Hartmut Lenk – How does the European press persuade its readers?

It's not always easy to tell when an article turns into a commentary. Helsinki Commentary Corpus attempts to uncover the ways newspapers affect their readers.

Approximately 6,700 press cuttings from 209 publications, from 13 European countries, in ten different languages. This is what Hartmut Lenk, the recently appointed professor of German at the University of Helsinki, is primarily working with, a collection known as the Helsinki Commentary Corpus.

Collected in 2013, the purpose of the corpus is to illustrate different styles of persuasion in different parts of Europe.

 “The texts in the corpus are editorial texts and other opinion pieces that typically try to convince the reader to agree with the author. For this reason, they provide good examples of what kinds of rhetorical tools are in use around Europe.”

As linguist, Lenk is also interested in seeing how persuasion methods vary between languages.

While the analysis is still incomplete, the most significant differences seem to arise from the editorial cultures of the newspapers.

 “The material includes both yellow press and conventional newspapers. It seems that the yellow press has a much more aggressive and direct style than the newspapers, which take a more considered stance.”

The persuasion analysis is part of Lenk’s long-term research in media linguistics. The field is interesting, as the language used in the media is changing.

 “The types of texts in the press are increasingly being mixed, and it is becoming more difficult to say where a news article ends and an editorial piece begins.”

He believes this may be due to the fact that styles used in social media are spreading to the press.

 “Participating in public debate is very easy these days – it’s easy to broadcast your ideas. Sometimes it feels like the bar may even be too low,” says Lenk.

Even though Lenk’s primary research topic is the language of the media, he plans on dedicating his inaugural lecture to the status and visibility of his shrinking discipline.

 “Proficiency in German is declining at an alarming rate. The number of positions for new students were cut by more than half, because we did not get enough applicants,” he says.

 “German is the native language of more than a hundred million people, and a very important language in international trade. We must not let our German skills degrade completely.”

Hartmut Lenk

Professor of German language

Born in 1956 in Neukloster, East Germany

Completed his doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1987 on commentary texts in West German newspapers

Assigned to Finland to the German language division of the DDR’s cultural centre in 1986

Began working as lecturer of German at the University of Helsinki in 1988

Received the Best International Teacher Award at the University of Helsinki in 2003

Professor Hartmut Lenk held his inaugural lecture In Deutche sprache:

Deutsche Sprache in Helsinki. Perspektiven eines geschrumpften Faches
on Wednesday 29 November 2017.

University of Helsinki New Professors

Recording of the lecture