Terministic Screens of Corruption: A Cluster Analysis of Colombian Radio Conversations

Adriana Angel, Universidad de Manizales (Colombia)
Benjamin Bates, Ohio University


To explore understandings of corruption in Colombia, we analyzed public talk on Hora 20, a very popular Colombian radio program. Using Burke’s concept of terministic screens and his method of cluster analysis, we found that Hora 20’s radio speakers express six terministic screens regarding corruption. Each cluster triggers different programs of action with diverse linguistic and practical implications, both for addressing problems of corruption in Colombia and for complicating Burke’s cluster analysis method.

A PUBLIC DISCUSSION OF CORRUPTION in Colombia is certainly needed. Transparency International confirms that Colombia is a highly corrupt country; on a scale of transparency from 0 to 10, Colombia only reached 3.4, and, out of the 183 countries that are measured, Colombia ranked number 80 (Morales). In 2011, corruption emerged in different fields including land, health, military forces, and public administration. Several cases investigated by the Attorney General, the Public Prosecutor, and the Comptroller, as well as many studies conducted by NGOs and academic institutions, reveal the magnitude of the administrative irregularities in the country (Semana).

According to the last Gallup Survey, 63% of Colombians believe that the country has serious problems of corruption (Samper). According to Samper (2011), the Colombian state recovers only eight of every 1,000 pesos stolen. Likewise, one-tenth of all public budgets are diverted to improper payments. This means that, annually, Colombia loses about 18 trillion pesos (about $10 billion) due to corruption. To overcome this problem, the government has created more than 4,500 internal control units, but, according to the Attorney General (Samper), they have not succeeded. Out of 26,000 cases of bribery, extortions, and embezzlement, only a few of them are fully investigated and adjudicated (Samper). In fact, impunity in Colombia can be as high as 90%, which means that most authors of corruption are neither accused nor punished (Cepeda 1).

To address cases and even scandals of corruption, the intervention of media is necessary because it is through media that information becomes public and known (Tumber and Waisbord 1143). An event of corruption becomes a scandal only after mass media have communicated or denounced it to a nation’s public (Restrepo 68). The few Colombian scholars who have studied media representation of corruption agree that we must study corruption’s causes, implications, and its relationship to media if we are to resolve this problem (Fedesarrollo 49; Ureña 213). These claims presume, however, that there is a shared meaning given to the term “corruption” in Colombian media. But there is not.

To explain the lack of agreement about the definition of corruption and to understand the construction of corruption in Colombian radio media representation, we turn to Burke’s concept of the terministic screen (Philosophy 109) as well as his method of cluster analysis (Attitudes 232). Given the multiple understandings of corruption, Burke’s concept of the terministic screen helps us to understand each perspective of corruption as a different frame of interpretation that motivates speakers and that also triggers different programs of action with diverse linguistic and practical implications. But Burke’s ideas are not only important from a theoretical perspective. They are also helpful from a methodological standpoint in the sense that Burke provides some methodological guidelines and teaches us how terminologies come together in clusters so that they reflect and reproduce particular understandings of reality. Burke’s cluster analysis allows us to explore different terministic screens of corruption and how they are reproduced through language.

To access terministic screens of corruption, we performed a cluster analysis of Hora 20, a very popular Colombian Monday-to-Friday radio program. On this program, journalists, politicians, and scholars discuss important news of the day. Corruption was a common topic on the program in 2011. This cluster analysis method reveals understandings of corruption in Colombia and provides clues on how to start managing the problem. We decided to perform this cluster analysis on radio conversations considering the importance of this medium in Colombia.

Since its arrival to the country, radio has played a fundamental role in Colombian society. Colombian radio has been used to entertain (Antequera and Obregón 147), to provide news (Lalinde 47), to educate (Kaplún 147; Mwakawago 307), and to advocate for social change (Mejía and Gómez 140; Mwakawago 308; Bonilla, Restrepo, Vásquez and Betancur 241; Vaca 254). People of all ages, genders, social classes and occupations, and in all parts of the country, often listen to radio (Centrao Nacional de Colsutoria; Mastrini and Becerra 9). Radio is the second most widely consumed medium in Colombia after television; 67% of the Colombian population listens to radio every day (ACIM).

One of the most popular radio programs is Hora 20. In 2011, Hora 20 devoted several episodes to issues of corruption, as levels of corruption increased significantly during this year. Despite spending many hours trying to construct the causes and consequences of this increase, the radio speakers invited to the program rarely achieved agreement. The conversations were highly controversial, in part, because they lacked consensus on what “corruption” is.

We begin this article with a brief review of the literature regarding Colombian corruption. Turning to cluster analysis, a Burkean method of analysis, we examine the radio program Hora 20 to show the clusters of terms that give rise to six different constructions of corruption’s meaning in Colombia. Finally, we offer implications that these findings have both for addressing problems of corruption in Colombia and for complicating Burke’s cluster analysis method.

Colombian Corruption

Even though every country in the world has corruption, what is considered to be a corrupt act varies from country to country (Rønning 158). Scholars have defined corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain and the abuse of public power for private benefit” (Vargas-Hernández 270). In some cases, corruption involves the payment of bribes to finance a State decision. In other cases, corruption implies clientalism, a system of privileges in which “resources are controlled by patrons and delivered to clients in exchange for deference and various kinds of support” (Yusha’u 162). Corruption not only involves the payment of money but also some kind of exchange of favors or benefits (Solimano, Tanzi and del Solar 270).

Scholars have also classified the kinds of corruption according to the magnitude of the scandal (Ureña 211), the type of agent who commits the act (Solimano, Tanzi and del Solar 270), the kind of result that the act seeks (Vargas-Hernández, 285), and the theoretical framework that is used to explain its causes (Jain, part II). Given the diversity of definitions, operationalizations, and examples, we do not adopt a priori a definition of corruption. Rather than imposing a definition, whether it be a moralistic or legalistic definition, we seek to understand how Colombians have articulated the meaning of corruption. To do this, we turn to Hora 20 as a representative anecdote for how Colombians discuss corruption.


