The Syntax of Backgrounding Controversial Issues in Media Discourse: A Critical Analysis of New York Times COVID-19 Reports About China

Haiyan MEN, Zhixia YANG, Richard Ingham


This paper is concerned with the use of relative clauses in New York Times COVID-19 reports on China, aiming to reveal the manipulative strategies employed in media discourse in establishing a link between persuasive argumentation and the discourse functions of relative clauses. The study finds that through syntactically backgrounding potentially controversial issues in relative clauses regarding China’s Covid containment, reporters reduce the readers to accept the tacit truth of the presupposed propositions, thus enhancing the acceptance and manipulation of their political argumentation. The study further shows that relative clauses, by virtue of providing causal-explanatory links, facilitate a biased interpretation to occupy readers’ political cognitive space. The study further suggests a modification of the function taxonomy of relevance relative clauses on the basis of Loock (2007). Offering evidence from mass communication, our critical analysis is expected to shed new light on the link between syntax and manipulation.


Controversial issues; Relative clauses; Presupposition; Discourse functions

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