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Moral Panics and the Media

A moral panic is an exaggerated outburst of public concern over the morality or behaviour of a group in society.

Moral Panic Theory is strongly related to labelling theory, in fact moral panic theory is really labelling theory applied to the media – instead of the agent of social control doing the labelling, it is the media.

Two related key terms include folk devils and deviancy amplification

A folk devil is the subject of a moral panic – the group who the media is focussing on, the group who is being targeted for exaggerated reporting.

Deviancy Amplification is one of the alleged consequences of a moral panic – it is where a group becomes more deviant as a result of media exaggeration of their deviance. It is very similar to the Self Fulfilling Prophecy.

As with just about anything in life, all of this is much easier to understand with an example:

Stan Cohen’s (1972) study of the Mods and Rockers

Stan Cohen’s (1972) first developed the concept of the ‘moral panic’ in his study of the relationship between the media and the Mods and Rockers in the 1960s.

The Mods and Rockers were two working class youth subcultures, the mods famously riding scooters and dressing in smart clothes such as suits, and the rockers riding larger motorbikes and dressing in leathers.

These were also two of the first youth subcultures in consumer society, and initially they existed peacefully side by side – they were really just about style and music and the members of each were primarily concerned with having a good time.

However, during one bank holiday weekend in Clacton in 1964, where both mods and rockers visited to party, there were some minor acts of Vandalism and some violence between the two groups, this then led to the media turning up at the next big Bank Holiday weekend in Brighton (also 1964) ‘ready’ to report on any disturbances.

Once again at Brighton there was also some minor vandalism and violence between the mods and rockers, but this time the media were present and produced (according to Cohen) some extremely exaggerated reports about the extent of the violence between the two groups.

This had the effect of generating concern among the general public and the police then responded to this increased public fear and perceived threat to social order by policing future mods and rockers events more heavily and being more likely to arrest youths from either subculture for deviant behaviour (whether violent or not).

A further consequence of the exaggerated media reporting was that the mods and rockers came to see themselves as opposed to each other, something which hadn’t been the case before the media exaggeration.

Some further examples of moral panics

There have been several examples of issues which might be regarded as Moral Panics:

  • Inner city mugging by black youths, as outlined by Stuart Hall in Policing the Crisis
  • Punks and Skinheads
  • Football Hooligans
  • Pedophiles
  • Islamic Terrorists
  • Benefit Culture

NB all of the above examples are only ‘possible’ examples of moral panics, see criticisms below.

Criticisms of moral panic theory

  • Cohen’s formulation of moral panic theory assumes that the audience are passive, but audiences today are much more active and able to critically evaluate media content, which means moral panics are less likely.
  • Thornton (1995) found that the media failed to generate a moral panic over rave culture, mainly because youth culture had become mainstream by that point, as had the taking of drugs such as ecstasy.
  • There are various reasons my ‘panics’ may not occur even if the media exaggerate the deviance of some groups – the media also exaggerate the police’s ability to deal with deviance and exaggerated reporting of deviance is so common these days that people are just desensitized to its effects.
  • Finally, some concerns which some may call moral panics may be legitimate – such as concerns over child abuse or rising knife crime today.
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Churnalism and the News

Churnalism refers to a process where journalists produce news based on pre-packaged press-releases from government spin doctors, public relations consultants or news agencies without doing independent research or even checking their facts.

The journalist Waseem Zakir has been credited with first using the term in 2008 while working for the BBC when he noted that more and more journalists were resorting to Churnalism and that there was a corresponding decline in journalists actually going out and doing their own reporting and checking facts for themselves.

churnalism example.PNG

The rise of Churnalism

It seems that in the last two decades there has been a further increase in Churnalism…

Davis (2008) found that 80% of stories in the Times, the Guardian, Independent, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail were wholly or partially constructed from second-hand material provided by news agencies or public relations firms such as the Press Association. He further found that many of the companies providing material for these newspapers were actively promoting particular political or economic interests.

Philips (2010) pointed out that reporters have increasingly been asked to rewrite stories that have appeared in other newspapers or websites, such as the BBC News Site, and to lift quotes without attributing them.

