Coronavirus Media Narratives

While Coronavirus is no doubt a real-life event, with real-life social and (for an extreme minority tragic) individual consequences, it is also very much a media event, especially since isolation is correlated with a significant increase our media consumption with news sites especially seeing a surge in visits (U.S. data)…

news consumption coronavirus

Social media usage (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp) is seeing a similar 75% increase in user engagement. 

The News is a Social Construction

The spread of Coronavirus, and the societal reaction to it are media-events, they are socially constructed – that is to say we do not get to see every aspect of reality, only that which is selected by media professionals.

Because Coronavirus was so unexpected, and because the consequences are potentially so horrendous (millions could die from it globally, so we are told), it’s tempting to think that the reporting around this global event are ‘true’ or, at least as accurate as can be given the lack of any actual real data.

HOWEVER, it is precisely because this event is so ‘massive’ ( global, and with a range of different responses), and because there are so many unknowns (missing data on how many people actually have it), that this event in particular is possibly the most ‘media constructed’ in world history.

Add to this the fact ‘ordinary people’ have a reduced capacity to get out and see what’s going on for themselves (because of emergency social isolation legislation), then this is also the most hyperreal event in world history. One might even ask if it’s actually happening at all, as this person does here:

Give all of this, we really need to ask ourselves how the story of Coronavirus is being constructed, and to my mind I see several core narratives which haven’t so much emerged rather than just blasted all of a sudden onto the media scene:

The 11 media narratives of Coronavirus

  1. Panic and Risk based around uncritical use of statistics
  2. Enforcing the importance of social control
  3. ‘The War footing’
  4. New villains
  5. Celebrities ‘like us’ in isolation
  6. Sharing ‘isolation coping strategies’, while staying isolated
  7. Victims: Private tragedies made public
  8. New heroes (frontline workers and volunteers, especially NHS workers)
  9. The importance of trusting medical experts/ technical solutions to Covid-19
  10. The economic impact/ bailout of covid-19/ ‘pulling through this together’
  11. Blame other countries or poor migrants

This is very much a first-thoughts run through of this, and I might rejig it later. Below I provide a few examples for some of these themes.

NB – I am not saying that we shouldn’t take this virus seriously, and I do accept that this is a highly contagious bug and potentially deadly for some (like the flu, that’s also deadly!), and the challenge we face is the rapidity of the spread of it. But at the same time, I just think we also need to aware of uncritical reporting of the death rates and social responses…

NB for a ‘content analysis’ challenge, scroll down to the bottom of this post!

Media Narrative One: Panic and Risk based around uncritical use of statistics

At time of writing (April 1st 2020) you get this theme from doing a basic Google search for the term ‘Coronavirus’:

The panic is in the language in the ‘top stories’: ‘record surge of cases’, ‘fatality rate shoots up’, but also in the images – you’ve got The Army, the Prime-minister with a lab technician (themes 2 and 10 above there) and then just a sea of red in the next image.

This could all be contextualized instead – things get worse before they get better, in China the cases are coming down:

Theme Two: Reinforcing social control

In case you missed it, same picture as above, search return Number One: Stay At Home: Save Lives| Anyone Can Spread Coronavirus, and this is from the NHS.

If you think such a simple statement doesn’t require analysis, then you do not have a sociological imagination.

Coronavirus is the most searched for term atm (NB that is an assumption, but I think I’m pretty safe making it!), and Google is the most used search engine in the world: so these are the nine words which people in Britain are the most exposed to.

There’s a rather nasty psychological manipulation technique going on here – social control through the internalizing of potential guilt: if you go out, you could kill someone.

However, the fact that this advice comes from the trusted and loved NHS makes us think (maybe) that while dark, this must be ‘good advice.

Confused yet, terrified? I’m not surprised!

NB: Keep in mind that this advice is reinforcing government emergency lock-down legislation, legislation that is not based in hard statistics on the actual chance of people dying from Covid-19 – there’s every chance that the real mortality rate from the disease is the same as the flu, but here we are in lockdown for three weeks.

On the theme of social control, I found this from The Sun especially interesting…

Here we have the perfect way of reinforcing the stay at home method – a 19 year old female nurse (although I don’t know how she can be qualified at age 19?) crying because people are flouting the stay at home rules – the perfect hero and victim, all rolled into one!

If that doesn’t make you feel guilty for going out, nothing will, I mean look at that face, how could you hurt her?

Theme Three: The War Footing

President Trump has declared himself a war time president, and he’s far from the only one using the ‘War Footing’ narrative – besides using war related language (fight against, achieving victory, the national effort), a lot of commentary harks back to WW2 analogies – I heard one lab technician today saying how his small lab, testing for Covid-19, was like one of the boats from Dunkirk, for example.