Text Selection

Every day, Monday through Friday, Hora 20 is broadcast live from the most prestigious and widely heard radio station in the country, Caracol Radio, to all cities in the country (AICM). Hora 20 is one of the most important journalistic programs of opinion among all kinds of Colombian media, which explains its large audience (Duzán). The producer of Hora 20 has told us that the audience of the program is over one million listeners, which makes Hora 20 the most important radio program of opinion and news information in Colombia (C. Torres, personal communication, July 15, 2011). This data, of course, is not entirely reliable because it comes from the producer of the program. However, the general idea among citizens and media producers is that Hora 20 is the most important program of opinion in the country because of the depth of the analysis and discussion that if offers (Duzán). Indeed, in addition to being listened to by 44% of the population each week, Caracol Radio is judged by Colombians to be the most trustworthy source of  news and information (Intermedia). And, of the programs on Caracol Radio, Hora 20 is the most popular program. Overall, Caracol Radio and its flagship programs nationwide enjoy a 62% audience share for news and current affairs (Prisa). Hora 20 is consumed across many social classes and regions of the country.

Néstor Morales hosts the program every day, but his guests vary. These guests are politicians (usually congressmen and former government officials), widely known journalists in the field, or scholars with high positions in important universities. Over one hour and a half (7:30 PM to 9:00 PM), Morales asks questions to his guests about one topic that has been relevant during the day, often the most controversial political topic of the last 24 hours.

Major corruption events in Colombia occurred in March 2011 and Hora 20 covered them through the analysis of their causes and implications. To analyze how the notion of corruption is constructed and communicated in Colombian news-talk radio, we recorded all episodes where the main topic was corruption broadcast by Hora 20 from the beginning of March of 2011 until October 31 of the same year. Because of the several kinds of corruption occurring in Colombia in 2011, we selected the four broadcasts that Nestor Morales named as approaching corruption as a general phenomenon. These episodes were likely to provide some perspective about the context and general characteristics of corruption without concentrating on specific cases. We also included cases of corruption in both the health and the agriculture systems for three reasons. First, these broadcasts represent cases of corruption of national scope. Second, they were quantitatively the most discussed cases of corruption, as the numbers of broadcastings show. Third, corruption in the health and the agriculture sectors have been considered the most serious instances of Colombian corruption over the last decades in the history of the country (Pizano). In total, 13 episodes of Hora 20 and, therefore, about 20 hours of spoken discourse, were selected.  Once we transcribed these 13 broadcasts (about 750 pages), we performed a cluster analysis to examine how the notion of corruption was communicated by radio speakers.

Cluster Analysis

In Attitudes Toward History (19-24, 293-298) and Permanence and Change (19-36), rhetorician Kenneth Burke presented his preliminary ideas about how certain terms reflect individuals’ motives and, therefore, their attitudes toward action. He posited that when speakers use terms to communicate about a certain idea, their terminologies come together in “clusters.” Clusters, as defined by Burke, are “what goes with what” in terms of what vocabularies begin to be associated with one another when a speaker speaks (Philosophy 20). Cluster analysis allows the researcher to explore “what subjects cluster about other subjects” because speakers will use associated terms in ways that demonstrate patterns of uses where some terms are commonly used with other terms to create a set and, further, these terms are against some other cluster of terms (Attitudes 232). Through cluster analysis, other scholars have studied American racial politics (Lynch), the question of women priests in the Episcopal Church (Foss 1), and John Kennedy’s speech (Berthold 302) by exploring what goes with what and what is against what.

Although it is common to use frameworks like Burke’s pentad to derive a single rhetor’s motivational vocabulary, we must consider Burke’s argument that it is all-too-common for interpreters to ignore the dramatic and dialectical origins of group motives when they posit that a single principle motivates a text. This move to place unified motives above the actual dialectic of a society becomes “an act of supererogation” in which the unified motive cannot account for conflicting motives within the group that the text claims to represent (Rhetoric 367). Multiple motives can exist in a society, and when different speakers speak, they may be motivated by these different vocabularies differently. At a social level, and as Burke has noted, however, “ideals, or wishes, need not be consistent with one another. . . . Yet one might wish for both dispensations at once” (Grammar 374). This inconsistency is not fatal to the organization of group motives; it is essential to them. This is why Burke claims we must acknowledge that multiple terministic clusters exist and that they are in agonistic and complementary relationships at the same time:

There are principles in the sense of wishes, and there are principles in the sense of interrelationships among the wishes. Principles as wishes are voluntary and arbitrary, inasmuch as men can meet in conference and decide how many and what kind of wishes they shall subscribe to. But once you have agreed upon a list of wishes, the interrelationships among those wishes are necessary or inevitable. (Rhetoric 375)

The specific means of identifying these principles (or motives) and their associated vocabularies is not fully clarified by Burke.

To conduct this analysis, we therefore followed four traditional steps of cluster analysis (Berthold 304-306; Burke Attitudes 3-30; Lynch). First, we began by establishing “corruption” as the a priori key term that guided the consecutive search for other terms. That is, we explored the main terms that news-talk radio speakers use when they define and describe corruption. While we predetermined corruption as the key term, other terms emerged a posteriori from the reading of the text.

For the second step of cluster analysis, we identified the terms often used by speakers when referring to corruption. As Lynch observes, at this stage of the analysis it is necessary to identify “terms that appear in the same context as the key term(s) and rank them according to frequency of appearance and the intensity or power of the term.” Terms of high frequency are those that repeatedly appear in a text and terms of high intensity are those charged with special meaning and connotations in the sense that they are used to define, describe, or undermine key terms (Foss 2-3).