The rise of the blogosphere also raises the possibility that professional journalists might lift quotes from bloggers who aren’t as constrained by media industry standards and may derive their information from unverified sources, even from rumours circulating on social media.

The causes and consequences of the rise of churnalism

The causes of the rise of churnalism seem to be cost-cutting – it is simply cheaper for news companies to get their journalists to use pre-packaged material rather than do critical, investigative journalism. Political parities and public relations companies are more than happy to provide material for free because they are effectively promoting the views of the party or of the company who paid for the press-releases to be written.

Time pressure also plays a role – in the world of rapid 24 hour news journalists may not have time to go and do their own reporting or even check facts before their deadlines.

The first consequence of increasing churnalism are that there is a narrowing of the news agenda, with fewer original sources providing news to a wider range of newspapers.

There is also likely to be an increase in bias towards those companies with the time and money available to provide press-releases – which supports the Instrumentalist Marxist view of the media.

There could also be a decrease in the accuracy of news reporting, if journalists aren’t checking their facts.

Sources/ find out more…

Davis (2008) Flat Earth News

Philips (2010) Old Sources: New Bottles in Fenton (2010) New Media, Old News

Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churnalism

Image source… https://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.com/2017/10/how-mainstream-media-churnalism-works.html

 

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The Social Construction of News

The news is a socially manufactured product, rather than an objective ‘window on the world’.

Many events happen in reality which do not get reported in the news and those which do appear in the news are placed in a particular order of priority and ‘framed’ by the questions which are asked and who is asked to comment on the events.

It follows that the content and format of the news is a result of many decisions made by several media professionals and those they work with and that the news will thus reflect the biases of those who are involved in its creation.

‘The News is Socially Constructed’ = the news is a manufactured product, the result of decisions made by media professionals about what to include and how to present what is included.

This post presents a brief introduction to the factors which influence news content, covering news values, organisational routines, media owners and the background of journalists. It has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology, studying The Sociology of Media option, AQA specification.

News Values 

News Values are general guidelines which determine how newsworthy an event is. The more news values an event has, then the more prominence the event will be given in a news programme or a newspaper.

Examples of News Values include:

  • Extraordinariness – how unusual an event is. An event which is not routine and unexpected is more likely to be included in the news.
  • Threshold – the bigger and event the more likely it is to be included – e.g. more deaths are better.
  • Negativity – generally war, violence, death, tragedy, all are more newsworthy than happy events.
  • Unambiguity – the simpler, more black and white an event the more likely it is to be included in the news agenda
  • Personalisation – if a story can be linked to an individual, and a personal story made out of it, then it is more newsworthy.

Organisational or Bureaucratic routines

These are logistical factors which can limit what events are included as news items and include:

  • Financial costs
  • Deadlines
  • Time and Space
  • The audience
  • Journalistic ethics

Economic factors and ownership

Instrumentalist Marxists argue that owners can influence content, and a good example of this is the control Rupert Murdoch exerted over the reporting of the Iraq war in 2003 – he was for the war and his newspapers did not criticise it.

Advertising can also affect the news agenda – independent news companies are dependent on advertising revenue, so they are unlikely to report on issues which are critical of capitalism and economic growth.

There is a hierarchy of credibility – the news generally presents the views of the elite and wealthy first and then the radicals and critics in response, suggesting the elite view is the norm.

Most Journalists are middle class 

More than 50% of journalists were educated in private schools, and most of the rest come from middle class backgrounds.

This means they share a middle class ‘establishment’ view of the world and will see middle class issues as more signficant than working class interests, and/ or present the interests of the middle classes as being the interests of everyone.

 

 

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The Marxist Perspective on the News

Marxists suggest the news agenda is heavily interests by those with power in capitalist societies and that the content of the news reflects the worldview and interests of the elite and middle classes.

Those working for mainstream news media may claim that the news they construct is objective and unbiased, but this is a myth according to Marxists, and the news primarily serves to legitimate capitalism and maintain the status quo.