Theme Four: Coronavirus Villains

You really don’t have to look far, and probably no newspaper does a better of job of singling these out for us than The Sun, which tells us that going out for a too long walk is now deviant (top right hand corner below)

Anyone who now goes out for anything but emergency health reasons or going to the supermarket for essential food shopping is now a deviant!

Theme Five – Celebrities like us in Isolation

I present you my man Gregg Wallace – getting buff while in isolation in his Kent Farm House… coping with isolation, just like us! (Except he’s probably in a very large farmhouse in a very exclusive part of of Kent with several acres surrounding him, and a couple of million quid in the bank to fall back on in tis of crisis, like every other celebrity.

Theme 6: Coping Strategies

Here’s a nice middle class example from The Guardian. I’m sure there are plenty of other social media sharing strategies going on out there!

Theme Seven: Victims: Private tragedies made public

This example from Sky News is interesting – it shows how the media is lining up to report on ‘the most extreme’ cases… even before Covid-19 is confirmed as a cause..

Theme 8: New Heroes

The NHS front line workers appear to have emerged as the new heroes, as well as other essential key workers, but it’s mainly NHS workers who are getting the praise – the weekly clap for the NHS has become a media event with extreme rapidity (clapidity?)

Theme nine: The importance of trusting medical experts/ technical solutions to Covid-19

This is an emerging theme, which I expect we’ll see a lot more of in coming weeks. Not much to say on this atm, but it is there – at the bottom of the BBC News links – I might be overanalysing this, but the fact that it’s at the bottom, or at the end, does suggest implicitly that such technologicla drug trials are the way out….

Theme 10: The economic impact/ bailout of covid-19/ ‘pulling through this together’

This is one of those ‘boring but important’ themes that is likely to become more prevalent as the Pandemic slows down…

Theme 11: Blame other countries or poor migrants

From a recent edition of The Sun….

Covid-19 content analysis research challenge

Why not keep your sociological skills engaged by doing a little content analysis (yay, fun!)

Use the content analysis sheet below to analyse one newspaper, one news website, or one news show, or maybe even chat shows like the One Show, and see how many of themes crop up.

There are several methods of doing the content analysis – as follows:

  • For Newspapers simply look at each discrete story (you might want to just focus on the biggest stories) and put a tick in the relative box every time you come across a theme.
  • For websites (e.g. News Websites), start with the home page and follow the main links, tick according to whatever the main theme is.
  • For TV shows, you can watch and note down how many minutes is devoted to each.

Enjoy, and stay…. critical!

Contemporary sociology: false news spreads faster than true news

A recent MIT study led by Sinan Aral, published in the journal Science in early March (2018) found that ‘false news’ spreads much more quickly than real news—and it seems to be humans, more than bots, who are responsible for the imbalance.

Fake political news stories spread the fastest, but the findings also applied to stories on urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment, and natural disasters.

Aral’s team of researchers looked at sample of 4.5 million tweets created by about 3 mmillion people over an 11 year period. Together these tweets formed 126,000 “cascades” of news stories, or uninterrupted retweet chains. The researchers compared to spread of false vs. true news stories, verified by using sites such as factcheck.org.

The main findings

Fake News Twitter

  • false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted,
  • while true stories never reached past a  ‘cascade-depth’ of 10, false stories spread to a depth of 19,
  • false studies reached a cascade “depth” of 10 about 20 times faster than true ones.
  • true news stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 readers as false ones did,
  • “False political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information,”
  • humans were more likely to spread the false news than bots,
  • Fake news tended to be associated with fear, disgust, and surprise, whereas true stories triggered anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.

Why do people spread fake news?

The authors of the study offer a ‘neutral’ explanation – simply that fake news is more ‘novel, novelty attracts more human attention, and ‘novel news’ is more valuable – individuals gain more status for being the ones who share novetly (or at least peopel think they will gain more status) and novel information tends to be more useful in helping us make decisions about how to act in society.

Ironically, spreading false news tends to have the opposite effect: it makes individuals who spread it look stupid and may lead to us taking fewer risks and to a misallocation of resources as we attempt to mitigate this (non-real) risks.

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

This is a great example of hyperreality…. to paraphrase Baudrillard, False News never happened… but it has real consequences.

It’s worth noting the limits of the study too… it’s limited to Twitter and doesn’t really help us to understand where fake news comes from, for example.