The third step to conduct the cluster analysis consisted of identifying the clusters of terms that showed patterns of meaning insofar as they referred to broad and more complex narratives about corruption. These patterns of meaning referred to similar ideas or narratives that speakers often convey when describing and analyzing corruption. These terms can, at this time, also be classified by following Burke’s (Attitudes 3-30) ideas about frames of acceptance and rejection. These acceptance and rejection frames allowed us to identify the agons or terms in opposition to corruption. This agonistic relationship, as Lynch calls it, is developed “through some form of contraposition which includes direct opposition and negation, description of a potential competition between terms, imagery portraying, opposition or struggle, indirect opposition vis a vis a third term, and enumeration.” In this sense, we explored the ideas that news-talk radio speakers accept and reject through the analysis of the terms that they employ to construct corruption; different terms show the practices, characteristics, and dimensions that are included and excluded in their constructions of corruption.

The fourth and final stage of cluster analysis consisted, as Foss explains, of “naming the rhetor’s motives on the basis of the meanings of the key terms” (367). Unlike a psychological approach, it is important to notice that these motives are not related to the speakers’ intentions or to their mental states. According to Burke (Permanence 19, Attitudes 293, Rhetoric 99-101) motives are systems of interpretation that work as frames of orientation through which individuals perceive the world. Thus, motives exist in the realm of meaning and, therefore, in the specific vocabularies that individuals use of define the world (Jasinski 367). Through the terms that we use, we not only communicate meaning, but also refer to particular attitudes and actions over the world. The purpose of exploring radio speakers’ motives when discussing corruption did not aim at establishing their intentions, but to examine the systems of interpretation and the frames of orientation through which they construct their discourses about corruption.


When invited to analyze Colombian corruption, Hora 20’s radio speakers express their different approaches to this phenomenon and talk radio allows them—and the audiences—the possibility to share these different constructions. The conversation led radio speakers to reproduce six main terms that name the clusters speakers use to frame corruption: invasive decay, illegal practice, piñata, irregular action, unethical behavior, and normal practice. Each of these terms constitute what Burke (Language 44-45) calls a terministic screen, or a frame of interpretation from which speakers define and reproduce specific approaches to corruption. While terministic screens are vocabularies or lenses that speakers use to define and understand the world, the method of cluster analysis allows researchers to study the way in which those terms group, relate, and distinguish from others. Thus, reality is already mediated by language and cluster analysis allows us to study the forms and the consequences of that mediation.

In tracing terministic screens that reveal motives of a social (or non-unified) rhetor, it would be a mistake to claim that there must be a single, consistent, principle (or motive) that guides the text (Burke Rhetoric 61-62). Rather, in a collectively articulated text in which multiple speakers come together to express different terministic clusters surrounding a phenomenon, it is more likely that there will be multiple articulations of principles and motives, and that these motives will operate agonistically (in some dialogues/dialectics) and consistently (in other dialogues/dialectics). Indeed, we must take care to recognize and protect these terministic tensions within a social text.

We did not consider one of these six different voices or understandings of corruption as correct and the others wrong because, as Burke argues “charts of meaning are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’—they are relative approximations to the truth. . . . In fact, even in some of the most patently ‘wrong’ charts, there are sometimes discoverable ingredients of ‘rightness’ that have been lost in perhaps ‘closer’ approximations” (Philosophy 108). Moreover, because the drama within a text comes from the dialectical negotiation of terms to chart meaning, “we shall automatically be warned not to consider it [the text/document] in isolation, but as the answer or rejoinder to assertions current in the situation in which it arose” (Philosophy 109).  It is less important, then, to identify the voice of single speaker in a text; rather, the tracing of terministic clusters, allows us to hear the motives of “a group dance in which all shared” as rhetors in a society (Philosophy 109). To examine the motivations within this group dance that creates multiple meanings of corruption, we present the six different clusters of Colombian corruption.

Corruption as Decay

When talking about corruption as a long term problem in Colombian society, some news-talk radio speakers frame corruption as an invasive decay. The following brief radio excerpts illustrate this terministic screen: “Many institutions that are fundamental to the State are today gnawed” (Santos); “Corruption is the plague of the Colombian State” (Nieto); “So, according to what you all have been saying, the diagnosis is that we are corroded by corruption” (Morales); and, “Corruption is corroding the soul of Colombians” (Esguerra). Insofar as corruption is presented as a decay in the form of plague, rot, rust, or virus, the identity of corruption is ambiguous and unclear. The gnawing, corroding, plaguing agent is not named. Corruption may simply be a natural phenomenon that comes from age. In this cluster, corruption is not an illegal practice or an unethical behavior, but a vague entity that attacks institutions and individuals. The motive for decay, then, is not one of ill intention. Like rusting metal or rotting wood, corruption-as-decay is motivated by natural causes. And, like rusting metal or rotting wood, humans can use cleaning and maintenance to prevent or ameliorate corruption as a stopgap solution, but, in the long term, decay is inevitable.

Corruption as an Illegal Practice

By presenting corruption as an illegal practice, radio speakers give a severe and very negative connotation to corruption by clustering “corruption” together with terms from legal settings. A corrupt action constitutes an illegal act insofar as it violates the law so that a few people can gain some private benefit. Defining corruption in terms of legality and illegality is a matter of controversy in the scholarly literature on corruption. Some scholars consider that what makes an event an act of corruption is not its condition of illegality, but the violation of ethical principles of justice. In the following excerpt, offered as a representative example, journalist and researcher for the United Nations, Claudia López, frames as illegal the use of public money to finance two political campaigns:

 I do believe, I have no doubt, I think that it is common sense to think that taking advantage of the money that we Colombians pay in taxes in order to support some campaign funders is not only unethical, but it’s clearly a crime of favoritism and an abuse of public office.