This post is really an application of a combination of Instrumentalist Marxist Theory and Neo-Marxist (‘hegemonic’) theory.

Owners influence content

Owners may not be able to shape the day to day content of the news, especially live 24 hour news, but they can shape the broader context by setting the policies of their companies and influencing the general approach to selecting and editing news.

Owners the power to hire and fire Chief Executive Officers and other high-ranking officials, and they can exercise direct control over such decisions because they do not have to be made that often.

According to Marxist theory, owners will generally appoint senior officials who share their ideology and then lower ranking media professionals will avoid publishing content that might annoy them for fear of their jobs.

The news agenda legitimates a capitalist, neoliberal view of the world

News companies rely on advertisers for their income and so it should be no surprise that the news does not generally critique the capitalist system, in fact it does quite the opposite.

Most news programmes and papers have large sections devoted to business news and economics, where Corporate leaders and business experts are generally deferred to and are favourably presented.

These sections of the news rarely challenge the concept of economic growth, it is taken for granted as a universal ‘good’, and elsewhere the news rarely focuses on issues of poverty and inequality.

The Hierarchy of credibility

Journalists rank people in elite and professional positions as being more credible sources of authority than those lower down the social class order.

Heads of companies, government officials, the police and academic experts are all more likely to be invited to comment on news items than those from pressure groups, less popular political parties, or just ordinary members of the general public.

The elite thus end up becoming the ‘primary definers’ of the news agenda.

The news often reports on what such people think of events, rather than the events themselves, so we end up with an elite/ middle class frame of the world through the news.

The social class class background of journalists

GUMG argue that media professional tend to side with the elite because they share a middle class background with them, and thus a worldview.

News items thus tend to represent the elite and middle classes more favourably than the working classes.

Fiske (1987) for example found that news reports on industrial disputes tended to report on managers as ‘asking’ whereas trades unionists tended to reported as ‘making demands’, presenting the former as more reasonable.

Sources 

Modified from…

  • Ken Browne (2016) Sociology for AQA Volume 2
  • Chapman (2016) Sociology AQQ A-Level Year 2
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Organisational Routines and News Content

Organisational routines may affect what items are selected for presentation in the news. These include factors such as financial costs, time and space available, deadlines, immediacy and accuracy, the audience and journalistic ethics.

Organisational routines are sometimes known as bureaucratic routines.

This post has been written primarily for A-level sociology students studying the media option within the sociology of the media.

Financial costs

News gathering can be an expensive business, and investigative journalism and overseas reporting are two of the most expensive types of news to produce, because they former involves sustained long-term investigation and the later involves overseas expenses.

Financial pressures have led to news companies changing the type of news they produced, with two major consequences:

Firstly, investigative journalism has declined, and that which remains has become more about digging up dirt on celebrities rather than in-depth exposés on corrupt politicians or corporations.

Secondly, the news has become more about infotainment – that is entertainment has become increasingly important as a factor in the selection of news items. Entertaining items achieve larger audiences which means more advertising revenue and more income.

Even the BBC isn’t immune from these pressures. OFCOM recently said of BBC News that it is ‘More Madonna than Mugabe’.

Time and space available

News has to be tailored to fit the time and space available in the newspaper or on the television show.

For example, A typical 6 O clock BBC news show consist of around 15 items in 25 minutes, usually with each item taking up 5 minutes or less. If an item can’t be covered in less than 5 minutes, it is more likely that it will not be included in the news agenda.

These small time slots also limit the number of perspectives which can be given on a news item – often restraining commentary to 2 people, and contributing to biased Agenda Setting (according to Neo-Marxists)

Longer news programmes allow for more in-depth coverage of news items.

Deadlines

This only really affects newspapers: the deadline for something to reach tomorrow’s newspaper is around 10PM the previous evening.

Immediacy and Accuracy

An item is more likely to be included in the news if it can be accompanied by live footage and if relevant people can be found to comment on the issue or offer soundbites.

The audience

The content of the news may change because of the perceived characteristics of the audience.

For example The Sun is aimed at less well educated people while The Guardian is aimed at people with a higher level of education.

The content of day time news may change to reflect the interests of stay at home parents.

Journalistic ethics

Ethics should constrain the type of news which is reported, and the way in which news is reported.

All UK newspapers sign up to the Press Complaints Commission’s voluntary code of conduct which stipulates that journalists should avoid publishing inaccurate information and misrepresenting people and should respect people’s privacy and dignity.

However, there is some evidence that journalists do not always act ethically. For example, the News of the World phone hacking scandal in the early 2000s – the paper hacked various celebrities and royals’ phones as well as those of victims of the July 2005 London bombings.

The Leveson report (2012) found that news stories frequently relied on misrepresentation and embellishment, and it seems that press watchdogs have little power to enforce journalistic ethics today.

 

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A useful Documentary illustrating Globalization – Mediterranean with Simon Reeve

This is a great resource for teaching some of the content of the global development module within A-level sociology. 

I caught the final episode of the BBC’s Mediterranean with Simon Reeve on Sunday night, and I ended up watching the whole thing! It may only be in the Med, which is relatively local to the UK, but nonetheless this final episode is so useful for illustrating many aspects of globalisation.

mediterranean globalisation.PNG

In retrospect I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised at this: the Med is the boarder between Europe, the Middle East and Africa after all, so it spans three very different regions in the world.

The documentary series is available on iplayer for the next 8 months, so you can use it for teaching globalisation for almost the entire 2019-20 academic year.

I can’t speak for other three episodes, but the final one alone covers the following, mainly focusing on migration and environmental problems in the Med.

  • How over-fishing has led to the declining viability of fishing for a living in Tunisia and how this is making fishermen turn to people smuggling (destination Europe) instead.
  • The brutality of detainment centres in Tunisia – in which illegal migrants, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa are kept and effectively work as slaves.
  • The hundreds of square miles of plastic covered farms in Southern Spain which grow year round salad veg, much of which we eat in the UK.
  • The plight of the workers (often illegal migrants) who work in said salad farms.
  • The fact that much of the plastic waste from said farms ends up in tiny shreds in the Med and in our food chain.

Simon Reeves also visits Monaco, the world’s most expensive place, and comments that it’s a sunny place for shady people. He doesn’t seem too impressed by this tax haven for the undeserving privileged having spent the previous month touring around some of the less advantaged places in neighbouring countries.

Anyway, it’s a great documentary: very sociological!

 

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The Neo-Marxist Perspective on The Media

Neo Marxists argue that cultural hegemony explains why we have a limited media agenda.

Journalists have more freedom than traditional Marxists suggest, and the media agenda is not directly controlled by owners. However, journalists share the world view of the owners and use gatekeeping and agenda setting to keep items which are harmful to elites out of the media agenda and thus voluntarily spread the dominant ideology.

This perspective is also known as the Dominant Ideology, or Hegemonic perspective on the media.

The Neo-Marxist Perspective on the Media.png

Neo-Marxists emphasize cultural hegemony

Hegemony is where the norms and values of the ruling class are taken as common sense.

According to Neo-Marxists, the reason why we have a limited media agenda is because of cultural hegemony, not because of direct control by wealthy media owners. In other words, cultural factors are more important than economic factors in explaining narrow media content.

Simply put, Journalists have accepted the conservative worldview of the ruling class as common sense, and they share this world view with the ruling class – they thus unconsciously spread the dominant ideology themselves without the need for direct control by the media owners.

Journalists voluntarily spread the dominant ideology

Journalists have the freedom to report as they please, so other factors besides economic control/ ownership determine media content, factors such as the interests of journalists and industry news values.

HOWEVER, the broad agenda of the media is still limited because the journalists share the same world view as the ruling class and the owners (this is known as ‘cultural hegemony’).

This is at least partly because Journalists are themselves mostly white and middle class, with more than 50% of them having gone to private schools. They thus present a conservative/ neo-liberal view of the world on autopilot.

Also, journalists do not want to risk their careers by annoying owners and so are reluctant to publish content which might annoy owners.

Agenda setting and gate keeping

Agenda setting and gatekeeping are the two processes through which journalists limit media content. They are normally used in relation to the selection and presentation of The News.

Gatekeeping = the process of choosing which items are selected for coverage, and others are kept out.

Agenda setting = deciding how media items are going to be framed, for example, who is going to be invited to discuss topics and what kind of questions are going to be asked.

According to neo-Marxists gatekeeping and agenda setting tend to result in issues which are harmful to the elite being kept out of the media, thus reinforcing the dominant ideology.

Examples of agenda setting and gate keeping include:

  1. Only having two political parties discuss a news item – we rarely hear from the Green Party, for example.
  2. Focussing on the violence at riots and protests, rather than the issues which are being protested about, or the cause of the riots.
  3. The news taking the side of the police and the government, rather than hearing from criminals or terrorists.

Criticisms of Neo-Marxism

  • Traditional Marxists argue that it underestimates the important of economic factors, for example the power of owners to hire and fire journalists
  • As with traditional Marxism, the role of new media may make this perspective less relevant. It is now much harder to maintain the dominant ideology, for example.
  • Pluralists point out that this perspective still tends to assume the audience are passive and easily swayed by the dominant ideology. In reality, the audience may be more active and critical.

Sources 

Modified from…

  • Ken Browne (2016) Sociology for AQA Volume 2
  • Chapman (2016) Sociology AQQ A-Level Year 2
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The Marxist Instrumentalist Theory of Media

Marxist Instrumentalist theory holds that media owners control media content, and that the media performs ideological functions. The primary role of the media is to keep a largely passive audience from criticizing capitalism and thus maintain the status quo.

Marxist Instrumentalist Theory is also known as the Traditional Marxist or Manipulative Approach to the media.

This post is primarily written for students of A-level sociology, studying the AQA 2019 specification.

Marxist media sociology

Media owners control media content 

Media owners are part of the ruling class elite and they consciously manipulate media content to transmit a conservative ideology to control the wider population and maintain their wealth and privilege.

The content of the media is thus narrow and biased and reflects the opinions of the ruling class generally and the media owners in particular.

The government does not effectively regulate media content because the political elite are also part of the ruling class like the media owners.

The media performs ideological functions 

According to Instrumentalist Marxists, the primary role of the media is to spread ruling class ideology and maintain the status quo, keeping the current unequal capitalist system in place.

The media performs ideological functions in many ways:

  1. We see many favourable representations of (rather than critical commentary on) the wealthy – for example Royalty, millionaires on Cribs, and middle class lifestyles more generally in all of those hideous programmes about spending £500K on a house in the country.
  2. It spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – Dragons Den and The Apprentice are two wonderful contemporary examples of this.
  3. The News often dismisses radical view points as extremist, dangerous or silly, and a conservative (ruling class) view of the world as normal.
  4. Negative portrayals of ethnic minorities and immigrants serve to divide the ruling class and discourages criticisms of the ruling class.
  5. Entertainment distracts the public from thinking critically about important political issues.

The audience are passive 

Marxist instrumentalists see the audience as a mass of unthinking robots who are passive and easily manipulate. They essentially take what they see in the media at face value, and believe what they see without questioning it.

Supporting evidence 

Curran (2003) suggests that there is a lot of historical evidence of media owners manipulating media content. He carried out a historical analysis of UK media, broken down into four historical periods.

Control by owners was most obvious in the era of the Press Barons in the early part of the 20th century, when some even said that they used their newspapers to consciously spread their political views.

Rupert Murdoch’s control of his News Corporation since the 1970s is another good example of an owner controlling media content. All of his newspapers have a strong right wing point of view, which reflects his values.

A specific example of Murdoch’s control is that all of his news outlets supported the Iraq War in 2003, a war which he personally supported. It’s unlikely that all the editors of all his newspapers globally shared this view.

Criticisms 

Pluralists are the biggest critics of Manipulative Marxists.

It is impractical for media owners of large corporations to control all output on a day to day basis. At some point they have to trust editors.

Pluralists argue that media owners are primarily motivated by making a profit and thus would rather provide audiences with the diverse content they want rather than use their media companies to spread their own narrow view of the world.

The previous criticism follows on from the Pluralist view that audiences are not just passive and unthinking, they are active and critical, and thus not easily manipulated: they can easily choose to switch off if they don’t like what they see.

The rise of the New Media especially undermines the Manipulative approach – New Media encourage audiences to be more active and allow for a greater range of people to produce and share media content. It’s simply not possible for owners to control such content.

Sources 

Modified from…

  • Ken Browne (2016) Sociology for AQA Volume 2
  • Chapman (2016) Sociology AQQ A-Level Year 2
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The pluralist view of the media

Pluralists argue that power in democratic, free market societies is spread out among diverse competing interest groups, and not concentrated in the hands of a minority economic elite, as Marxists suggests. According to pluralists, no one group has a monopoly on power. Their view of the media reflects their view of power in society more generally.

Pluralism media sociology.png

Media content driven by profit

Pluralists argue that in democratic, free market economies different media companies must compete for customers, and so they must provide the kind of content those customers want in order to make a profit and survive. If a company fails to provide the kind of news and entertainment that people need and want, customers will simply stop buying their media products and go elsewhere, forcing that company out of business.

It follows that control over media content ultimately lies with consumers, not the owners of media, because the owners need to adapt their content to fit the demands of the consumers.

Media owners primarily want to make money and so they would rather adapt their media content to be more diverse and keep money coming in, rather than use their media channels to publish their own narrower subjective views and opinions.

Media content thus doesn’t reflect the biased, one sided views of media owners, it reflects the diverse opinions of the general public who ultimately pay for that media content. The public (being diverse!) generally don’t want one-sided, biased media!

Consumers determine content

From the pluralist perspective audiences are active rather than passive and not easily manipulated. They are free to select, reject and re-interpret a wide range of media content, and they increasingly take advantage of new technologies and new media to produce their own content.

It is thus ultimately the consumers of media/ the wider audience who determine media content rather than the media owners.

Journalists not controlled by owners

Finally, pluralists point out that on a purely practical level media owners of large global corporations cannot personally determine the content of all their media products, there are too many products and too many global-level management issues to keep them occupied. Thus producers, editors and journalists have considerable freedom to shape media content, free from the control of the big bosses.

Criticisms of Pluralism

  1. Ultimately it is still owners who have the power the hire and fire journalists and they do have the power to select high level editors who have similar views to themselves, which may subtly influence the media agenda.
  2. It still requires a lot of money to establish a large media company, and ownership remains very concentrated. There is relatively little journalism which is both independent and widely consumed.
  3. Owners, editors and most journalists share an upper middle-class background and a conservative worldview.
  4. The pressure to maintain profits has led to narrowing of media content – more towards uncritical, sensationalist entertainment and less likely to be critical and independent.
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What the public thinks of Boris Johnson

YouGov recently published a post outlining ‘Everything they know about what the public think of Boris Johnson‘ – these are basically the results of various opinion polls carried out in recent months and are a great example of secondary quantitative data.

The polls clearly show that most people think Boris will be a strong leader, and a different type of leader to previous PMs, but not in a good way: most people don’t trust Boris and think he’s going to make a terrible Prime Minister….

Most people think he’ll be a different type of leader…

Boris new PM.PNG

But almost 60% of people don’t trust Boris

public opinion Boris Johnson.PNG

One of the more creative questions was what Hogwarts House Boris Johnson would be in – no surprise that 42% of the population put him in Slytherin – which values ambition and cunning.

Boris Johnson Slytherin.PNG

Relevance of all of this to A-level Sociology 

These polls are a good example of the problems with validity in quantitative social survey research.

We need to treat these results with caution: the negative responses may be because of the lack of say most people have had over Boris being elected, or about the lack of any kind of progress over Brexit.

In other words, people may not be expressing their dissatisfaction with Boris in particular, but possibly at the whole of the inept political class in general!

Having said that, I’m not going to dismiss criticism of Boris: he is an Eton educated millionaire who seems to be prepared to lie and spin his way to the top, always putting his own personal ambition ahead of anything else.