The fact that it’s humans, not bots spreading false news means that interventions will be more difficult and more complicated, because it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to find a technological fix for the problem.

I could imagine that Gomm and Gouldner would criticise this study as being ‘too neutral’… it could have looked more at the ideological bias of the political fake news stories, and the profiles of those spreading fake news, for example.

Sources 

The Spread of True and False News Online – Science, March 2018

Fake News Spreads Faster than the Truth on Twitter – Forbes

 

Homophobic Friends?

It’s almost 15 years (!) since the hit T.V. show ‘Friends’ went off the air. The show has been voted the best sitcom of all time, but since it started streaming on Netflix this month, many millennials have been shocked by its themes, perceiving the show as somewhat homophobic and transphobic.

Friends gender

Most of the criticism focuses on the way the show deals with sexuality and gender: younger viewers are offended by the recurring jokes about Ross’ Lesbian ex-wife, for instance, and Chandler’s cross-dressing father.

They have also criticized the show for ‘fat-shaming’ Monica, following the flashbacks to herself as an undesirable fat teenager, and the lack of diversity in the show: it is, to say the least, very white!

It’s amazing how our sensitivity to such issues has changed in the space of just one generation. 

NB – here’s an article defending Friends, suggesting that it isn’t actually homophobic etc.

Sources:

The Week, 20th January 2018

The Internet as an Object of Content Analysis

Websites, social media posts and similar virtual documents are all forms of secondary data, and thus amenable to both quantitative and qualitative content analysis.

 

global internet use stats.png
The sheer number of internet users creating online documents makes researching them a challenge

 

There are, however, many difficulties in using web sites as sources of content analysis. Following Scott’s (1990) four criteria of assessing the quality of documents, we need consider why a web site is constructed in the first place, whether it is there for commercial purposes, and whether it has a political motive.

In addition, we also need to consider the following potential problems of researching web sites:

  • Finding websites will probably require a search engine, and search engines only ever provide a selection of available web sites on a topic, and the sample they provide will be biased according to algorithm the engine uses to find its websites. It follows that use of more than one search engine is advisable.
  • Related to the above point, a search is only as good as the key words the researcher inputs into the search engines, and it could be time consuming to try out all possible words and combinations.
  • New web sites are continually appearing while old ones disappear. This means that by the time research is published, they may be based on web sites which no longer exist and not be applicable to the new ones which have emerged.
  • Similar to the above point, existing web sites are continually being updated.
  • The analysis of web sites is a new field which is very much in flux. New approaches are being developed at a rapid rate. Some draw on traditional ways of interpreting documents such as discourse analysis and qualitative content analysis, others have been developed specifically in relation to the Web, such as the examination of hyperlinks between websites and their significance.

Most researchers who use documents accept the fact that it can be difficult to determine the population from which they are sampling, and when researching documents online, the speed of development and change of the Web accentuate this problem. The experience of researching documents online can be like trying to hit a moving target that not only moves, but is in a constant state of metamorphosis.

Three examples of content analysis of documents online

Boepple and Thompson (2014) conducted quantitative analysis of 21 ‘healthy living blogs’. Their sampling frame was only blogs which had received an award, and from those, they selected the blogs with the largest number of page views.

They found that content emphasised appearance and disordered messages about food/ nutrition,with five bloggers using very negative language about being fat or overweight and four invoking admiration for being thin. They concluded that these blogs spread messages that are ‘potentially problematic’ for anyone changing their behaviour on the basis of advice contained in them.

Davis et al (2015) conducted an analysis of postings that followed a blog post concerning a cyberbullying suicide y a 15 year old named Amanda Todd. There were 1094 comments of which 482 contained stories about being bullied, 12% about cyberbullying, 75% about traditional bullying, the rest a mixture of both.

The research found that the main reason victims of bullying are targeted is because they do not conform in one way or another to society’s mainstream norms and values, with the most common specific reason for bullying being a victim’s physical appearance.

Humphries et al (2014) conducted content analysis on the kinds of personal information disclosed on Twitter. The authors collected an initial sample of users and they searched friends of this initial sample. In total the collected 101, ,069 tweets and took a random sample of 2100 tweets from this.

One of their findings was that Twitter users not only share information about themselves, they frequently share information about others too.

Concluding Thoughts 

Researching documents online may be challenging, but it is difficult to see how sociologists can avoid it as more and more of our lives are lived out online, so researching documents such as web sites, and especially blogs and social media postings is, I think, very much set to become a growth area in social research.