Terms like prison, law, crime, and judicial system cluster around this understanding of corruption as an illegal practice. When radio speakers frame corruption in this sense, they define corrupt practices as actions that categorically and certainly constitute violations of law. For example, when debating the judicial consequences of corruption, radio speakers who frame corruption as an illegal practice claim that individuals implicated in cases of corruption have to go to prison since corruption implies the violation of law. Those who frame it differently (see below) consider excessive a punishment like this since corruption does not mean crime, but an irregular action of less severe nature. Finally, unlike corruption as a decay, the corrupt act here is committed by a specific agent and not by an unknown specimen or element (time, rust, something) of uncertain nature. While the former approach tends to consider corruption as a condition of a system, the latter views it as the attribution of an illegal behavior of a particular agent.  Thus, corruption-as-illegal practice is motivated by the law as guiding principle. For corruption to be understood as illegal practice, it emerges because corruption is performed in opposition to or in violation to the Law. And, in turn, the solution to corruption is to strengthen the reach of the Law.

Corruption as a Piñata

A third cluster of terms—terms naming corruption as a piñata—is similar to the construction of an illegal action, but it is not exactly the same. Rather than being an action that violates the law, corruption as piñata refers to contexts of celebration and feast. Likewise, a piñata is a container filled with treats and gifts, which are given to the guests of a party. In the context of agricultural corruption, for example, some radio speakers  frame Secure Agricultural Income1, a government program to subsidize smallholding farmers, as a piñata in the sense that agricultural programs like this was designed as a system of gifts according to which quick-witted individuals could appropriate “treats” that were in fact large amounts of money. This cluster emerges clearly in the following example:

Forero: We are talking about giving public resources to private individuals without making any public bidding and many times those individuals didn’t have to return those resources.

Later in the same episode, Forero is more direct and claims:

Forero: Through Secure Agricultural Income [the government] created a very dangerous piñata that produced incentives for corruption.
Rangel: A piñata?!
Forero: If this program had been very well regulated, I wouldn’t use that word.
Rangel: A piñata? Is it a piñata a program that helped 316 thousand families? Please! 

In this excerpt Forero points out that subsidies were given to private individuals without any process of public bidding or corroboration of information, which stimulated corruption.

Finally, a piñata refers to an opportunistic scenario where every person strives to use his/her skills to collect as many treats as he/she can. Thus corruption is represented as extravagance, wastefulness, and squandering. This last excerpt by professor and Congressman Jorge Enrique Robledo illustrates these ideas:

[When we were discussing] the creation of Secure Agricultural Income in the Congress I clearly explained that it was obvious that [through this program] the government decided to give money away. When we talk about these subsidies for land we are talking about the government giving the money away. Gifts for some people, for who? For those families or more witted individuals who could take advantage and receive that money. 

When corruption is seen as a piñata, individuals undertake corrupt acts out of opportunism. Here, corruption is not motivated by an opposition to the law that informs individual practice broadly; rather, corruption is motivated by one-time opportunities to take a fleeting advantage. Once the piñata has burst and the treats collected, the individual is not likely to engage in corrupt practices. Thus, the solution to corruption is to either not fill the piñata with treats; the advantages from fleeting acts of corruption must be minimized.

Corruption as an Irregular Action

In a variation of corruption as wrong, yet not illegal or exploitative (as in the piñata), other news-talk radio guests approach corruption as an irregular practice. This cluster includes many other terms such as deviation, trick, cheat, abuse, and taking advantage. Many radio speakers’ statements can be placed under this cluster according to which corruption is neither an illegal nor a completely “normal” program. The following claim made by the former Minister of Health, Diego Palacio, is an example of construction of corruption as an irregular practice.  Diego Palacio, was invited to the May 5 broadcast of Hora 20 to talk about a scandal of health corruption that occurred when he served as Minister of Health. When asked about the magnitude of the events, Palacio starts by framing them as irregularities and abuses, not crimes:

I think that one has to analyze two or three things understanding that there are problems with the [health] service and understanding that there are problems of lack of control. But I think that one has to separate what is abuse from what is corruption, these are different things.

Throughout the episode, Palacio seeks to show both that these events are legal and that they do not constitute corruption. By claiming that it is necessary to differentiate abuse from corruption he tries to minimize the scope of health corruption. Speakers like Palacio specify their understandings of corruption by stating, for example, that there are differences between illegal and improper practices in the sense that some behaviors might be unconventional but not necessarily illegal. Speakers argue that even though abuses, tricks, and cheats are improper actions, they are not intrinsically illegal practices. Most of the time, law is used as the main criterion to frame corruption as an irregular practice. In this context, the magnitude of corruption is not as severe as it is in previous constructions of the term because it does not refer to violations of law, but to procedures that are legal even though they might be dishonest or misleading. Because corruption-as-irregular practice is not motivated by opposition to law, but motivated by opposition to convention, the objection to state regulation is not part of its motivation. As such, to resolve corruption, one cannot simply attempt to enforce laws against corruption, one must understand the conventions that allow corruption to emerge. Corruption, here, is understood as motivated by the failure of social conventions to apply.

Corruption as an Unethical Behavior

The construction of corruption as an unethical behavior constitutes one of the less severe approaches to corruption. This is also the subcluster of terms less-often used by news-talk radio speakers. Radio speakers rarely define corruption in terms of ethics, and the few times that they do so the construction of ethics is so ambiguous that it is difficult to understand the way in which they approach this relationship between ethics and corruption. Speakers minimize the scope and magnitude of corruption by claiming that certain events do not constitute violations of law, but they are just unethical actions. When defining corruption as a problem of a lack of ethics, radio speakers frame corruption as the attribute of an action in which the values of a given individual come into conflict with the broader system of values of a society. Thus, unlike corruption as irregular activity, corruption is seen as regular yet also improper. Unlike law, this system of values is intangible and may become entangled in the culture of a given society. For example, lawyer Juan Manuel Charry frames health corruption as an ethical problem:

I think we have a serious problem in the health sector and what it hurts me is the lack of ethics of many of the individuals who took advantage of [the lack of] legal circumstances. I’m a bit surprised because, as far as I understand, what is happening is not corruption itself, but unethical investments.

