[OPR] Landolsi/Hellqvist: Do all human beings have the same value? Polar questions, biased questions and argumentative orientation in one of the Samhällsnytt street interviews

Update (18.07.2023): The Open Peer Review for this submission has been completed. Based on the Open Peer Review, the article was not accepted for publication in the Journal of Media Linguistics.

On this page you can download the discussion paper that was submitted for publication in the Journal for Media Linguistics. The blogstract summarises the submission in a comprehensible manner. You can comment on the discussion paper and the blogstract below this post. Please use your real name for this purpose. For detailed comments on the discussion paper please refer to the line numbering of the PDF.

Discussion Paper (PDF)

Blogstract of

Do all human beings have the same value? Polar questions, biased questions and argumentative orientation in one of the Samhällsnytt street interviews

by Houda Landolsi & Birgitta Hellqvist

This study is a semantic and pragmatic analysis of the discursive and argumentative functions of polar (i.e. yes/no questions) and complex questions (trick questions, conducive questions, fallacy of presupposition,…) that occur in one of the street interviews conducted by the Swedish medium Samshällsnytt which presents itself as ‘alternative’.

The present study aims to be qualitative and focuses on a single text: “Är alla människor lika mycket värda?”[1][Do all human beings have the same value?].

We shall identify and classify the questioning strategies used by the interviewer, the one who controls and orients the conversation, before discussing the replies of a number of interviewees in order to see how these answers are either integrated into the interviewer’s argumentative strategy or deviate from his argumentative schema.

The study aims to show that the use of questions and the order in which they appear are subordinated to an argumentative purpose, which is not to evaluate public opinion on a topic, nor to inform, but rather to orient the argument towards a precise conclusion dealing with the common belief that all human beings have the same value.

The study opens with a short description of the corpus and character of the text being analysed, together with a brief theoretical introduction which sets out the types of questions used.

The analysis itself is composed of three parts, each of them examining a chain of verbal interaction, meaning that the question-asking and question-answering sequence will be seen as a unit.

A first distinction has been made between the introductory question [Do all human beings have the same value?] and the master argument-eliciting question [does a murderer/paedophile/terrorist have the same value as you/ yourself↑].  While the introductory question is intended to clearly state a common premise, the master argument-eliciting question is meant to evoke a counter-argument that entirely destroys the first utterance. The intermediate question is the main one, but it is less predictable.

The last question [what do you think when you hear this (.) that (.) is being blazoned in the media (.) that all human beings have the same value↑], which reformulates the introductory question, has the same propositional content, but the enunciative positioning is changed. The orientation towards negation/negative orientation becomes more explicit.

The answer to the first question is the one expected; the answer to the controversial intermediate question indicates the interviewee’s cultural and ideological background; while the answer to the final question reveals the interviewee’s interpretation of ideas presented by the interviewer as a fallacious perception of the truth.

The study arrives to the conclusion that the questions are conducive and biased. If the questions are biased, it is not merely in their semantic content, but also and especially in their sequence. The sequence of questions sets up a contrast between människor (human beings) as an almost abstract notion and the categories of such beings whose lives are judged to be deviant and shameful. The bias is created and maintained by the presence of the nature/culture amalgamation. The result is an apparent contradiction in interviewees’ responses: yes, all humans have the same value, but a murderer, a paedophile or a terrorist do not have the same value as I do. As human beings, we all have value, but the choices we make determine the added value of each one of us. The explanations which replace a simple yes or no are presented as a negotiation which might resolve the contradiction in the reasoning. This negotiation ends with the interviewee abandoning his initially entrenched position and modifying his assertion without, however, rejecting it. His new reply proves to be less categorical and more accommodating, as he searches for possible explanations to resolve the difference of opinion.

[1]     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIzwzLfosXo&t=158s [editor’s note: The URL leads to a website with content that may be anti-democratic. In consultation with the authors, we have removed the link to the URL, but not the URL itself.]

3 Replies to “[OPR] Landolsi/Hellqvist: Do all human beings have the same value? Polar questions, biased questions and argumentative orientation in one of the Samhällsnytt street interviews”

  1. Hans KronningApril 24, 2023 at 16:23Reply

    This is a valuable paper dealing with an understudied journalistic subgenre: the street interview. The argumentative and interactional approach is largely convincing.

