Obviously: The Week Bin Laden Died A Corpus Linguistic Study of an Evaluation Strategy Employed at Press Briefings in the White House the Week Bin Laden Died

press briefings


Osama bin Laden, the former head of the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda responsible for the September 11 attacks and other acts of terrorism, was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, by Navy SEALs of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group. The operation was ordered by United States President Barack Obama and carried out in a Central Intelligence Agency-led operation. Following the announcement from the White House of the death of bin Laden, a sequence of statements from the White House of contradictory information regarding the details of not only the building in which bin Laden lived and died, but also of various combat operations. The White House consequently blamed “the fog of war[1]” for conflicting statements in its recounting of the events surrounding the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The press briefings made by the White House in the week following the death of bin Laden have been collected into a corpus and studied using corpus linguistic methodologies, not in order to highlight the contradictory information provided by various members of the US government, but to study the linguistic strategies utilised in those releases. The research focuses on the word obviously and it is argued in the findings that this word is used as a means to express stance in order to encode various points of view.

A corpus-driven approach was undertaken to analyse the White House press briefings. Such a methodology utilises an inductive manner which considers the corpus as the data and the patterns within the corpus are noted as a way of expressing regularities in language specific to the context in which the language was collected. An analysis of keywords revealed that the word obviously was significant within the data; therefore this paper focuses on the linguistic strategies and significance of this usage, which I argue is an example of stance and evaluative language. In other words, to what extent and in what manner did the data under investigation reveal, implicitly or explicitly a stance with respect to issues discussed surrounding the aftermath of the death of bin Laden.

Thompson and Hunston (2000: 5) define evaluation as, “the broad cover term for the expression of the speaker or writer’s attitude or stance towards viewpoints on, or feelings about the entities or propositions that he or she is talking about.” Furthermore they consider that this attitude may be related to certainty or obligation or desirability. Biber et al. (1999: 966-86) defines stance as: “In addition to communicating propositional content, speakers and writers commonly express personal feelings, attitudes, value judgements, or assessments: that is they express a ‘stance’.”

A certain perspective of evaluation is that it is a pervasive function of discourse by which the speaker expresses not just content information but the ‘angle’ from which the content needs to viewed in order to understand how it fits into the ongoing interaction through language.


The data for this study was a corpus of White House press briefings given the week bin Laden was killed. The corpus consists of seven briefings which totalled over 33,000 words.

White House press briefings are news conferences given almost daily by the White House press secretary and at times other senior White House staff. The press secretary at the time the data was collected was Jay Carney[2]. The White House press secretary is usually appointed from within the governing party and already has experience as a spokesperson. The White House, through the briefings, communicates official information and announcements, the administrations decisions and policies, and responds to journalists’ questions. Such briefings are a valuable source in which communicative strategies by which the world’s only superpower imposes its vision of the world on the global audience through the globalised media system. The White House employs briefings to convey messages not purely to the audience accessed by the global media network, but also, other nations, enemies as well as friends, governments, international organisations, and so on. The briefings thus have considerable significance in both the domestic and the international political context.

Firstly, I want to look at the most frequent lexical words, which are as follows:
bin laden freq
When looking at the most frequent words, it appears that the words present on the list are to be expected considering the context of the Press Briefings in relation to the events which had taken place. Verbs such as think, said and know are common high-frequency verbs. The nouns present give an indication of the topics of the discourses found within the corpus. However, the inclusion of the word obviously  is of  interest.
The the keywords are observed, again, the words present are, in many ways, to be expected as the press secretary and other White House officials discussed the events which led to the killing of Bin Laden, with the exception of the word obviously.
bin laden keyword
When I looked at the concordance lines of obviously, the data demonstrated that press briefings do not remain only one topic, but over the duration of the briefing, may cover several varying issues. Due to this, I will focus on instances of obviously which were directly related to the topic of the death of Bin Laden.
The following are a selection of concordance lines of the word obviously in context.
I mean, there was obviously a success here at a different level
There are obviously arguments to be made on either side
it could obviously harm the relationship, which as you said, is critical to the United States
people had reservation, obviously because it was a very risky mission
So we obviously believe that we are absolutely within our rights to go after
there are obviously big threats to the United States in places like Yemen
We obviously cooperate and have an important relationship with Pakistan
The Government has obviously been talking how best to do this
Obviously he wanted to hear the opinions of others
And obviously some of the information was – came in piece by piece
he wanted to hear the opinions of others, obviously
The word obviously appears to be used in utterances which could be deemed as contestable and is used by the speaker to lessen or attempt to eliminate doubt or discussion of opinions or stances expressed throughout the press briefing. It is of interest that such a linguistic strategy was used with such frequency throughout the press briefings.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S. & Finegan, E. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman
Hunston, S. and Thompson, G, (eds.) (2000) Evaluation in Text: Authorial Stance and the Construction of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]The fog of war is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.

[2] Prior to his appointment as Press Secretary he was director of communications to Vice President Joe Biden. Carney previously served as Washington Bureau Chief for Time magazine.