This excerpt also constitutes an example of the many times that speakers define corruption in terms of a dichotomy in which corruption is either an illegal act or an unethical behavior; it cannot, in this cluster, be both. In this cluster, corruption is not formally punishable because it exists outside the law and, thus, is left to the realm of ethics. Unlike corruption-as-irregular action, corruption-as-unethical practice places the motivation for corruption as the individual level. It is a flaw in character that motivates corruption, not a flaw in social convention or in the Law. Therefore, to resolve corruption, one must teach ethics and morals to individuals, and have those individuals embrace ethics and morality.

Corruption as a Normal Practice

This last subcluster of terms refers to the least radical approaches to corruption. Each of these previous clusters names corruption a bad thing to be resolved. Yet, some news-talk radio speakers strive to show that some acts of corruption are normal and there is no need to frame those events as corrupt. This normalization of corruption is accomplished in different ways. For example, the number of times that a probable corrupt event occurs may be an indicator that the event is not perceived as corrupt, but perceived as normal. During the July 21, 2011 episode of Hora 20, lawyer Rafael Nieto, claimed that it is common for some institutions to avoid public bidding and for some investigated individuals to agree on a version to testify. He did this not once, but many times. Such repetition contributes to normalization. In the following excerpt professor and journalist Juan Carlos Flores strives to undermine this normalization of corruption:

But Rafael [Nieto], the fact that we have accustomed to do so doesn’t mean that it’s ok. The fact that we have done so for years doesn’t mean that it is legal [. . . ]. Rafael Nieto’s argument is very dangerous: We have been doing so for years, what is the problem that we do it now? Amazing Rafael! I’m stunned, the truth, I confess.

In this excerpt Flores problematizes Nieto’s argument according to which some practices have become normal because they have been done so for a long time. If corruption is normal, then the motive for corruption need not be understood. Corruption is simply part of being human, and need not (and perhaps cannot) be resolved. Under this motivational cluster, corruption is not a problem, and therefore needs no solution.

The Agon(s) of Corruption

Unlike other cluster-agon analyses (Berthold 302; Foss 1; Lynch) in which authors present a terms that stand in oppositional pairs, in the case of radio conversations about Colombian corruption the agon terms work according to the context because of the multiple meanings of the word corruption. While the term “control” appears as an important agon to health corruption, this term is not present when speakers analyze other cases of corruption. In addition, the uses of the words “justice” and “ethics” are so ambiguous that it is hard to say if both of them are positively or negatively associated with corruption. Agon terms emerge according to the way in which radio speakers approach corruption. For example, when speakers define corruption as an illegal practice, normality emerges as an agon; however, normality is not agonistic as they construct corruption as an irregular practice yet irregularity is often presented as normal. Thus, we should not claim that corruption has a particular agon term, but that the polysemy of the word as well as the context of the conversation originates different agon terms that work according to the context (i.e., ethics or justice).


Different approaches to corruption correspond with different terministic screens. The invitational nature of radio makes possible the co-existence of various terministic screens in which different perspectives of corruption are represented through language. Beyond the realm of discourse, this polysemy of corruption has material consequences leading to the normalization of corruption.

Polysemous Nature of Corruption

The different constructions of corruption presented above vary according to the terministic screen that is used when discussing a particular corrupt event. For example, seen from the terministic screen that considers corruption as an illegal act, corrupt events are illegal practices through which individuals attempt to increase their capital (i.e., political, economic, symbolic, or social). The severity of corruption is far higher here than in the terministic screen that approaches corruption as an irregular behavior, which might be illegitimate, but not necessarily illegal.

This polysemous condition of corruption extends Burke’s classification of positive and negative terms as frames of acceptance and rejection. According to Burke, negative terms stand against positive terms insofar as the latter contradict the former. Specifically, the co-existence of various terministic screens of corruption complicates Burke’s categorization in the sense that, rather than having a dialectic relationship between positive and negative terms which rotate around a shared ultimate term, the analysis of Hora 20 shows six different constructions of corruption operating simultaneously. In other words, the analysis of news-talk radio conversations shows that there is not one term that clearly stands against another, but six different terms whose nature is not always entirely positive nor negative. For example, the way in which radio speakers frame corruption as an irregular practice is neither positive nor negative, but stands between both values. In addition, the fact that there is not a clear agon term illustrates the complexity of the kinds of relationships that emerge among the terms that speakers use to describe corruption. Finally, unlike previous cluster analyses, in this study we did not find two main clusters of terms which relate to each other in a dialectic manner, but six different clusters of terms that represent corruption in a diversity of ways. According to the context, some terministic screens operate as positive terms. However, seen in relation to other screens they might be considered as dialectical terms. The abstract idea of corruption constitutes the ultimate term around which they rotate. Moreover, the six clusters and their vocabularies also work to disable any agon term to corruption. In this set of texts, the opposite, the agon, of “illegal” could be said to be “legal,” but that which is legal is normative and “normal” has already been articulated as a cluster term characterizing “corruption.” Or, the agon could be “ethical,” but the speakers dissociate legality and ethicality as both could be “normal,” but one is wrong in the juridical sense whilst the other is wrong in the moral sense.  In addition, if corruption is a natural process as it is when named decay, corruption is again “normal.” Of course, as ultimate term, corruption is related to the world of principles and systems of thought and is argued to manifest itself as a concrete phenomenon in the realm of positive terms when some speakers name acts of corruption. Nonetheless, because corruption is polysemous, and because the six clusters operate agonistically (at times) and cooperatively (at others), this polysemy prevents the emergence of a dialectical “god-term” to stand in opposition to corruption as ultimate “devil term” in all six clusters at the same time.