  2. RedaktionJuli 18, 2023 at 10:10Reply

    Review by Nadine Proske
    Recommendation: Resubmit for review

    The paper’s aim is to analyze the question strategy employed by a (politically biased) interviewer doing street interviews for a YouTube channel belonging to an ‘alternative’ media platform. The data and research objective are interesting, as there is yet little research on this format, especially in its use by ‘non-mainstream’ journalist or non-professionals. The article’s theoretical and methodological foundation as well as the analysis itself, however, do not have a clear enough focus and leave many questions open.
    The introduction begins with a brief review of philosophical approaches to questions, but section 3 later takes a purely linguistic perspective on different question types. The review of the linguistic literature on questions is rather selective and draws on logical-semantic as well as rhetorical-pragmatic approaches without clearly stating which of these will be used in the analysis. In section 4, another approach, the conversation analytic (CA) one, is introduced (see below for an evaluation). The analysis (sections 5-7) mostly uses the introspective linguistic approaches, but occasionally also tries to take a participant-oriented CA perspective. The authors do not explain why they use which approach for a given excerpt of the data. The conclusions arrived at are mostly reasonable from a purely logical-linguistic, introspective perspective. From the point of view of a more empirical, inductive perspective – and especially from a CA standpoint – the conclusions are too speculative; they do not rest on the appropriate kinds of evidence (see below). In all, I found the authors’ logical-semantic reasoning interesting and often convincing (for example, the “nature/culture and being/doing dichotomy”), but I don’t think that this is necessarily the reasoning that underlies the participants’ use of words and grammatical constructions. The analysis is not able to show whether the interviewer and interviewees orient to logical or etymological aspects. The tools for the empirical analyses would have to be refined for the paper to be convincing as a whole.
    The paper demonstrates that the six interviews in the video on the same topic (that is, with the initial question Do all human beings have the same value?) show a clear pattern: The interviewer always uses the same or very similar formulations for his follow-up questions, hardly taking into account or picking up the interviewees’ answers. The interviewees mostly react in the same way to the three questions (1. agreement, 2. disagreement + negotiation, 3. no (dis-)agreement + justification, attempt at consensus). It has to be pointed out, however, that these tendencies are predetermined by the choices to include interviewees in the video or not, which were made by those who created the video. Thus, while the sequence of questions may be designed to lead interviewees into a ‘trap’, it cannot be demonstrated that this strategy works in the majority of cases. That is, it may not be accurate to say that the interviewer generally “exercises control” (381-387), as we do not know how many participants refused to answer the questions altogether or started arguing with the interviewer and were thus not included in the video. The video itself is made to persuade the viewer that these questions work.
    Here are some critical remarks and questions on details of the paper:

    What is meant by “digital forms of communication” (79)? Is the street interview or the video of it seen as a digital form of communication? The initial interaction, that is, the interview itself does not fit that description, while the video containing the interviews might (under some definition).
    What is the status of the question “what answers will I get (.) what do you think” (325-326)? Is it an additional question that follows the introductory question only in the voiceover (that is, is it directed at the viewers, while the interviewees only heard the introductory question)? This should be mentioned in the text, otherwise one might think that the interviewees were also asked this question.
    The descriptions of the conversation analytic findings of Raymond/Heritage (2021) across the paper are not quite accurate. For example, the authors’ account of the two preferences (for probability and for positive valence) is incomplete, as it does not mention which of them has more weight. Moreover, it is not clear if Raymond/Heritage’s findings apply to interview data, as these findings were gained from settings that have different conditions as far as turn taking and epistemics are concerned. It is not accurate to cite them regarding “the introductory question in an interview” (424). Raymond/Heritage observe that polar questions in first sequential position have a strong tendency to be designed in a way that makes an affirmative answer expectable. While the first question in an interview is necessarily also in a first sequential position, the two are not equivalent. There may be several first positions within one conversation. Moreover, an interview may begin with a non-polar question. More broadly, it is not clear without empirical analysis that interviews always follow the same preferences as mundane (and even institutional) talk (moreover, there are many different interview settings and genres). Even though the authors’ observation that all interviewees agree with the first question in the interview is congruent with Raymond/Heritage, it is not clear what the use of their findings for the rest of the analysis is. Apart from the short discussion in lines 436-451, no further reference to Raymond/Heritage or any other CA study is made, although CA concepts could have been useful for the analysis of the second and third questions and answers as well. For example, the excerpts contain several signs that the second answers are structurally dispreferred.
    On the other hand, it is not clear if CA is needed for the analyses at all as it does not fit the linguistic stance of the rest of the paper. The authors often introspectively attribute intentions to the speakers (for example, 590-591), which is not compatible with a CA approach. A CA approach would, for example, ask: How do we know that the interviewees perceive the first and second questions as contradictory or the second question as readable in two ways? One would then take the (in-)existence of hesitations, accounts, etc. as evidence for this. But only doing this would not result in a very original paper either, as the data are not ideal for CA analyses. What is interesting about the street interview data is their embeddedness in different media contexts. Thus, the focus should be less on the interview interactions, which are altered by choices and cuts anyway, but more on the media product (What choices are made, what patterns are created, and how is the product perceived?).
    The article does not define the notions ‘knowledge’, ‘truth’, ‘information’ and ‘opinion’, but uses them in different contexts without distinguishing clearly between them. The interview questions can be seen as targeting either opinions or general philosophical truths, but only indirectly knowledge. Of course, for having an opinion or recognizing a supposed truth one has to have knowledge of certain conventions. However, the questions do not target other kinds of knowledge, for example of the participants’ own biographies. This is another reason why the preferences that researchers have found to guide question design in other interaction types may not be applicable in the same way to the studied street interviews: The impact of different “territories of knowledge” (in CA terminology: ‘epistemic status’ and ‘epistemic stance’, see for example Heritage 2012) on the shape of the questions and answers has to be considered.
    Concerning the one deviant case (scene 3): We do not know if the interviewee has not detected the paradox or whether he has seen through the question strategy and does not wish to comply with it.
    The paper is generally structured in a plausible way, but some paragraphs are not quite cohesively connected to the surrounding text. For example, section 5 contains a long discussion of the meaning of värda and semantically related words (502-554), in between paragraphs analyzing interview extracts from scene 4. It turns out that the semantic background might help understand what the interviewee says. This should be indicated to the reader from the outset, before the long excursion.

    Apart from the questions that the analysis of the single video containing six interviews leaves open, the paper could profit from a broader perspective on the phenomenon under scrutiny: a) The video itself could be analyzed for multimodal aspects, instead of using only the transcribed words. Although one does not see the interviewer and there are cuts, one could use the interviewees’ facial expressions and gestures to underscore some conclusions or make observations that allow for a more participant-oriented perspective (for example, the eye movements/gaze direction of some participants could be interpreted as displaying irritation or surprise). b) The video could be analyzed in its online media context: What do the surrounding YouTube data tell us about the intention and reception of the interview? For example, do other videos of the YouTube channel that the video was posted on contribute to its interpretation? What do the users’ comments tell us about the interpretation by the viewers? The majority of user comments seem to make fun of the interviewees, taking them as examples of the ‘unknowing’ mainstream, indoctrinated by the ‘mainstream media’. c) The other 14 street interviews belonging to the corpus should be investigated and compared to the one analyzed in the paper. For example: Is the structure similar? Are there always rather fixed questions or do the interviewers sometimes incorporate the interviewees’ answers more in their follow-up questions? Are the interviewees that are selected for the videos always ‘caught in a trap’ or are there examples of participants pointing out that the interviewer is using ‘trick questions’? Even if it is not possible to incorporate all of the perspectives a)-c) into one single paper, it would be sensible to at least reflect on these issues in a discussion paragraph in the paper.
    In conclusion, I cannot recommend the paper for publication in its current form. Instead, I would suggest to the authors to not just revise and re-submit the current version, but to sharpen their research questions and expand their study.
    Heritage, John (2012): Epistemics in Action: Action Formation and Territories of Knowledge. Research on Language and Social Interaction 45(1), 1–29.

