I’ve been adding a copy of The Sun newspaper to my basket every time I do my lock down shop, primarily because it at around 50 pence it’s pretty cheap!
The Sun is also Britain’s most widely circulated newspaper, so it’s worth doing a bit of casual content analysis on it during these unusual coronavirus times – this is the paper most people are reading, after all!
One of the main themes I’ve noticed is moralising through shaming, and today’s paper (Friday 8th May) is a great example of this…..
On the front page we have the paper moralising against ‘Just Giving’ taking a £300K fee from Captain Tom’s fundraising efforts.
On pages 5-6 we have public shaming of businesses and shops for ‘flouting’ lock down rules on a sunny day yesterday
Later on pages 8-9 we have a detailed map of England footballer Kyle Walker’s lock down violations as he visits his sister, mother and father and friend for a cycle ride.
All of these events are newsworthy based on their news values, but The Sun goes beyond objective reporting and adds a shaming element through the use of language: ‘Walker the Plank’ as a title, for example.
And it’s not just The Sun being Paternal… apparently Dominic Raab has said that if people take advantage of the lockdown gradually being relaxed, they’ll restrict the rules again, as if we’re all like a bunch of school children?!?
Examples of right wing media bias from the filthy Daily Mail, from the 2019 general election.
There’s nothing quite like a General Election to reveal the bias in mainstream newspapers, which is a major topic within the media option for A-level sociology.
I mean, we all know that the mainstream news is biased, but during elections, any attempt to report political events in a fair or neutral way just seems to disappear altogether.
In the case of the the UK’s most widely circulated, and most offensive, newspaper, The Daily Mail, even the most cursory discourse analysis reveals a very strong pro Tory and anti Labour stance, often framed as ‘pro-Bexit and anti-Brexit, and also often personablised as pro Boris and anti Corbyn.
Below are a few examples from the filth that is the Daily Mail.
Corbyn in the Dock
Corbyn on trial – implies he’s done something so wrong as to be accused of being a criminal. And next to it an assertion by Boris presented as truth.
Labour’s Brexit Portrayal
So here the headline moves away from the personal attacks, but we’re back to it underneath – with a ‘sneering’ Corbyn, implying he’s somehow evil and arrogant, not caring about the people.
Corbyn’s Two Fingers to Leavers…
This is probably the most disgusting headline of all: as if Jeremy Corbyn is that flippant about how leavers feel, and as if the issue is that simple.
And finally: how to help the Torys win…
Mainstream newspapers may be less well circulated than ever, but they do offer a very easy insight into just how biased they can be. And if this bias is in the print version, you can be it’s in the online versions, and not just at election times, although at less fraught times, the bias will be a lot subtler!
The recent death of Policeman Andrew Harper is possibly the perfect example of a story which ticks nearly every single news value imaginable. P.C. Andrew Harper was tragically killed when he was dragged along by a car while he was investigating a burglary.
The unexpected early death of anyone in the prime of their life is a tragedy, but when they’re fresh off their honeymoon having only got married four weeks ago, this sense of tragedy is enhanced.
The wedding photos of the happy couple have been widely circulated in the media, as was Andrew’s wife Open Letter Tribute to him, all of which encourage us to read the story from the perspective of Andrew’s widow: imagining the tragedy of their life together now cut short.
Even though we we’ve no idea whether there was actually any intent behind the killing of Andrew Harper much of the media has simplified this event by labelling it a murder. And even though we can’t be sure who did it, the main suspects are from a local traveller’s site.
This adds to the ‘perfect narrative’ of ‘good cop, keeping us safe’ killed by deviant travellers who harass and steal from good local communities, of which Andrew Harper was firmly embedded, in the ‘protector role’.
NB I’m not saying that this was a simple event, but that’s how it’s been constructed in the media!
Bang in the middle of an elite nation
Not only did this event took place in Britain, it took place bang in the middle of Britain – in Wallingford in the small home counties county of Oxfordshire. Ticking the ‘white middle class’ norm box perfectly.
This event happened very quickly, it was over in the course of one night, and it’s not a complex drawn-out thing to understand.
The murder of a policeman is extraordinary, very unusual: only 8 U.K. policemen have been killed in the line of duty since 2010.
Murder is big big news, and the murder of a policeman even more so. Not only this, but the fact that we don’t know who did it led to 10 ‘travellers’ being arrested – which is an unusually high suspect count for any individual crime.
This murder of a policeman ties in well with another recent news story – the stabbing of another policeman only a couple weeks earlier, also while engaged in a seemingly routine operation of stopping a van.
This is an extremely tragic event, but it’s also a perfect media event. I do feel sorry for his widow and family, the media are going to be dining out on this for at least the rest of the year.
As if moving on from this wasn’t going to be hard enough already!
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.
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
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 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:
Time and Space
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The new ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption should be none, at least according to a recent study into the health risks of alcohol published by the The Lancet.
This contradicts the current official government guidelines on the ‘safe’ level of drinking: currently around 14 units per week for women, and 21 for men.
The findings of this research study were widely reported in the mainstream media:
The Daily Mail reported that ‘just one glass of wine a day increases your risk of various cancers’.
Even The Independent reported that ‘the idea that one or two drinks a day is good for you is a myth’.
But what are the actual statistical risks of different levels of alcohol consumption?
The actual risk of developing a drink related alcohol problem for different levels of drinking are as follows:
No drinks a day = 914/ 100 000 people
One drink a day = 918/ 100 000 people
Two drinks a day = 977/ 100 000 people
I took the liberty of putting this into graph form to illustrate the relative risks: blue shows the proportion of people who will develop alcohol related problems!
This means that statistically, there is only a 0.5 % greater risk of developing an alcohol related illness if you have one drink a day compared to no drinks, which hardly sounds significant!
Meanwhile, there is a greater increase in risk if you have two compared to 1 drink a day, which suggests the government guidelines have got this about right!
(NB, despite the headlines, The BBC and Sky did a reasonable job of reporting the actual stats!)
So why did some news papers report these findings in a limited way?
This could be a classic example of News Values determining how an event gets reported: it’s much more shocking to report that the government has got its advice wrong and that really there is no safe level of drinking!
Or it could be that these newspapers feel as though they’ve got a social policy duty to the general public… even if there is only a slight increased risk from alcohol consumption, maybe they feel duty bound to report it in such a way to nudge behaviour in a more healthy direction.
In terms of why some newspapers did a better job of reporting the actual findings: it could be that these are the papers who rely on advertising revenue from drinks companies? Maybe the Mail and the Independent don’t get paid by drinks companies, whereas Sky does>?
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