Rhetorical Contexts: Who is the Audience?

I did not learn genre theory in my college composition classes, so when it was introduced to me at UCSB I was unsure of its application outside of just being another provocative theory. I’ve come to realize how the right approach to genre theory paints writing as a social practice, and when mastered, turns writing into a powerful and eminently practical skill. Part of genre analysis requires an assessment of the rhetorical situation, which is dissected in various ways by theorists and scholars, but always incorporates the element of intended audience.

When writers write they typically write for an imagined audience, and this largely dictates the choice they make while writing. Thus, while it is possible for anyone with an internet connection to read a blog post, depending on how it is written it may draw in certain audiences and drive away others. Those that come and stay would be the target audience (or intended audience) of a blog post.

When deciding to perform genre analysis on news genres, I was searching for another way to think about intended audience rather than the standard focus on demographics like age, ethnicity, gender, income, region, education, and so forth. After chatting with my writing advisor, Chris Dean, whose interests involve the critical analysis of urban legends and conspiracy theories, he highlighted the recurring issue of confirmation bias at the heart of all legend trippers and conspiracy theorists. This provided at least another way to view the audience of moderately (even grossly) biased Soft News articles, those looking to confirm their personal perspective on certain topics.

cognitive-biasThis lead me down a train of thought which wanted to play with audience and several other types of cognitive biases. In other words, how do certain cognitive biases direct what and how we read? I was reminded of the fabulous chart, originally posted by blogger Buster Benson.

I was surprised at how many other cognitive biases are similar to confirmation bias.

  • Anchoring Bias: People are over reliant on the first piece of information they obtain
  • Conservatism Bias: People favor prior evidence over new evidence
  • Choice-Support Bias: People favor a choice they have made even if it has flaws
  • Availability Heuristic: People overestimate the importance of information that is available to them

I gave the chart to my class and asked them to ponder some aspects of it to foster creativity in defining who the audience of news articles may be. I will say, however, for each person who is subconsciously looking to confirm his or her bias, there may very well be another person who is consciously looking to understand the “Other side” in order to challenge his or her own biases.

UPDATE: While the above chart is detailed and comprehensive, it may be too comprehensive for many to find a nice toe-hold. The more highly selective chart below may be a better alternative.


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