PhD Project

Genre Development in Science Journalism: A Multimodal Discourse Analysis of the National Geographic Feature Article
1915 — 1965 — 2015.
(2022, 411 pages)

National Geographic (1888–) is one of the most prominent popular science monthlies on the magazine market. My study traces the development of its most extensive and traditional journalistic genre, the ‘feature article’, over 100 years of its history. Paging through an issue, old or new, we find that the magazine’s journalism has never relied on running text alone. Instead, even the earliest feature articles include photographs and maps. Such components are meaningfully arranged on double-page spreads and fulfil particular communicative functions as narrative/argumentative discourse structures unfold. It was one of the central goals of my project to describe how editors have employed written language, typography, photographs and layout (Bateman et al. 2017) to make their science journalism appealing to increasingly large, heterogeneous audiences in changing socio-cultural contexts.

To describe stability and change in the development of the feature article, I investigated 45 randomly sampled articles from 1915, 1965 and 2015. Altogether, the data set contained 1,282 pages, incl. 277,369 words and 1,158 graphics, which were analysed using approaches from multimodal discourse linguistics. Among others, I identified typical layout elements and patterns based on various perceptual cues. Image-caption combinations stood out as central textual components across all data sets. Thus, all 1,102 image-caption clusters were investigated with a view to image semantics and composition, language-image relations, questions of image-/ verbiage-centricity, and emotive/figurative language use in captions. To deliver a rich description of multimodal communication in socio-historical contexts but also an account of general developmental patterns, I pursued a mixed-methods approach, combining qualitative annotations with a quantitative analysis of codings in the form of relative frequencies, further descriptive statistics and occasional significance testing.

Based on various empirical results, several developmental trends emerge. Feature articles become shorter over time and vary less in scope, which may indicate a ‘standardization’ and ‘professionalization’ of journalistic practice. The repertoire of layout elements broadens over time and the space attributed to images increases, with image-caption clusters appearing in more prominent positions. This attests to a growing ‘modularisation’ (Bucher 1996) and ‘visualisation’, resulting in more entry points for the browsing reader. While, in 1915, photographs of people were fewer and attested to practices of ‘othering’ of ethnic cultures, the 1960s witnessed the rise of authentic, human-centred photography. Over time, captions show a shift from a classification classifying to naming depicted humans and a more extensive engagement with what is shown. This development can be evaluated as a ‘personalisation’ of science journalism.

My study aims to contribute to theory, methods and empirical knowledge in multimodal discourse linguistics and science communication research. While it follows in a discourse-linguistic tradition, my project demonstrates what can be gained if the modal complexity of media communication is acknowledged and thus seeks to contribute to the further consolidation of multimodal discourse analysis as an area of linguistics (Stöckl 2019). Moreover, my study delivers a relatively rare account of a multimodal genre’s development over time (Luginbühl 2014), develops methods for a historically-sensitive collection of genre-based data and suggests various theoretical refinements. To science communication research, a multidisciplinary field that benefits from further theoretical grounding (Bongo 2014), I offer a new ‘integrative model of science communication’. To journalists, my study presents a rich account of the history of feature-writing and the various medial, journalistic and societal factors that have influenced its development in the 20th and 21st century.

The project was completed in 2022.


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Bucher, H.-J. (1996). Textdesign — Zaubermittel der Verständlichkeit? Die Tageszeitung auf dem Weg zum interaktiven Medium. In Hess-Lüttich, Ernest W. B, W. Holly, & U. Püschel (Eds.), Textstrukturen im Medienwandel (pp. 31–60). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Bongo, G. (2014). Die Sprache der Popularisierung: Eine Standortbestimmung. In G. Bongo & G. Caliendo (Eds.), The language of popularisation — Die Sprache der Popularisierung (pp. 223–246). Bern: Peter Lang.
Luginbühl, M. (2014). Medienkultur und Medienlinguistik: Komparative Textsortengeschichte(n) der amerikanischen ‘CBS Evening News’ und der Schweizer ‘Tagesschau’. Bern: Peter Lang.
Stöckl, H. (2019). Linguistic multimodality — Multimodal linguistics: A state-of-the-art sketch. In J. Wildfeuer, J. Pflaeging, J. A. Bateman, O. Seizov, & C.-I. Tseng (Eds.), Multimodality (pp. 41–68). Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.