Corona, Isabel: “The construction of shared feelings: analysis of affect in a corpus of obituary comments in online newspapers”
The comments section in online newspapers consists of a slot found below an article’s body text where readers may post their opinion following that piece of news. Comment boards were offered by online newspapers a decade ago to engage readers in the news process, thus creating a new context for expression and engagement (Yzer and Southwell 2008) within the general ‘connecting’ mantra.
Journalistic obituaries, with a long-standing tradition in all sorts of newspapers, are life stories seen in retrospective. They are narratives of lives with a purpose established by the newspaper, either to praise or condemn, becoming a lesson of life that guides or reinforces the values of a community of readers who are supposed to share the same socio-cultural or political principles. Thus, evaluation of the subject has been an intrinsic feature of obituaries. The subjects’ lives are sanctioned as complying with or deviating from role-specific parameters, in such ways that they construe a particular version of collective memory, reflecting the values of the media institution. This collective memory can now be challenged by the new media affordances that open up the space for individual reactions to that memory. By using the comments section, which could be viewed as a new ‘social tool’, prior readers become co-participants in the coproduction of the text’s meanings” (Page and Thomas 2011: 10): they may bring emotional reactions on his or her behaviour, on his or her public legacy as role models, and get an immediate response from other participants. The users’ discursive acts, although separated from the main text, construe another discursive context that may or may not agree with the newspaper’s assessment of the subject.
The main aim of this study is to explore the commentator’s use of evaluative expressions for the construction of affect towards a life story of a public persona in the digital media, in order to assess the way media users establish a new space for shared feelings. For this purpose, the corpus comprises 840 comments which appeared in the obituaries published by five online newspapers (Daily Mail (UK), The Daily Telegraph (UK), The Guardian (UK), the Huffington Post (USA edition), and the Washington Post (USA)) after the death of the Spanish Duchess of Alba.
The study is grounded in Collective Memory as an umbrella concept that “defines relations between the individual and the community to which she belongs and enables the community to bestow meaning upon its existence” (Neiger et al. 2011: 4). The analysis applies the framework proposed by Appraisal Theory (Martin 2004; Martin and White 2005; White 2001), to explore the attitudinal values used to construe a community of shared values. The present analysis focuses on the attitudinal realm of “Affect”, as mapping the commentators’ reactions in terms of happiness, admiration, satisfaction, desire and solidarity towards the obituarised subject.