 

 

Gap Year Blogs – A Thematic Analysis

Snee (2013) was interested in how representations of cultural difference were portrayed in ‘gap year’ narratives. She sought out blogs containing the phrase ‘gap year’ using two blog search engines (Google blog search and Technorati) and also searched some websites which seems to be associated with the blogs she uncovered through this search. She selected those whose author was from the UK and whose gap year was taken overseas, was sandwiched between school and university, and included more than a couple of posts. Initially she uncovered 700 blogs but these were narrowed down to 39 because she sought a balance in terms of both gender and the type of gap year.

These blogs blogs form her data, along with interviews with nine of the bloggers. The interviews indicated that bloggers wrote up their experiences in this formant because it was the most convenient way to provide a ‘record of their travels’ suggesting that blogs are very much a modern form of diary. Her inductive analysis of the blogs yielded four themes:

  1. The bloggers dew on common representations of the exotic qualities of the places they visited in order to portray their destinations. For example: ‘we sailed to White Haven Beach which is just like on the postcards; white sands and light blue sea’.
  2. Bloggers often convey a sense of feeling out of place in these exotic locations, expressed through their awareness of physical or cultural differences. For example, one blogger realised that by standing with her arms folded in Uganda she was being rude.
  3. Through their interaction with local people and their physical environment, gap year bloggers often displayed a sensitivity to local customs and to the complexity of the locations in which they were travelling. For example, one blogger expressed his unease at other tourists clambering all over Ayres Rock (Uluru) in Australis
  4. There is often a narrative of the danger, risk and someone’s irritations associated with the local environments – there are complaints abut the quality of driving in Delhi, lack of concern for safety in Ecuador and frightening air quality of Rio de Janeiro. These involve comparisons with the U.K.

Snee notes that these four themes in gap year blogs reveal a tension: on the one hand there is a desire to learn about and understand the local, reflect on global issues and experience what places are really life… on the other hand, established discourses are reproduced of an ‘other’ that is romanticised or criticized.

Right Wing American Media Bias

Identifying media bias through content analysis is a key skill in sociology. The American media is often accused of having a right-wing bias which means they will present a pro-capitalist, pro-business world view as normal and desirable and promote a neoliberal policy agenda. (1)

Below I analyse one newspaper article (about why 66 million Americans have no savings at all) to illustrate how agenda setting, or what and what isn’t included in the article, results in a subtle right-wing, neoliberal bias. 

The article is as follows: Can you guess how many Americans have absolutely no savings at all – BY KRISTEN DOERER AND PAUL SOLMAN  June 21, 2016

OK – It looks like it might be a lefty topic, because it’s about the precarious financial life of the poorest sections of American society, but there’s no class-based analysis focusing on how it’s mainly low-paid and temporary jobs in the context of 30 years neoliberal economics resulting in productivity gains, but increasingly unequal national income distribution meaning the very rich get richer, while most of the rest of us, especially the poor, get relatively poorer.

Having alerted us to these ‘shocking statistics’ (oh those poor, poor Americans), we are then told that this low-savings rate is spread among all households –

‘the problem is hardly confined to the poor. Yes, more than half of all households with an annual income under $30,000 have no emergency savings. But fully one in six households with an annual income between $50,000 and $75,000 had no emergency savings either’.

The article then goes on to talk about how Gen Y is better at saving than Gen X – the tone of which seems to blame 40 to 60 somethings for having too high consumption levels and not saving enough… (‘if your damn kids can save, then why not you too’?) –  here ignoring the following two important contextual facts:

  • (A) Gen Xrs were encouraged to consume in the context of a growing economy, then the neoliberal crash came in 2007, and here we are: hyper-precarity;
  • (B) OK Yes – Gen Yrs may appear to be better at saving, rather than avoiding debt, but why are they saving? I bet once you take out all of those saving to go travelling (and hence consuming) or saving for a mortgage (you now need a bigger deposit than your parents), you’d have similar rates of debt being racked up across the generations.

The article ends with the classic neoliberal trick of individualising the whole problem:

“The biggest barrier to saving is not being in the habit of saving,” says McBride. “You have to set some money aside with every paycheck.” Making it automatic can help, he advises. But no matter how you do it, start now.”

Ignoring the fact that for the typical person with no savings (mots of them are in low-paid jobs) there simply isn’t enough money left at the end of the week to put something extra by!

In summary: why don’t people save according to the narrow agenda of this right-wing, neoliberal article?

  • 40-60 somethings got into the habit of consuming too much.
  • It’s a problem which effects all levels of income
  • 20-30 somethings are much better at saving than their parents
  • Irresponsible parents need to learn from their kids and just save more….