  3. RedaktionJuli 18, 2023 at 10:10Reply

    Review by Edgar Onea

    Recommendation: Resubmit for review


    The subject paper provides a qualitative analysis of a series of „street interviews“ conducted by a Swedish media outlet often associated with far-right ideologies. These interviews are structured to incite impromptu debates on the principle of „equal value“ of all humans. The authors‘ intention is to illustrate how these interviews employ certain manipulative methods of questioning that undermine fairness and bias neutrality.

    The authors‘ objectives, which are rooted in a quest for social justice and a critique of what they perceive as manipulative tools of right-wing media, are commendable. They seek to utilize their linguistic expertise to contribute constructively to this discourse. This goal aligns with the larger academic responsibility of producing impactful, societally relevant work, a pursuit I can empathize with fully.

    However, for the research to effectively contribute to the scientific discourse on the subject, it must uphold rigorous academic standards. As it currently stands, the paper seems to grapple with theoretical claims lacking empirical backing, employs intuitive text analysis with scarce use of linguistic tools or theories, and occasionally suffers from logical inconsistencies. These issues potentially undercut the intended scientific rigor, thus rendering the discourse prone to bias and errors.

    To further clarify these points, here are some specifics:

    1.    The paper sporadically references theories on the semantics, syntax, and pragmatics of questions without building a clear, operationally usable theoretical framework. For instance, around line 350, the authors question the efficacy of truth-conditional semantics in handling „questions,“ citing a 1978 paper. However, it is widely acknowledged that questions pose a challenge for truth-conditional semantics as they inherently lack truth conditions. This has led to the evolution of separate traditions in question-semantics where questions denote their potential answers. The authors could have delved into the rich body of literature, including groundbreaking works such as Han and Romero’s paper on negated questions, to illuminate their analysis. Similarly, while the paper cites studies on biased and rhetorical questions, it fails to succinctly incorporate their findings into a comprehensive typology for discourse analysis. This disjuncture between theoretical discussion and practical application needs to be addressed.

    2.    The analysis is not always sufficiently supported by logical argumentation and occasionally exaggerates some of its statements. An example around lines 220-231 discusses a supposed „trap“ set by the interviewer, a claim that seems to lack substantial justification. The „trap“ scenario refers to interviewees expressing support for Sweden accepting more refugees, followed by a surprise request for them to host a refugee in their homes. There seems to be no inherent contradiction or conflict in holding the belief that the country should accommodate more refugees while not personally wishing to host them. Just as one may support the construction of a nuclear power plant without desiring it to be built on their street. While the media outlet’s tactic may indeed be unfair, framing it as a „trap, from which [the interviewees] can only escape if they contradict themselves [line 219f],“ and specifically one from which they cannot get out „without loosing their face“ [line 231] may be an exaggeration.

    3.    The paper vacillates on the role of „positive“ vs. „negative“ answers, without establishing a clear context or relationship with conventional meaning and expectations. Consequently, the analysis appears reliant on intuition, raising questions about the requisite skills for such an analysis and its identity as a linguistic study.

    4.    The paper’s discussion on the introductory question and its connection to the ensuing set of questions lacks clear structure. For instance, the section beginning on line 832 discusses a confusing dichotomy between identifying humans for who they are versus their actions, without substantiating why this distinction matters. The section also suggests the interviewee’s ego is flattered, which needs more empirical evidence. The authors could have provided a comprehensive disambiguation of terms and a clear explanation of the question „Do all humans have the same value?“ to identify areas of potential equivocation, thereby providing a more precise examination of the transition between concepts and why interviewees fail to identify these shifts.

    Lastly, the paper would benefit from a thorough language edit, to eliminate grammatical errors and to improve the fluidity of its arguments. Although, this could be addressed more effectively after resolving the structural and content-related issues outlined above.

    In conclusion, while the authors‘ intention to contribute to a critical societal discourse is commendable, the paper’s current state suggests a need for refining its theoretical grounding, analytical framework, and linguistic presentation to strengthen its scientific rigor and contribution.


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