Each terministic screen can be considered as a set of specific vocabulary, rhetorical resources, and figures of language that works as a particular system of interpretation of corruption. The conversational character of talk radio allows speakers the possibility to present, argue, and reproduce their own terministic screens on corruption. The agonistic tone that Ong attributes to pure orality is indeed present in the secondary orality of radio where speakers confront their own terministic screens and undermine others’. The tone of the program is agonistic itself since we have six different perspectives on corruption, each of which struggles to be accepted as “the one” correct perspective. In this sense, the construction of corruption is polysemous but attempts to be monosymous. News-talk radio reproduces an agonistic tone not so much because there might be verbal confrontations between radio speakers, but especially because talk radio becomes a scene of dispute or competition among different terministic screens that present corruption in very different ways.

Normalization of Corruption

Each terministic screen exists in the vocabularies and rhetorical strategies that speakers use to define corruption and to frame it according to specific characteristics. However, beyond reproducing different constructions of corruption, terministic screens also suggest diverse programs of action. Here we return to Burke’s  notion of program of action to explain how the frames of orientation through which individuals perceive the reality not only ground their perception of the world, but also reflect speakers’ motives for acting. To recall Burke’s example, “To call a man a friend or an enemy is per se to suggest a program of action with regard to him” (Permanence 177). In a similar sense, the six different terministic screens that radio speakers use to construct corruption suggest distinct programs of action with respect to this phenomenon. For example, to define corruption as an unethical act suggests a program of action centered on an individual’s behavior and, specifically, on his or her system of values. On the other hand, to construct corruption as an illegal practice suggests a different program of action that is focused on the legal system of a Nation-State.

This idea of identifying several motives is consistent with Burke’s warning against allowing a single motive to determine the meaning of a social text: once in the case of the rise of fascism and again in condemning the rush toward anti-Communism. In tracing terministic screens that reveal motives of a social (or non-unified) rhetor, it would be a mistake to claim that there must be a single, consistent principle (or motive) that guides the text. Rather, in a collectively articulated text in which multiple speakers come together to express different senses (or terministic clusters) of a phenomenon, it is more likely that there will be multiple articulations of principles and motives, and that these motives will operate agonistically (in some dialogues/dialectics) and consistently (in other dialogues/dialectics). The acknowledgment that multiple terministic clusters, rather than unified meaning, operate allows for multiple intellectually competing, yet socially co-present, motivations within a social text to be engaged and considered.

This linguistic polysemy of corruption has material consequences. One of the main consequences of this polysemy has to do, precisely, with the lack of agreement on the definition of corruption. Despite a great deal of analysis, consensus is also lacking about the nature, causes, and consequences of corruption (as explained above). This is evident in the fact that, for example, according to one terministic screen corruption represents an invasive decay of unknown nature while, according to another, it is a deliberate illegal business. The difficulty in coming to a shared definition of corruption prevents both linguistic and practical cooperation. As Burke argues, “If language is the fundamental instrument of human cooperation, and if there is an ‘organic flaw;’ in the nature of language, we may well expect to find this organic flaw revealing itself through the texture of society” (“Meaning 330). Acts of corruption may be the revelation of the organize flaw of not being able to cooperate linguistically in creating a shared meaning of corruption. In the context of several competing approaches to corruption, several programs of action also compete, even those where there is nothing to do against some practices of corruption because they have become normal, and therefore, legitimate. The inability to act against corruption, because we cannot cooperate in defining corruption, may allow those in Colombia who profit from corruption to continue their acts and at the cost of the larger Colombian society.

The second—but related—material consequence of this polysemy is the normalization of corruption. For instance, some radio speakers argue that the practices that occurred within health and the agricultural fields are normal and should not be framed as corrupt events. In addition, the number of times that a probable corrupt event occurs may become an indicator that this event does not constitute corruption anymore. In this sense, because they are culturally accepted, these practices become legitimate even though law forbids them. This hiatus between law and culture is a main consequence—and cause—of the normalization of corruption (Mockus 2). In addition, this hiatus is maintained by the reliance on particular terministic screens. Speakers claim that the fact that some actions have always been done in the same way justifies continued practices or corruption.

The fact that there is not a definitive and explicit term that stands against corruption as its main agon term also confirms the polysemy of corruption. The most striking case is the speakers’ use of the term normal to both define what corruption is and to describe what its opposite action is. That is, they use “normal” both as a cluster term and as an agon term. Some radio guests minimize acts of corruption because they consider that there were not corrupt practices involved, but normal actions that do not represent violations of law, unethical behaviors or major irregularities. Ultimately, we are still uncertain about which the opposite of corruption is. It might be values, ethics, cleanliness, control, normality, and legality, among others. In this context of dispute among different agon terms, it is also difficult to find a solution to corruption. The existence of competing terministic screens of corruption and agon practices implies the existence of competing programs of action against corruption; we cannot know if the program of action must address particular individuals, entire social structures, or some unknown agent. The inchoate program of action makes suggesting solutions to the problem of corruption more complex and uncertain.


This scenario of dispute among programs of action against corruption might seem daunting or challenging, to say the least. However, knowing what the different vocabularies are constitutes an important step in the fight against corruption. While some scholars think that communication plays a very important role in this fight (Jarso 40-45; Yusha’u 155-156; Mockus 2), others accuse mass media of trivializing issues of corruption and turning them into a spectacle (Breit 620; Giglioli 390-391; Pásara). Rather than approaching Hora 20 as a program that turns corruption into a spectacle, we can consider this talk radio show as a scenario where speakers analyze issues of corruption and help Colombian audiences to understand the way in which these events occur. The lack of agreement about corruption does not make of Hora 20 a weak program. On the contrary, it provides a kind of radiography about how Colombians construct corruption. The different terministic screens embraced by radio speakers reveal Colombians’ cultural perceptions of this phenomenon. Moreover, it illustrates the programs of action that each of these terministic screens carry with them.

In addition, talk radio shows why some scholars claim that communication represents the first step against corruption. To have a dialogue in which some Colombians discuss whether or not corruption is an illegal, unethical, irregular, or normal practice constitutes the first – and one of the most important – steps to decide how to deal with this phenomenon. Insofar as a society can have a dialogue that allows it to share and confront its different constructions of corruption, this society might more easily know what programs of action to undertake; the competition of terms allows the negotiation of meaning. Hora 20 not only shows that Colombians do not agree on what corruption even is, but also that a large hiatus separates culture from law so that illegal actions that seek to benefit private interests may be considered legitimate. Once Colombians realize that, even though corruption is one of the most serious problems of the country, and there is no agreement on what it is and how to avoid it, it might be easier for Colombian society to decide the kinds of cultural, economic, legal, and political measures required to decrease this phenomenon if they begin to seek a shared vocabulary. Thus, communication is a key strategy to articulate and implement different programs of action against corruption.


1. As a way to prepare the economy for a possible free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States of America, the Colombian Minister of Agriculture, Andrés Felipe Arias, created in 2007 the Secure Agricultural Income program [Agro Ingreso Seguro, AIS] whose main objective was to protect small farmers and to ensure their participation in the international market. Through illegal maneuvers such as falsification of documents and subdivisions of land, politicians and businessmen obtained the subsidies that were aimed at smallholding farmers. The Prosecutor General accused Arias of using the Secure Agricultural Income program as a platform for his presidential campaign Arias is currently in jail awaiting trial for embezzlement and misappropriation of state funds (Boyd).

Works Cited

AICM. Estudio general de medios. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Antequera, Juan Carlos, and Obregon, Rafael. “La radio como dinamizadora de procesos sociales y culturales en Barranquilla (Colombia).” Investigación y Desarrollo. 10 (2002):146-169. Print.

Berthold, Carol. “Kenneth Burke’s Cluster-Agon Method: Its Development and an Application.” Central States Speech Journal 27 (1976): 302-309. Print.

Boggs, Carl, and Dirmann, Tinna. “The Myth of Electronic Populism: Talk Radio and the Decline of the Public Sphere.” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy  5 (1999): 65-94.

Bonilla, Jorge Ivan, Restrepo, Adrian, Vásquez, Katalina, and Betancur, Juan Gonzalo “Cinco estudios de caso sobre buenas prácticas para superar el conflicto armado en Antioquia: Claves, lecciones y balances”. Comunicación, desarrollo y cambio social. (2011): 241-286. Ed. J. M. Pereira, y A. Cadavid. Bogotá: Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. Print.

Boyd, Alice. “Corruption Trial Opens Against Ex-Minister Arias.” Colombia Reports. 13 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Breit, Eric. “On the (Re)Construction of Corruption in the Media: a Critical Discursive Approach.” Journal of Business Ethics 92 (2010): 619- 635.

Burke, Kenneth. “The Meaning of C. K. Ogden.” New Republic 78 (1934): 328-31. Print.

—. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Los Altos: CA: Hermes, 1954. Print.

—. Attitudes Toward History. Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1959. Print.

—. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.

—. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

—. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 1941. Print.

Centro Nacional de Consultoría. Estudio continuo de audiencia radial. 2011. Web. 20 Feb.2012.

Cepeda, Fernando. La corrupción en Colombia. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1997. Print.

Cepeda, Fernando. "La financiación de la política y la corrupción". 9th International Anti-Corruption Conference, IACC,  Durban, South Africa. Oct. 1999. Web.14 Apr. 2012. 

Colombia. Secretaría el senado. Agro Ingreso Seguro: Ley 1133. 9 abr. 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.  

Duzán, Maria Jimena. “El periodismo entró a la Unidad Nacional”. Revista Semana. 10 Sep. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.

Ekströ, Mats. “Announced refusal to answer: A study of norms and accountability in broadcast political interviews”. Discourse Studies 11(2010): 681-702. Print.

“Exministro de Protección Social se pronuncia frente al « carrusel de la salud»”. Revista Semana. 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.

Fedesarrollo. "Causas de la corrupción". La corrupción en Colombia. (1997): 49-57.  Ed.  F. Cepeda. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores. Print.

Foss, Sonja. “Women Priests in the Episcopal Church: A Cluster Analysis of Establishment Rhetoric”. Religious Communication Today 7 (1984): 1-11. Print.

 —. Rhetorical CriticismExploration and Practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1989. Print.

Giglioli, Pier Paolo. “Political Corruption and Media: The Tangentopoli Affair.” International Social Science Journal 48 (1996): 381-94. Print.

Hutchby, Ian. Confrontation Talk: Arguments, Asymmetries, and Power on Radio. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996. Print.

Intermedia. Urban Colombia: Communication profile. Ago. 2010. Web. 15 Jun.2013.

Jarso, James. “The Media and the Anti-Corruption Crusade in Kenya: Weighing the Achievement, Challenges, and Prospects.” International Law Review 26 (2011): 33-88. Print.

Jain, Arvind, ed. The Political Economy of Corruption. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Jasinski, James. Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001. Print.

Kaplún, Mario. “Why Educate?” Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. (2006): 147-156. Ed. A. Gumucio-Dragon, and T. Tufte. South Orange, NJ: Communication for Social Change Consortium. Print.

Lalinde, Ana Maria. “Radio informativa: ¿Es posible la participación?” Signo y Pensamiento 33 (1998): 47-58. Print.

Lynch, John. “Race and Radical Renamings: Using Cluster Agon Method to Assess the Radical Potential of ‘European American’ as a Substitute for ‘White.’” KB. Journal 2 2006. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Mastrini, Guillermo, y Becerra, Martin. “Estructura y dimensión de las industrias infocomunicacionales en América Latina." Palabra Clave 12 (2005): 9-28. Print.

Mejía, Gabriel, y Gómez, Juan Carlos. "Para entender la radio comunitaria hoy.” Signo y Pensamiento 38 (2001): 140-47. Print.

Mockus, Antanas. “¿Por qué competencias ciudadanas en Colombia?” Bogotá: Al Tablero 27 (2004): 1-3. Print.

Montilla, Gabriela, and Jackman, Robert. “Sources of Corruption: A Cross-Country Study.” British Journal of Political Science 32 (2002): 147-70. Print.

Morales, Fernando. (2011, December 1). “Colombia otra vez rajada en percepción sobre corrupción.” El Espectador 1 Dec. 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Mwakawago, Daudi.. “Radio as a Tool for Development.” Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. Ed. A. Gumucio-Dragon and T. Tufte. South Orange, NJ: Communication for Social Change Consortium, (2006): 307-13. Print.

Neckel, Sighard. “Political Scandals: An Analytical Framework.” Comparative Sociology 4 (2005): 101-11. Print.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Pásara, Luis. El conflicto entre medios de comunicación y justicia. MA Thesis. Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 2003. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.

Pinseler, Jan “The Politics of Talk on German Free Radio Stations.” Westminster Papers in Communication & Culture 5 (2008): 67-85. Print.

Pizano, Daniel. “Nos chupó la corrupción.” Revista Semana. 27 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Prisa. “Caracol Radio Consolidates Its Lead with 8,826,600 Listeners.” 6 Feb. 2010. 15 Jun. 2013.

Programa Agro. “Programa Agro Ingreso Seguro ha beneficiado a hijos de políticos y reinas de belleza.” Revista Cambio. 23 Sep. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.           

Restrepo, Juan. "El escándalo: Una construcción social y política de la corrupción en los medios de comunicación.” Escribanía 15 (2005): 69-77. Print.

Roeh, Itzak. The Rhetoric of News Radio in the Israel Radio: Some Implications of Language and Style for Newstelling. Bochum, Germany: Studienverlag & Brockmeyer, 1982. Print.

Rønning, Helge. “The Politics of Corruption and the Media in Africa.” Journal of African Media Studies 1 (2009): 155-71.

Samper, Daniel. “Nos chupó la corrupción.” El Tiempo. 27 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.

Semana, (2011, July 30). “La hecatombe del ‘irremplazable.’” Revista Semana. 30 Jul 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2011. 

Solimano, Andres, Tanzi, Vito, and Del Solar, Felipe. Las termitas del Estado: Ensayos sobre corrupción, transparencia y desarrollo. Santiago de Chile: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2008. Print.

Tumber, Howard, y Waisbord, Silvio. “Political Scandals and Media Across Democracies.” American Behavioral Scientist 47 (2004): 1143-52.

Turbide, Oliver, Vincent, Diane, and Laforest, Marti. “The Circulation of Discourse: the Case of Deprecating Remarks on Trash Radio.” Discourse Studies 12 (2010): 785-801.

Ureña, Nubia Esperanza. "Corrupción y ética: Polos opuestos de la misma realidad". La corrupción en Colombia. Ed. F. Cepeda. Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1997: 211-31. Print.

Vaca, Hernando. “Procesos interactivos mediáticos de Radio Sutatenza con los campesinos de Colombia”. Signo y Pensamiento 58(2011): 254-69.   

Vargas-Hernández, José. “The Multiple Faces of Corruption: Typology, Forms and Levels.”Contemporary Legal & Economic Issues 3 (2009)269-90.

Yusha'u, Muhammad. “Investigative Journalism and Scandal Reporting in the Nigerian Press.” African Journalism Studies 30 (2009): 155-74.

Podcast Reference List

Charry, Juan Manuel. "Intervención de Saludcoop, llegó tarde el gobierno?" Hora 20. 12 May. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Esguerra, Juan Carlos. "Cuestionamientos a Conservadores: La corrupción es de un solo partido?" Hora 20.  14 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Flores, Juan Carlos. "Fiscalía imputa cargos contra Andrés Felipe Arias: Irá a la cárcel?" Hora 20. 21 Jul. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Forero, Alvaro. "Hacia dónde va la imputación de cargos contra Andrés Felipe Arias?" Hora 20. 13 Jun. 2011. 10 Nov. 2011.

López, Claudia. (2011, July 26). "  Por intentar obstruir la justicia: Andrés Felipe Arias a la cárcel" Hora 20. 26 Jul. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.  

Nieto, Rafael. "Facultades a Santos: Una reforma para el fin de la corrupción?" Hora 20. 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Palacio, Diego. "Escándalo por nuevo cartel de la salud, un nuevo carrusel de corrupción?" Hora 20. 5 May. 2011. Web.

Rangel, Alfredo.  "Hacia dónde va la imputación de cargos contra Andrés Felipe Arias ?" Hora 20. 13 Jun. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Robledo, Jorge Enrique. “Por intentar obstruir la justicia: Andrés Felipe Arias a la cárcel .Hora 20. 26 Jul. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Santos, Alejandro. "Facultades a Santos: Una reforma para el fin de la corrupción?" Hora 20. 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011..

Touffou, Marie. "La corrupción en Colombia vista por los analistas internacionales: Problema cultural, nacional o universal?" Hora 20. 13 May. 2011. Web 10 Nov. 2011.  

Uribe, Néstor. "Cuestionamientos a Conservadores: La corrupción es de un solo partido?" Hora 20. 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.