What’s not considered/ emphasised 

  • There are 10-15% of American households which are in no position to save for emergencies
  • This is because 30 years of neoliberal policies have created precarious and low-paid jobs, which has meant productivity gains, the gains from which have gone disproportionately to the top 1%.
  • Generation Yrs are shit-scared of their futures and so are more likely to save compared to their parents.
  • We need state-intervention to redistribute wealth away from the richest 1% and back to the lowest paid workers who actually created this wealth through their labour power.

Notes

(1) I didn’t intend to write this today, it just sort of happened, I was actually looking up stats on inequality in America, and I got quite annoyed when I read (and thought) about the content of this article.

Related posts 

Do the media influence our voting behaviour? – Deals withe bias in newspaper reporting of the 2017 U.K. Election

Is America and underdeveloped country?

 

 

Content Analysis of The Mass Media in Social Research

This post looks at the advantages and disadvantages of using formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative textual and thematic analysis of media sources.

(NB For some reason, all of the AQA approved text books only seem to expect you to know about content analysis applied to film/ TV and Print Media, rather than applying this to online media (web sites/ social media/ dating sites) – So I’m only here focusing on analysis of ‘traditional media’ rather than ‘new media’ – DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER – if you want to know why AQA insist on being stuck in dark ages – ask them!)

Mass Media resources are widely used in Social Research. Some Mass Media sources may provide sociologists with information about the social world, but their main interest to Sociologists is as objects of study rather than as sources of information.

Sources produced for entertainment purposes (films/ TV shows, special interest magazines) cannot reasonably be expected to paint a true picture of the social world, but they of interest to sociologists because they can tell us what media producers think people want to see, and it also interesting to see how different groups are represented in fictional TV shows, and the extent to which distortion takes place. When we look at the issue of crime, for example, we find that violent crime is disproportionately featured in crime dramas, whereas 75% of crime is less-serious property crime, and where groups are concerned, sociologists are interested in the extent to which the media perpetuates stereotypes.

News sources may claim to provide accurate information about what is going on in society – but to most sociologists the news is a social construction – it may reflect reality to an extent, but it also reflects the selection biases (what people think are important) and political prejudices of journalists and news editors. NB In the UK Journalists disproportionately come from private school (wealthy middle class backgrounds) – and so there is an inherent right wing bias in media reporting.

Below I distinguish between two basic types of content analysis – formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative content analysis

Formal (Quantitative) Content Analysis

Formal Content Analysis is a quantitative approach to analysing mass media content and involves developing a system of classification to analyse the key features of media sources and then simply counting how many times these features occur in a given text.

The simplest form of content analysis is a word or phrase count, which these days can be done on millions of books which have been scanned into Google’s database, more complex forms involve looking at broader categories of content – which types of crime appear in news media for example, or what are the major categories of news (entertainment/ sport/ politics) – or one can analyse pictures to see the representation of men compared to women for example.

The strengths and limitations of formal content analysis

It minimises researcher bias and typically has good reliability because there is less room for the researcher’s interpretations to bias the analysis.

It is quicker to do than qualitative forms of content analysis.

Weaknesses emerge when you start to use broader categories – which can be interpreted differently by different people.

Simply counting the content of a media text tells you nothing about the context in which it takes place, or the broader meaning which the words or pictures convey.

Qualitative Content Analysis: Thematic and Textual Analysis

Thematic Analysis involves trying to understand the intentions which lie behind the production of mass media documents by subjecting a particular area of reportage to detailed investigation.

A good example of this is Soothill and Walby’s (1991) study of newspaper reporting of sex crime. They found that the reporting tended to emphasise the danger of being raped in public places and the pathological nature of individual rapists. It tended to ignore the prevalence of rape by partners and friends of victims and the wider context of patriarchal power within sex crimes.

Textual Analysis involves examining how different words are linked together in order to encourage readers to adopt a particular view of what is being reported.

A classic example of this is the Glasgow University Media Group’s reporting of the miner’s strikes in the 1980s. They found that the miners ‘demanded’ better working conditions, while the managers ‘offered’ certain changes to working conditions.

Textual analysis also involves the use of semiology – which is the analysis of signs and symbols.

The strengths and limitations of qualitative content analysis

Qualitative content analysis allows the researcher to look at the full context in which media reporting takes place, it thus allows for a fuller description of what the media is portraying.

Both thematic and textual analysis lack objectivity and are reliant on the researcher’s own interpretation of the meaning of media texts.

Critics of these forms of analysis have also suggested that those who use these methods tend only to pick samples which reflect their own views, and it would be difficult to do such detailed analysis on a wide range of texts.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology