Home / Articles / Volume 16 (2018 Special Issue) / Defaulting to Metalanguage: Financial Concept Negotiations in User Comments as a Case of Mediatization
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Abstract

On 30 June 2015, the euro crisis and its devastating effect on Greece culminated in the short term when two of Greece's bailout packages were set to expire. The deadline attracted an enormous amount of media coverage – and user engagement with it. This article analyses how the evening's main event was conceptualised in two ways – as Greece being 'in default' or 'in arrears' – and how the competing concepts were used in The Guardian Online's live blog reporting and the ensuing user comments. Tendencies regarding the concepts' usage and uptake are discussed through a close analysis of indicators of metapragmatic awareness (Verschueren, 1999). It is shown that the two terms were entextualized in distinct ways, and that this engendered specific and politically-motivated indexical links for some users in the commenting community. Drawing upon Agha's (2011) conceptualisation of mediatization, the article suggests a need to refocus investigations on the online audience's uptake of economic/financial news reporting.

Introduction

When the Greek government officially requested financial aid for the first time in April 2010, few people could envisage the situation developing into the events that gripped financial markets and international politics on 30 June 2015. The January 2015 Greek elections had given a mandate to a government led by ΣΥΡΙΖΑ (SYRIZA) on an anti-austerity platform, leading to acrimonious relations between Greece and its creditors. On 30 June 2015, Greece's first bailout package was to expire, with the country nowhere nearer to a long-term solution. With severe capital controls in place across the country, the stakes were high. The uncertain ramifications of the bailout's expiry were complicated further by the unpredictable outcome of a referendum on 5 June, when citizens would cast their votes on whether or not to agree with a third bailout package's stringent demands.

Notwithstanding the event's magnitude, two terms circulated to conceptualise it: 'in arrears' and 'in default.' This article investigates both concepts' usage in a community of online commenters in order to assess how audience participation shaped the terms' meanings and connotations. The half-decade between the first bailout request and its expiry was also a period where journalism continued its shift towards ever-increasing prima facie audience participation (see Anderson, 2011 for an overview). The recently conventionally adopted live blog news report, characterised by Thurman and Walters as "a synthesis of traditional journalism and contemporary digital technologies that is changing the way news is produced, presented, and consumed online" (2013, p. 82), is one symptom of this shift. As indicated by the same authors, however, the genre remains under-researched, both in journalism studies as well as in discourse-oriented research. This article aims to make a contribution by investigating a portion of the 30 June 2015 live blog reporting by The Guardian Online, an early adopter of the genre (Thurman & Walters, 2013).

The following section briefly positions the analysis vis-à-vis other discourse investigations on euro/financial crisis discourses, as well as arguing that the concepts of 'mediatization' and 'metapragmatic awareness' are highly suitable to investigate novel contexts of media reporting. After presenting the data and methodological apparatus, the bulk of the article focuses on usage of the above-mentioned financial terms in (i) The Guardian's live blog reporting and (ii) its user comments. It will be argued that findings point towards a situation where one of the two terms acquired specific indexical links for some members of the commenting community. The article concludes with a summary of its main findings and suggestions for future lines of enquiry.

Literature Review

Discourse and the Economy

Existing discourse-analytical research on the euro crisis has persuasively argued that economic and financial news reporting is never a discursively neutral affair. Description and presentation vary considerably according to outlet and target audience on a variety of linguistic levels. Investigations relying on Critical Metaphor Analysis (e.g., Charteris-Black & Ennis, 2001) have highlighted cross-cultural similarities in the metaphors used to conceptualise economic affairs. Yet Arrese and Vara-Miguel (2016) hypothesise that precisely due to the pervasiveness of similar metaphors across certain Western European countries, it becomes "difficult […] for the media to stand aside from the experts' discourse or to forge new ways of analysing economic events outside the prevalent consensus" (p. 150), with some metaphorical patterns being ideologically problematic. Metaphors describing the euro crisis as a contagious disease, for example, may also construct Greece as patient zero and consequently as the cause instead of the symptom of the 'illness' (Bickes, Otten, & Weymann, 2014). Similarly, a strategy whereby government deficit spending is metaphorically conceptualised as drug addiction (Caers, 2013) may fan scepticism towards this policy.

The actors involved in economic and financial events are represented varyingly, too, with well-known processes of Other-representation in political news reporting occurring no less in economic/financial news reporting. Kutter (2014) analysed 50 editorials on the 2010 Greek crisis in the German Handelsblatt and found that Greece was explicitly blamed for the crisis in just four occurrences. Implicitly, however, use of metaphors and implicit associations contribute to constructing "the Greek case" (p. 454) as exemplary and symptomatic of problems present in the entire Eurozone. In other cases, economic news reporting may rely heavily on personifying economically relevant countries. Analysing the representation of Germany in online and offline French political discourse, Bogain (2014) identified three main discursive choices, viz. that of a "ruthless oppressor," a "Virtuous Ant," or as inferior to France, which go hand in hand with the political position one wishes to defend. Broadly speaking, these studies confirm the findings of investigations of cross-national European news, where "complex subject[s] [are condensed] to a few symbolic issues and to conflicts at the highest political level" (Oberhuber et al., 2005, p. 230).

Many investigations, then, have emphasised elite conceptualisations of economic and financial affairs, at the expense of a sustained focus on audience reception (but see Boers [1997] on comparing how particular metaphors influence readers' opinions on economic policy). Yet advances in news media now provide discourse analysts with a window into audience reception. Relevant here are increasing possibilities for users to react to news discourse, publicly and with little editorial control. User comments of this type have been broadly conceptualised in two ways. Some describe them as "the contemporary enactment of the eighteenth-century cafés that founded [the] public sphere" (Ruiz et al., 2011, p. 463, in Zamith & Lewis, 2014, p. 562), offering new opportunities for the demos to participate in debates and critiques. From a sociological point of view, however, some argue that despite the ostensible emancipatory potential of user comment platforms, they in fact function as sites that further "sociological propaganda" (Ellul, 1965, in Goss, 2007), with users mainly reproducing, and contributing to, dominant ideological patterns. The paradox may be solved by arguing that users show a "relative freedom with which [to pillage] news frame constructions to construct their own views" (Baden & Springer, 2014, p. 545), although, from a frame-setting point of view, news media still shape the subsequent audience debate to a great extent. Even if a precise theoretical assessment of user comments' contributions remains unclear, evidence indicates that, at a minimum, user comments affect audience understanding of the news and may influence users' perception of media bias (Houston, Hansen, & Nisbett, 2011).

As such, discussion forums offer promising sites for discursive approaches to investigate not only audience reception, but also audience attitudes towards the news media they consume. In other words, "while the question of whether the internet will transform the Habermasian public sphere remains open, online forums provide an opportunity to capture the negotiation of beliefs and stances" of a group of consciously participating audience members (Angouri & Wodak, 2014, p. 561). The current paper argues that these forums may also illuminate audience reception of particular terms, and that even such a (provisionally) narrow focus may provide indications of public opinion on particular actors in economic news. In order to do so, it is necessary to briefly discuss the two theoretical concepts of 'mediatization' and 'metapragmatic awareness.'

Mediatization

'Mediatization' will be used as an overarching concept related to the macro-level factors and the situated affordances that influence the production of the discourse under investigation. Agha (2011b) describes mediatization as a particular instance of semiotic mediation,1 where "institutional practices […] reflexively link processes of communication to processes of commoditization" (p. 163). An important corollary is that as the volume of communicated messages proliferates, so does "the scale at which persons can orient to common presuppositions in acts of communication with each other" (p. 163). Since Agha takes mediatization to be subsumed under mediation, it also implies that the latter increases in complexity. Similarly, the social relations engendered through mediatization will proliferate, enhancing "the felt complexity of so-called 'complex society' for those who belong to it" (p. 163).

This definition would seem to imply large-scale, diachronic research, comparable to Androutsopoulos' (2014) preferred constructivist reading of mediatization as "a facet of socio-cultural change that is specifically tied to the expansion and differentiation of communication media" (p. 12). Yet a diachronic dimension is not a prerequisite for mediatization research that aims to examine "the interface between mediation […] and the mass dissemination of standardized messages" (Androutsopoulos, 2014, p. 12, and cf. Hepp, Hjarvard, & Lundby, 2015). Indeed, Hepp points out that "synchronous mediatization research" focusing on specific points in time is indispensable in gaining a comprehensive view of the "communicative figuration" of particular mediatized environments (2013, pp. 625-626), which may then be compared to other points in time.

The current article may be viewed as a contribution to this synchronous strand of mediatization research. As it stands, the concept is eminently applicable in research on online user comments, since it draws upon complex and multi-layered theories of sociolinguistic change (as opposed to language change) to describe different facets of mediatization. As Androutsopoulos notes, "[s]ociolinguistic change offers a conceptual space in which to integrate institutional policies with individual agency" (2014, p. 6), thus providing an investigative position from which to analyse the apparent paradox of discussion forums: They constitute a place for democratic debate and individual participation that is nevertheless institutionally overseen and sanctioned.

Metapragmatic Awareness and Mediatization

News users' assessment of financial and economic concepts and talk about their appropriate usage in and of themselves constitute examples of 'metalanguage,' a term based on Jakobson's (1971[1957]) taxonomy of "duplex structures" (Table 1). Duplex structures are utterances where the message (M) or code (C) refer to themselves or to one another.

Circularity

M/M

Message referring to message: reported speech

C/C

Code referring to code: proper names

Overlapping

M/C

Message referring to code: "autonymous mode of speech," where "the word […] is used as its own designation" (p. 131).

C/M

Code referring to message: "Any linguistic code contains a particular class of grammatical units which Jespersen labelled shifters" (p. 131, original emphasis omitted), functioning indexically.

Table 1. Jakobson's (1971[1957]) four categories of "duplex structures"

Drawing an important distinction, Verschueren argues that the categories of M/C and M/M designate explicit metalanguage constituting an "identifiable object, separable from other manifestations of 'language'" (2000, p. 440, emphasis in original), while the categories of C/C and C/M constitute implicit metalanguage, inseparable from the stretch of discourse in which it occurs. The latter is analysable only when approaching metalanguage as a ubiquitous and inescapable "dimension of language" (Verschueren, 2000, p. 440), an approach that has in fact been defended extensively and convincingly. The dimension, termed 'metapragmatic awareness,' is conceptualised as "a functional modality" by Silverstein, who dismisses the possibility of "interactional coherence" and thus human communication without it (1993, pp. 36-37). According to Lucy (1993), "it is so pervasive and essential that we can say that language is, by nature, fundamentally reflexive" (p. 11).

In this view, one may analyse language users' reflexive awareness through "indicators of metapragmatic awareness" (Verschueren, 2000, p. 447), operating along a scale of implicit versus explicit indicators. More implicit ones include deictics and contextualization cues, defined as "any feature of linguistic form that contributes to the signalling of contextual presuppositions" (Gumperz, 1982, p. 131). More explicit indicators include represented speech and instances where a lexical item is 'mentioned' rather than 'used.' The latter part of the scale would include Jakobson's categories of M/M and M/C, with a whole array of linguistic items (such as discourse markers, verba dicendi, question tags, hedges, etc.) situated in between.

A firm motivation for adopting a broad view of metapragmatics as an investigative focus is the fact that "there is no way of understanding forms of social behaviour without gaining insight into the way in which the social actors themselves habitually conceptualize what it is they are doing" (Verschueren, 1999, p. 196).2 In the current context, a focus on indicators of metapragmatic awareness elucidates how commenters not only conceptualize their interaction with other audience members, but also how they interpret and assess particular financial and economic concepts. As explained by Verschueren, these indicators are traces of linguistic devices that "entextualize discourse, i.e. […] provide discourse with a textual status, an interpretive frame of reference, by means of metapragmatic contextualisation" (1999, p. 195, emphasis in original).

This is especially important in the context of online discussion forums, where users may support, criticise, question or debate particular aspects of the news reporting but only in a 'textual' manner. While The Guardian Online's blog reporting demonstrates an intense hybridity and multimodality – also reproducing tweets, videos, and pictures – the forum for user comments relies solely on text. This absence of non-textual contextualization cues in online communication has been suggested to amplify language users' reliance on textual ones, such as code-switching (Georgakopoulou, 1997), and indeed to augment participants' metapragmatic awareness in general (Thurlow & Poff, 2013). Indicators of metapragmatic awareness may thus play a relatively more important role in online communication.

Metapragmatic awareness also constitutes a key point in Agha's framework of mediatization, although in a different formulation. Here, participants in a mediatized chain of textual commodities may always "dismiss as 'ideological' the voicing structure of any previous events" through, amongst other means, "metasemiotic discourse" (2011a, p. 176). That is, language users may metasemiotically characterise, and comment upon, "'textual' features [that] orient textual content to some specific audience" (Agha 2011a, p. 175) yet with which they do not agree.

The focus also constitutes a suitable angle for synchronous mediatization research from a methodological perspective. Livingstone (2010), followed by Hepp et al. (2015), distinguishes between "media-centered" and "media-centric" approaches to mediatization. While the latter can be conceived as being "one-sided" in its analysis of media effects, a media-centered approach "involves a holistic understanding of the various intersecting social forces at work at the same time as we allow ourselves to have a particular perspective and emphasis on the role of the media in these processes" (p. 316). Certainly, this perspective, along with the concept of mediatization itself, is helpful in discouraging fallacious generalizations or causal links about "the" media's influence on language use in society. Yet adopting this approach also greatly increases the possible investigative foci or the conceivable proposals and hypotheses they spawn. A focus on linguistic reflexivity may offer a solution here. By analysing isolatable instances of 'object' metalanguage as well as more explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness in the discourse, the analysis will automatically be guided to those features of language use in context relatively more important to the language users themselves (cf. Preston, 2004). In a novel and highly complex/polylogal interactional system of users commenting on live news reporting and responding to other users' comments, the approach thus serves as a tool to fairly spontaneously detect those elements that readers of the news consider to be (most) important at that point. In the case of the current article, insights into news users' attitudes towards the reporting are provided by indicators of metapragmatic awareness including, but not limited to, verbials (Verschueren, 1985), discourse markers, and quotation marks – textual indicators of metapragmatic awareness par excellence.

Data and Methodology

The blog under investigation can still be accessed online at the time of writing at http://www.theguardian.com/business/live/2015/jun/30/greek-debt-crisis-day-of-decision-for-tsipras . The choice to investigate live news on The Guardian Online was made primarily since it differs from other live news platforms, such as BBC Online, in that users are able to post comments in real time. It thus offers not merely a snapshot of audience reception, but an image that shifts and changes according to the development of the live news.

Moreover, that The Guardian Online is an internationally widely-read publication, with many different voices and viewpoints entering the fray. Thus it provides a fascinating opportunity to investigate the effects of audience engagement with the news and its consequences, for the simple reason that neither researchers nor any other reader of the news/user comments knows for certain who wrote a particular comment and with which background. Even the purpose of a contribution may be ambiguous. Yet it will be argued near the end of this article that this "ad hoc" assemblage of news users also has an effect on language use and the indexical relations of particular linguistic items, even if the cultural, political, or demographic background of the producers of user-generated content is unknown.

The Guardian's live news updates, presented in reverse chronological order, are highly multimodal and interactive, containing plain text, images and/or videos, and clickable links. Squires and Iorio's observation that "[j]ournalists' uptake of [tweets] embodies the intertextual dynamic of vernacular texts being recontextualized within more-standard texts" (2014, p. 332) extends to the corpus under investigation, with the wider audience having access to literal, non-edited, and sometimes different language words of certain actors. Advertisements and references to related stories separate the user comments from the live blog report, thus clearly delineating and distinguishing the officially sanctioned news reporting from the user comments (cf. Hermida & Thurman, 2008).

The live news blog ran from 07:41 on Tuesday 30 June 2015 until 01:17 the following morning. The user comment interface alongside the blog remained open until the morning of Thursday 2 July 2015. In total, the article garnered 12,075 user comments, the majority of which were posted in the first 24 hours of the live blog. In order to make the corpus more manageable and amenable to an in-depth qualitative analysis, it was first subjected to sampling by time frame. The specific deadline for Greece to repay money to the IMF on 30 June 2015 was 23:00 GMT, and as explained above, the live blog ended at 01:17 the following morning. Given this, data produced 2 hours and 20 minutes on either side of the 23:00 deadline was retained for analysis. This decision preserved the data produced around the undeniably pivotal moment of the entire evening: an officially designated moment of 'crisis' that emphasised the unpredictability and uncertainty of what would happen after the deadline (cf. De Rycker & Mohd Don, 2013).

With the corpus narrowed down, a data-driven approach was adopted to code instances of explicit metalanguage covered by Jakobson's category of M/C. As mentioned in the previous section, this step allowed for the identification of salient moments in the blog reporting and oriented the investigation towards particular lexical items in the interaction. Indeed, while acknowledging that reflexivity and metapragmatic awareness are pervasive properties of human language use, it is worthwhile to "[isolate] the 'meta' level of communication from the totality of communication (linguistic and otherwise), for the sake of theoretical argument when it offers distinctive sociolinguistic insights" (Coupland & Jaworski, 2004, p. 23). This preliminary step led to the identification of what will be the focus of the remainder of this article: the use of the concepts '(in) default' and '(in) arrears' to conceptualise the expiry of Greece's bailout programmes.

In total, 127 threads containing 828 comments were retained for analysis and were investigated for indicators of metapragmatic awareness. Special attention was paid to indicators bearing on usage of the two lexemes under investigation. Given the focus on these particular keywords, the approach resembles that of de Beaugrande (1999) in his study of the meanings of the lexeme 'liberal.' At the same time, it is clear that the current study is "necessarily and inevitably a non-totalizing, non-exhaustive project" (Georgakopoulou, 2013, p. 4), providing chiefly further avenues for research.

Metapragmatic Aspects of the Usage of 'In Arrears' vs. 'In Default'

The Guardian's Countdown towards Greece's Default/Arrears

Despite the earlier relatively sensationalist countdown, there was confusion about what had actually happened at 23:00. At stake were complications in defining concepts, ambiguity regarding the actions of established financial institutions, and questions of legal and practical consequences. More specifically, the question on everyone's lips was whether Greece had defaulted by missing the deadline to repay the IMF, or whether it was simply in arrears.

From a pragmatics point of view, a productive angle to clarify 'arrears' versus 'default' is found in Austin's (1962) Speech Act Theory. The most salient difference between declaring a debtor in arrears or in default would be the illocutionary force: Only declaring a default triggers 'default contingencies.' The terminological choice of 'in arrears' avoids setting in motion these processes. Moreover, only the creditor of a loan may declare a debtor to be in default. As explained below, Mr Dijsselbloem, the head of the Eurogroup and not the IMF, stated that Greece was in default to an IMF loan. Yet his utterance does not satisfy one of the felicity conditions of the speech act, since he does not speak for the creditor. Lastly, being 'in arrears' is no prelude to being 'in default,' since the IMF could have kept Greece categorised as 'in arrears' for a substantial amount of time.

Like many other news outlets, The Guardian provided coverage of the discussion, drawing upon established elite voices to clarify the aforementioned specificities. It reported on the deadline's expiry at 23:07, stating that Greece was "in arrears to the IMF," thus following official International Monetary Fund terminology. At 21:09, similarly, an update described the deadline as the moment when Greece would "[join] a small gang who are currently in arrears." The accompanying tweet by Mike Bird, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, showed a screenshot of a table on the IMF's website entitled "Arrears as of May 31, 2015," with the list consisting of Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Despite this apparent clarity, however, The Guardian reported on 21:36 that the rating agency Fitch had downgraded Greece's credit rating, under the headline "Fitch downgrades Greece, warns default risks are high." The update primarily consists of quotes by the rating agency, of which excerpt (1) is of importance.

  1. "We now view a default on government debt held by private creditors as probable. […] The current situation also means that Greece will most probably begin to run arrears with the IMF (€1.6bn loan repayment due 30 June) and risks running arrears on bonds held by the Eurosystem (€3.5bn due 20 July)." (my emphases)

In other words, the update headline is strictly speaking correct, but only if referring to Greek debt outstanding to private creditors. During the moment under investigation, however, all eyes were focused on debt Greece had to the IMF and the ECB, which would be categorised by Fitch as "running arrears." In representing Fitch's utterances, then, the update was not entirely loyal to the original quotation, an observation that only becomes clear when readers refer to the original quotation.

Further confusion arose when at 21:56 and 22:07, when the blog posted two video interviews with Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of the Eurogroup. In the first one, Dijsselbloem stated that Greece would be "in default tomorrow morning," and the headline of the 21:56 update reads: "VIDEO: Dijsselbloem says Greece will be in default tomorrow." In the second interview,

  1. "Jeroen Dijsselbloem has also told CNN that 'Greece will be in default tomorrow morning to the IMF,' unless it makes that €1.6bn repayment within the hour…." (22:07)

Moreover, in their coverage of the crisis, CNN had a sensationalist "Greece Default Countdown" clock featured in the lower right-hand corner of their reporting, reproduced by The Guardian in its live blog seven minutes before the deadline.

Fifteen minutes before the deadline expired, the state of affairs was described as follows:

  1. "That's because the IMF may confirm, sometime after 6 pm local time, that Greece has not repaid the €1.6bn due today. That would mean it is officially 'in arrears' with the Fund – which Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chairs the eurogroup, has already dubbed being 'in default.'" (22:45, my emphases)

The excerpt mentions that 'in arrears' would be the description to apply officially to Greece, in contrast with The Guardian's terminological choice at 21:36. Indeed, the verbum dicendi 'to dub' in (3) justifies earlier reporting, since it is an elite source that 'dubs' the events as a default.

Finally, at 23:38, an update linked to a Guardian article on whether Greece would be 'in default' or 'in arrears,' as well as a quote by a strategist at LNG Capital who viewed the non-payment as constituting a default. The link is contextualised as follows:

  1. "In the genteel world of the IMF, one falls into 'arrears' rather than plunging into 'default.' But, if it looks like a default, swims like a default, and quacks like a default, then it's probably a default, my colleague Katie Allen explains." (23:38, emphasis in original)

The description in example (4) firmly links the terminological choice of 'arrears' to IMF guidelines. However, the atypical metaphor, the link to Katie Allen's full article, and the juxtaposition of the term 'arrears' to the "genteel world of the IMF," all suggest that 'default' would be a preferential term (although not strictly speaking a more accurate one). In reality (and throughout the reporting), however, while the IMF relied on specific guidelines to declare a nation in arrears, the unprecedented nature of the situation confused assessment of it by journalists and economists alike. Arguably, the required urgency of 'live' and 'breaking news' reporting (Reynolds & Barnett, 2003) furthered the surrounding confusion, since only time would be able to tell what the legal and judicial consequences of non-payment would be.

Yet even if declaring Greece to be in arrears avoided setting in motion institutional default contingencies, this would not in principle suffice for other actors to refrain from treating Greece as if it had defaulted. The linked article of example (4) explained that "[w]hatever it is called in the end, markets will likely perceive a missed payment of this size […] as a default and that will leave Athens struggling to raise further funds from foreign creditors" (Allen & Farrell, 2015, June 30). Drawing the focus away from which specific term to use, the article thus focuses on how the events would be perceived by analysts and markets.

User Comments on Greece's Default/Arrears

The aforementioned confusion extended to the user comment board, where it formed the main topic of no fewer than 19 comment threads (out of 126 analysed). However, as will be discussed in this section, an analysis attending to indicators of metapragmatic awareness shows a marked difference in salience (Verschueren, 1999) of the terms under discussion, with users going beyond merely reproducing The Guardian's stance. Indeed, section "Towards Indexicality" will describe how the salient terms 'arrears' acquired indexical relations and connotations far beyond its original meaning during the course of the evening (cf. "text-level indexicality" in Agha, 2007, pp. 24ff.).

One of the most consistent findings regarding the use of 'default' and its derivations, and in contrast with 'arrears,' is the relative lack of more explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness in the majority of cases. Commenters usually employ the term without any explicit epistemic markers or markers that indicate speakers' attitudes towards the concept. More importantly, the term is never 'mentioned' instead of 'used,' unless it forms the topic of a metalinguistic debate (i.e., a debate directly relating to the meaning of terms, as in the examples from (19) onwards). Prima facie, this may indicate a lesser degree of conscious awareness on the part of commenters of their usage of the term. Examples (5) to (9) illustrate this.3

  1. eyzian, 30 Jun 2015, 20:57

    The way stock futures are trending, it say [sic] they want to celebrate Greek default! Mr V's market chaos game has failed.

  2. johan 1974, 30 Jun 2015 22:13

    Has Greece now defaulted? Deadline's past no?

  3. equusmulusoctopus, 30 Jun 2015 23:00

    Eight minutes to go, four, bang! We have crossed the rubicon [sic]! More than five years late, we have finally defaulted on a debt that could not be paid then and cannot be paid now. Cheerio!

  4. DonJuan, 30 Jun 2015, 23:06

    Well, Greece has defaulted and I didn't feel the tremors under the earth. Soon others to follow….

  5. George Bouvier, 1 Jul 2015, 00:04

    Congratulations to the EU. We've just seen the first Eurozone country to default on a payment to the IMF. […]

The users in the comments above all employ the term 'default' in order to describe and conceptualise the events which formed the focus of The Guardian's live blog reporting. Example (5) allegedly interprets rising stock markets as a result of a celebration of "Greek default," and thus resembles examples (6) to (9) in conceptualising the deadline's expiry as Greece having "defaulted."

Apart from unfolding events being labelled 'default,' commenters also draw connections to other sovereign financial crises, subsuming them under the label 'default.' Examples (10) to (13) demonstrate this in more detail.

  1. ploeck, response to Hyper Borean, 1 Jul 2015 00:21

    So how come USA was not destroyed by California default? And California was not destroyed like Greece was?

    nerajya, response to ploeck, 1 Jul 00:30

    I don't know. It is a mystery as the US is exactly like Greece.

  2. WorrierQueen, response to Niko Lean, 30 Jun 2015, 23:45

    […] It may not look it at the moment, but just as when Argentina defaulted, the bright dawn of Greece's future was the day they said no to greedy bankers and dodgy German politicians. […]

  3. Massam, response to Apotheosis21, 30 Jun 2015, 22:53

    As long as your [sic] are saying it recognising that no [vote] means no more rescue from the ECB/EZ, which means a collapse of the Greek banking system and then exit from Euro, taking Greece down the same path as Argentina when they defaulted in 2001 […]

  4. Zeus2015, response to voiceofreasontonight, 30 Jun 2015, 21:48

    The US is dealing with their own "Greek Crisis" through Puerto Rico. They will soon be in default. […]

In examples (10) to (12), the comments comparing financial crises in Greece and in other nations rely on the term 'default,' which functions as the connection that allows user commenters to juxtapose the evening's events to past events despite large institutional, contextual, and financial dissimilarities between them. This does not go unnoticed by the user who responds to the first message in (10) in a sarcastic manner. Example (13) employs the same strategy; however, the presence of quotation marks around 'Greek Crisis' is a more explicit indicator of metapragmatic awareness that seems to acknowledge the potentially misleading aspect of comparing Greece's situation vis-à-vis the EU to that of Puerto Rico vis-à-vis the USA. In the current context, it is the only example where a user does so.

In only a very few cases it is possible to establish a commenter's passing reflection/awareness on the term 'default,' such as when users create a pun.

  1. herero, 1 Jul 2015 00:29

    Merkel and Lagarde have defaulted on their credibility ratings which now stand at EE double minus.

  2. Ulysses Tennyson, response to DarthTiggyWinkle, 30 Jun 2015, 23:31

    Default, dear Alexis, is not in our arrears but in our shelves

Example (14) demonstrates one of these instances, where the user suggests Mesdames Merkel and Lagarde "have defaulted on their credibility ratings." Here, the user draws upon financial terminology such as 'default' and the by-then well-known rating agencies' schemes, in order to create a humorous effect. In example (15), a user creates a rather particular spoof of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, in which Cassius declares that "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves,"4 employing both terms under discussion.

Aside from example (15) and as indicated earlier, however, 'default' and 'arrears' demonstrate largely distinct patternings of co-occurrence with explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness. 'Arrears' is never used, for instance, to compare the expiry of Greece's first bailout package to other sovereign defaults, as is the case with 'default' in examples (10) to (13). The only situation to which commenters apply it is the one that forms the topic of the live blog reporting. Moreover, when the term is used, it is more often than not accompanied by explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness.

A common indicator, as alluded to above, is the presence of quotation marks. These typographic means almost systematically mark the term, as exemplified in (16) to (18).

  1. PoblachdnahAlba, 1 Jul 2015 00:36

    Right, so Greece is now in 'arrears' at the IMF. On the 20th of July, they owe another large tranche to the ECB. […]

  2. usacitizen, 30 Jun 2015, 23:40

    So…no default and no Grexit. IMF loan to Greece is "in arrears." BFD. Not the first and not the last.

  3. Stephen Sean, 30 Jun 2015, 23:02

    Well that's it then, its default or "in arrears" depending on whom you ask. The bigger problem is not having a bailout programme anymore.

Example (16) is an instance of the expiry of Greece's first bailout being conceptualised using 'arrears.' 'The example, however, contains an explicit indicator of metapragmatic awareness in the form of the quotation marks surrounding 'arrears.' This contrasts with examples (5) to (9) and the vast majority of instances where the bailout is described as a 'default.' A general function of these quotation marks is difficult to ascertain conclusively. Gutzmann and Stei (2011) identify five functions quotation marks may fulfil, of which two are relevant here: "pure quotation" and "scare quotes" (p. 2651). The former involves quotation marks "signal[ling] that the quoted word is mentioned rather than used," while the latter suggests that the quoted word cannot be taken at face value (p. 2651). In examples (16) to (18), conclusive information as to why the commenter uses quotation marks is lacking. Yet Gutzmann and Stei (2011) present convincing arguments to treat all instances of quotation marks as fulfilling the same pragmatic function: They "mark the expression they enclose and, thereby, indicate that the standard interpretation of the quotatum is pragmatically blocked" (p. 2662). That is, they signal to language users that an alternate, non-standard, reading of a quoted expression is required. This definition also explains this article's treatment of quotation marks as explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness.

As demonstrated by the aforementioned examples, users seem to at the very least mark 'arrears' as either an anomalous term, or as someone else's expression. This is most notable in (18), where the commenter states it "[depends] on whom you ask" – another explicit marker of metapragmatic awareness. And while he mentions both alternatives circulating, only 'in arrears' is marked by quotation marks. Other examples of how the two alternatives complicate news users' assessment of the situation are found in (19) and (20).

  1. Stephen Sean, 30 Jun 2015 22:25

    Dijsselbloem says Greece will be in default within the hour. That's what I thought too but then there has been all this press saying its [sic] not default yet but only "in arrears" when you initially miss an IMF payment. I think maybe default kicks in when the private investors get screwed and the default swaps kick in and the default insurance payments get triggered.

    PragmaDogma, response to Stephen Sean, 30 Jun 2015 22:34

    The IMF does not have to declare default until some 30 days after the missed payments. Until then, the debtor is "in arrears" but not actually in default. Note that this is merely custom, something the IMF can do but does not have to – it can immediately declare Greece to be in default at a minute past midnight should it want to. Given the way Varoufakis treated Lagarde…

  2. Anselmo Sam Lippa, 30 Jun 2015, 23:02

    I think Lagarde and the IMF will not declare Greece in default yet. They will only state that, Greece is in arrears and has 15-30 days to settle the bill.

    Thomas Sullivan, response to Anselmo Sam Lippa, 30 Jun 2015, 23:08

    I'm not so sure. The last minute end of month bundling announcement by Greece embarrassed Lagarde greatly as was designed, so she may return the slight. It surprised me when Dijsselbloem used the term 'default.'

In (19), an exchange loaded with indicators of metapragmatic awareness, users debate Mr. Dijsselbloem's assessment of the situation (see the previous section). Stephen Sean attributes the use of the term 'default' to Mr. Dijsselbloem as well as his own assessment of the situation, with 'arrears' attributed to "all this press." This leads him to hypothesise as to the circumstances that would see Greece categorised as 'in default': "when the private investors get screwed." Another user responds with their own assessment, explaining the conditions that they believe intervene in labelling Greece as 'in arrears': a voluntary act of goodwill by the IMF lasting for 30 days. This only semi-accurate idea occurs in (20), as well, where a similar lay debate on represented speech and, indeed, its illocutionary effect occurs through 'declare' and 'state.' This time, however, the user responding situates the reasons for the IMF's categorisation at the level of personal relations between the negotiators.

Lastly, one of the most explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness in conceptualising the events corresponds closely to Jakobson's (1971[1957]) category of messages referring to the code. Exceeding implicit forms of metapragmatic awareness, example (21) illustrates how commenters invoke their own (lay) definitions and circumlocutions of the problematic terms.

  1. orationemliberam, 30 Jun 2015 23:01

    Greece has officially defaulted.

    IndependentScott, response to orationemliberam, 30 Jun 2015 23:04

    Not really, it is just in arrears, That is different from default. Default is bad, in arrears is still sort of ok. It's like forgetting to pay your dentist's bill within 14 days. He'll send a friendly reminder with a few candies and a reminder to come back in 6 months for a cleaning. 14 days later, he might be pissed and you are "in default."

    orationemliberam, 30 Jun 2015, 23:15

    I know the different [sic], thank you very much, however do you honestly think that a payment will be made in a month? Really?

In this example, a poster comments on the deadline's expiry by stating that "Greece has officially defaulted." Amongst other responses, the user attracts a comment pointing out that Greece is "just in arrears" and not in default. In order to explain the distinction, IndependentScott employs a metaphor of "forgetting to pay your dentist's bill" resulting in the dentist sending you a reminder, once again erroneously implying that Greece would still have a final deadline that would mark the start of its default (cf. Spilioti on home economics metaphors, this volume). The original user then states that he "know[s] the different [sic]" before proceeding to explain their alleged, after the fact motivation for not opting for the term "arrears."

The above findings indicate that for the majority of commenters 'default' is the unmarked, less salient option to conceptualise the expiry of Greece's bailout package. The salience of 'arrears' causes it to be resisted by means of quotation marks, explicit messages referring to the code in the form of circumlocutions and definitions, and explicit attributions to other voices. However, the story does not end here, for the presence of some users' own interpretations of conditions of use for 'arrears' affects the term's connotations and indexical links.

Towards Indexicality

Some instances where appropriate uses of 'arrears' versus 'default' are debated offer insight into why some users did not only take up the former's usage but indeed actively avoided it. Example (22) commences with a user reminding other people that "Greece is not yet in default."

  1. OnTheRobertELee, 1 Jul 00:42

    Technically Greece is not yet in default.

    The IMF will send Tsipras a reminder notice in a couple of days and given them a final deadline. Only if they miss that one, will Greece be officially in default.

    Linto Poulouse E, response to OnTheRobertELee, 1 Jul 2015 00:47

    We call that default and what you mentioned is "a reminder to inform you that your payments are late"

    PoblachdnahAlba, response to OnTheRobertELee, 1 Jul 2015 00:57

    […] The IMF uses polite jargon, so the ECB can pretend Greece is not in default – at the moment. On the 20th, the ECB cannot possibly pretend Greece and its banks are still solvent if they fail to pay (as they surely will), since the payment is due to the ECB itself.

    TheThistle, response to OnTheRobertELee, 1 Jul 2015 01:06

    […] Will that be a penultimate final deadline? […]

The user once again demonstrates the semi-correct notion that being 'in arrears' constitutes only temporary relief to Greece, and states that the IMF will send the Greek government "a reminder notice." Linto Poulouse E then counters this assertion by stating that "[w]e call" the events a default. The user also suggests that OnTheRobertELee's "reminder notice" should be seen as "a reminder to inform you that your payments are late" and that one is already in default. Moreover, two other users join in the criticism. PoblachdnahAlba echoes The Guardian in stating that "[t]he IMF uses polite jargon, so the ECB can pretend Greece is not in default." This means that a technical term is now lifted out of its original context (cf. Bauman & Briggs [1990] and Verschueren [1999] on entextualisation), whereby it acquires attributes that turns it into a 'cover-up' term for the same user. TheThistle echoes this sentiment, and the user's comic comment implies that 'arrears' is viewed as a status that merely covers up a fixed deadline.

The suspicion surrounding the term 'arrears' becomes evident in the following examples, as well, where users either explicitly comment on possible motivations or reasons for its usage, or comment on their interpretation of the term.

  1. owl905, response to GerasimosMD, 30 Jun 2015, 22:20

    […] The E320 billion question is how the world decides to treat the IMF "in arrears" payment. The article suggests all the EU finances are close [sic] off concurrent with the missed payment. Hopefully by tomorrow there's clarification… before everyone decides to interpret the status for their own agenda.

  2. mark7777, 30 Jun 2015, 23:15

    It's heartbreaking to see so many posters interpret the default of Greece as anything else BUT the default of Greece. Denial seems to be the most invincible brain function which can survive even a nuclear explosion of reality.

    owl905, response to mark7777, 30 Jun 2015, 23:25

    The problem isn't theirs. It yours. And it's The Guardian. And it's the confusion with more than one creditor not getting paid.

    By the rules of the IMF a missed payment is not sovereign default. That's all that's settled so far, so claiming it can't be anything BUT… needs a But to start the response.

  3. PrinceEdward, 30 Jun 2015, 23:52

    Notice how quickly they rushed to state that Credit Default Swaps are not effected [sic] by being in "Arrears" to the IMF. Looks like Greece has a lot more leverage than it appears to have.

    The Shadow, response to PrinceEdward, 1 Jul 2015, 00:01

    Notice how you Syriza fanboys are clutching at straws.

  4. TheThistle, response to Stahanovite, 1 Jul 2015, 00:59

    But Tsipras and company are determined not to mention the D word.

  5. james7114, response to Martin Bogar, 30 Jun 2015, 23:58

    that would piss me off more than the arrears business

    time is money!

The user in example (23) foreshadows many of the debates that would occur during the rest of the evening, by pointing out that Greece's "status" would lend itself to different interpretations suited to different actors. This is precisely what is evidenced in the following examples, where the term 'in arrears' comes to signify a denial of reality (24); a hint that "Greece has a lot more leverage than it appears to have," interpreted in turn as wishful thinking (25); an alternative to the "taboo" term 'default' (26); or a strategic means by vested interests to buy time (27). These instances indicate (i) that users not only adopt the term 'arrears' to argue points about the expiry of Greece's first bailout package, but also (ii) the fact that use of the term itself indexes for participants in the debate particular attitudes to it. Particular values and ideological claims are associated with a term that are absent in its original, financial context. Importantly, this is not the case for the alternative term 'default,' which does not garner similar comments referring to its connotations or its use by interlocutors to nearly the same extent.

Much like the examples of The Guardian Online, the comments on 'arrears' in (23) to (27) demonstrate a high level of metapragmatic awareness on the part of producers and potential receivers. They systematically reflect on the (circumstances of) use of 'arrears,' in a manner that is missing for the term 'default' (with the exception of, e.g., example (26), itself prompted by earlier metalinguistic discussions). Furthermore, and as explained in 4.1, 'arrears' is not used in as many distinct contexts as 'default,' e.g., when 'default' is entextualised as a means to describe financial crises in other nations. Finally, the former term is in general used far less often that the latter by commenters to describe the expiry of Greece's first bailout package.

The above observations indicate that throughout the evening 'arrears' was marked by a higher degree of salience than 'default,' evidenced through systematic co-occurrence with explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness. This point is important in accounting for why only the former term developed particular indexical links for some users through the course of the evening. As argued in the literature review, contexts of computer-mediated communication may heighten interlocutors' textual metapragmatic awareness. In the current context, this implies that the metapragmatic marking of 'arrears' would not go unnoticed by certain commenters, who would then continue to focus on the term itself. Similar metapragmatic attention would not be drawn by 'default,' since no metapragmatic marking regularly accompanied its usage.

This is a tenable hypothesis, especially when drawing parallels with Agha's discussion of reported speech as a metapragmatic act. As he explains, "reported speech constructions […] may be used in any interaction to denote the characteristics of other social interactions in ways which contribute to the shape of the current interaction" (Agha, 2007, p. 30). Notably, the more explicit the reported speech event, the more likely its mention may shape subsequent interaction, due to the fact that links between the utterance and the reported speech event will be recognized as such by interlocutors (Agha, 2007). When applying this insight to the term 'arrears' and its surrounding metapragmatic dimension, it is likely that, throughout the evening, commenters' attention to circumstances surrounding use of 'arrears' shaped subsequent online interaction in a much stronger way than was the case with 'default,' due to the fact that users did not explicitly attend to the metapragmatic dimension of the latter term.

In order to account for the particular indexical relations acquired by 'arrears,' it bears reminding that a key feature of mediatization is the opportunity for "massively parallel inputs to recontextualization, so that a very large number of people can […] treat fractionally congruent fragments of mediatized messages as indexical presuppositions of whatever it is they do or make" (Agha, 2011b, p. 167, and cf. Agha's observation on metasemiotic discourse in the discussion of Metapragmatic Awareness). This is also the case for live blog reports, where a massive number of voices have the opportunity in real time to recontextualise whatever feature of the reporting they wish. In this case, and as discussed earlier, 'arrears' came to index different values/ideologies for different commenters: To some, for example, its use demonstrated "leverage" on part of the Greek government (25), while to others it demonstrated a denial of reality (24).

As boyd reminds us, however, "[s]calability in networked publics is about the possibility of tremendous visibility, not the guarantee of it" (boyd, 2010, p. 48, emphasis in original). The same may be said about individual user comments and their instrumentality in creating indexical links for particular lexical items. While some posts such as jokes rise to the top of the page, others languish without a single like. Similarly, posts on the 'arrears'/'default'-distinction need not receive an acknowledgment. The fact that they did in this case is by no means inevitable. The same observation explains why 'arrears' did not acquire a stable, generalised indexical link for all users in the discussion.

Conclusion

The discussion in this article has focused on the use of two financial terms to conceptualise the expiry of Greece's first bailout package on 30 June 2015. Special attention was paid to the presence of indicators of metapragmatic awareness in user comments to determine how lay commentators engaged with the terms. It has been observed that commentators relied on the 'default' alternative much more systematically, both in describing current events and in comparing them to relatively distinct ones. Meanwhile, the 'arrears' alternative consistently co-occurred with explicit indicators of metapragmatic awareness, indicating the term's higher degree of salience. It also formed the topic of messages explicitly commenting on its meaning and usage. The factors associated with the use of 'arrears' were argued to be influenced by processes of (online) mediatization, which were instrumental in endowing the term with indexical relations for part of the commenting community. 'Arrears' came to index for some commenters an unwillingness to use the, in their view, more appropriate term 'default' for reasons ranging from denial to strategic scheming by politicians and financiers. Although this process was limited in scope, the article has emphasised the importance of focusing also on the process rather than only the effects, in order to gauge how people interpret and interact with aspects of economic/financial discourse. The importance of investigating this is underscored by the potential for an audience in a mediatised online news environment to influence other people's understanding of terms on a larger scale. Even for relatively innocuous terms such as 'arrears,' this potential should not be underestimated.

One could argue that these processes have always existed in mass communication contexts. Even so, two points may be noted. On the one hand, nowadays they occur on platforms where users may comment on, seek to correct, undermine, or criticise newspaper reporting in a public arena, in a very rapid manner. Consequently, and in line with Agha's (2011b) approach to mediatization, other news users are faced with a huge increase in previous texts to orient to, in turn greatly enhancing the potential creation of links between different speech events. Users may, for example add more subjective content (compared to feedback in letters to the editor, as Landert and Jucker (2011) demonstrate), affecting future conversations on the topic, as also demonstrated in example (22). In this example, the "reminder" formulated by OnTheRobertELee becomes the focus of Linto Poulouse's response, even though the technical term 'arrears' does not imply a reminder of any kind. In other words, a news user's increased subjectivity may enter into other users' assessment of other texts and, ipso facto, influence their subsequent metapragmatic awareness. On a macroscopic scale, while newspaper reporting carries more influence on the social order, its potential authority may be severely affected, much like that of other elite voices. Indeed, it may be hypothesised that the mediatized process of live user commenting may affect the capacity of centres of influence to shape and affect the social order, since their language use becomes vulnerable to semantic and/or indexical manipulation (see also Hou's [this volume] investigation of user commenting/'bashing' on a Chinese news app). As this article has shown, this is the case even in settings where users are anonymous.

On the other hand, a methodological point may be formulated. If, as is likely, news users' understanding has always to some extent been affected by, for example, processes of text-level indexicality (Agha, 2007) or by sociocognitive mental models (van Dijk, 2013), contemporary trends make it possible for researchers to more accurately investigate these on a larger scale than before. User comments of this type, after all, constitute unsolicited reactions to a newspaper article, and no researcher intervened in their writing. While the commenter's incentive may at times be difficult to ascertain, one should not discard the value of user comments for an analysis of the use and indices of certain lexical choices.

This article did not fundamentally touch upon the extent to which the indexical relations acquired by 'arrears' may be indicative of wider ideological patterning. A larger corpus would be needed to be able to demonstrate conclusively how particular indexical relations (i) reflect existing ideological schemata or (ii) potentially create new schemata for news users to interpret and understand the news. For now, this article has underscored the value and potential of a focus on how an audience interprets financial and economic news reporting, since particular terms or metaphors may be recontextualised and reinterpreted in varying ways. As of yet, there is almost no research focusing on this aspect of the communication of economic/financial news reporting. More research is needed to identify the linguistic elements most commonly affected in economic/financial news discourse.

Acknowledgement

The research presented in this article was made possible by an Arts & Humanities Research Council (London Arts and Humanities Partnership) Research Studentship.

Notes

  1. Semiotic mediation is defined by Agha (2011a) as "the generic process whereby signs connect persons to each other through various forms of cognition, communication and interaction" (p. 174).

  2. Verschueren (1995) nevertheless warns that an ethnographic component is still necessary if one wishes to make claims about language practices and ideologies in a particular context. The lack of a (digital) ethnographic component is a limitation of this research that stands acknowledged.

  3. User comments on this article's topic may be categorised as ideologically sensitive. However, since they were posted on a public online forum, and in the interest of peer evaluation (cf. Herring, 1996), data and user names are reproduced verbatim.

  4. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/julius_caesar/full.html, consulted December 2016.

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Biographical Note

Cedric Deschrijver [cedric.deschrijver@kcl.ac.uk] earned his Ph.D. at King's College London, in which he investigated metalanguage surrounding economic/financial terms in online debates. Using methods of linguistic-pragmatics discourse analysis, he is currently investigating the metapragmatics of online economics discourse, as well as metapragmatic labels surrounding media discourse (e.g., 'fake news' and 'conspiracy theory').

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