Interpreting Public Voice

Kate Dunsmore, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Florham Campus

Kate Dunsmore (Photograph by Roy Groething)

By W. Scott Giglio

“What do you really think?” That’s what Associate Professor of Communication Studies Kate Dunsmore wants to know. Specifically, what does language use tell us about what people think and believe?

“My question is, ‘Why do things resonate with people?’” she says. “When you see headlines with a certain kind of phrasing, what is that telling us about what that culture as a whole believes is the issue?”

Dunsmore focuses on discourse analysis, which involves examining the style, syntax and lexicon of all that is said and written about a topic.

“I take the evidence that is in the record — what was published in newspapers, what was in speeches and what was in public documents — and I use discourse analysis to shed light on how people construct meaning in their lives around political issues,” Dunsmore explains.

She uses this method to discern press-state relations historically. “Basically, how does the press serve government, and how does government rely on it?” she explains. “How does the citizenry learn what they learn, and what do they think about politics and government? How do they construct their knowledge about politics?

“There is a gap between an institution such as government and citizens. The press helps fill that gap. All language use is structured, certainly by grammar and syntax expectations, but also by many other kinds of expectations that make it possible for one person to be understood by another.”

Dunsmore continues, “For example, journalists perform their function within a structure of practices, such as using sources and headlines. The product of these practices and language use is a picture of events. This is just one element the public has as a source of political knowledge.”

Her approach is interdisciplinary. “That’s what attracted me to communication studies, which focuses on communication in different contexts drawing explicitly on multiple disciplines,” she says.

What’s next? Dunsmore is studying press coverage of national identity and refugee policy in Australia, Canada and the United States. Another paper details her analysis of newspaper coverage preceding the American Revolutionary War, comparing that in the colonies with that in Canada’s first newspaper, the Nova Scotia Gazette.

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2016 edition of FDU Magazine.