from ordinary conversations, but it does observe certain ground rules. In the news interview format, for example, interviewers generally restrict themselves to asking questions and listening for answers from the news sources. Thus, actors on both sides systematically produce a conversation that is at least minimally recognizable as questions and answers. At the same time, interviewers are responsible for keeping the discussion going and ascertaining that the responses are truthful and not just self-serving.

Interviewers must maintain neutrality and an adversarial position during broadcast news interviews, but balancing both is often a difficult challenge, especially in very tense situations such as the 2013 siege. On September 9 of that year, about 500 members of the MNLF entered the city. During the three-week period, usual activities in the city center came to a stop. Broadcast around this time was also characterized by a general sense of urgency and imminent danger as reports came in from the field, describing the abnormal situation happening simultaneously in different parts of the city. Did the interviewers appear to be generally neutral toward the issue and to the interviewee even at an extraordinary time?

A conversation analysis guided by Clayman’s 1992 framework on footing and neutrality reveals “footing shifts” in the way interviewers conduct themselves in this particular speech situation.


Based on a transcript of interviews that took place on the first few days of the siege, analysis reveals footing shifts observed at a critical point when the interviewer mentioned a controversial piece of information. By this utterance, the interviewer presented himself as principal of the idea. During his turn, the interviewee contended that he had not received evidence that a member of the ecclesiastical order had been held hostage. The interviewer readily supplied the name of the priest-hostage without attributing the source to earlier field reports, thereby establishing himself as the author of the information. However, when the interviewee asked him whether or not the news had been confirmed, the interviewer did a case of self-repair by attributing the information to a third party. Using the passive voice, the interviewer stated a foreground information that a third person (i.e., people) had seen the priest marching from one community to another together with some relatives, positioning himself no longer as the source of the information.

In a second example, the interviewer does another one of his characteristic interruptions using a persistent questioning style in order to draw from the interviewee a response to a controversial question. But he also self-references (=ya puede ba yo oui kun Ka Aman ya habla kay h willing le quedauno del maga mediator or negotiator=or did I get it the wrong way kay hinde le kay no quiere le queda: mal plantao? Translated: “Did I hear Ka Aman say that he is willing to be one of the mediators or negotiators, or did I get it the wrong way—that he does not want to be in a compromising position?”). By referring to his ability to ask the question, the interviewer softens the directness of the question, thus lessening his adversarial stance.

In sum, interviewers employed footing shifts, back-channeling responses, and self-referencing to maintain neutrality—doing things with words—as they went about their work as journalists.

Aireen Barrios-Arnuco, Ph.D. is an associate professor of applied linguistics at De La Salle University. Email address: aireen.arnuco@dlsu.edu.ph

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