The ‘murder’ of Policeman Andrew Harper: the perfect news story?

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.

Negativity

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.

murdered policeman.png

Personalisation 

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.

Unambiguity 

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.

wallingford

Frequency

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.

Extraordinariness 

The murder of a policeman is extraordinary, very unusual: only 8 U.K. policemen have been killed in the line of duty since 2010.

Threshold 

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.

Continuity 

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.

Final thoughts 

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!

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Is alcohol really that bad for your health?

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’.

alcohol health statistics.png

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!

alcohol health risks

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>?

This post will also be published to the steem blockchain: where you can get rewarded in crypto currency for posting, liking, commenting and so on! 

The social causes of the California wild fires

The California Wild Fires are typically reported as being caused by a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental factors. Mainstream news reports tend to focus on how a conflation of a lack of rain, humid conditions, and fierce winds results in these dramatic, and unpredictable fires.

California wild fires certainly appear to be newsworthy, in that they tick many of the news values used by news agencies to determine what should be aired. California fires are dramatic, visual, involve an elite nation, and are often personable: if they’re not threatening a town, we can always focus on the brave bush firemen.

Challenging the envirocentric narrative 

However, I think we need to challenge the mainstream narrative that California wild fires are purely natural events.

If we dig a little deeper, we find that this ‘environment centric’ view is misleading as human social factors are just as much a cause.

Gegory L Simon argues that wildfires in California are just as much a result of reckless human development decisions as they are due to environmental conditions.

Authorities all around California have agreed permission for development to take place on areas they new were high fire risk. He further argues that authorities turn a blind eye to the fire risks because of the huge profits to be made from building houses in California.

Evidence for this lies in the simple fact of the increasing costs of dealing with fires in California…

One would have thought it sensible to stop developing in areas where there appears to be an increasing fire risk. Or if not, at the very least, we could be more honest about the fact that there is a human cause’ to these fires, rather than it just being purely down to environmental factors!

Then again, I guess deluding ourselves with the later explanation is more comforting.

This post will also be published to the steem blockchain.

Sources

If you want to explore this issue further, I suggest reading the following two critical articles

The Conversation – Don’t Blame California Wild Fires on a Perfect Storm of Weather Events

The Atlantic – Power Lines are Burning the West

Federal Fire Fighting Costs 

Image Source 

 

News Values

News Values are general criteria such as ‘extraordinariness’, ‘negativity’ and ‘elite persons’ which journalists use to determine whether an event is newsworthy (‘worthy of inclusion in the news’).

The existence of news values is one of the reasons why many sociologists view the news as a social construction – in other words the news is not simply an unbiased reflection of the objectively most important events ‘out there’ in society; rather the news is the end result of selective processes through which gatekeepers such as owners, editors and journalists make choices about what events are important enough to be covered, and how they should be covered.

Spencer-Thomas (2008) defines News values as general guidelines or criteria that determine the worth of a news story and how much prominence it is given by newspapers or broadcast media. Brighton and Foy (2007) suggest that news values are ‘often intangible, informal, almost unconscious elements’. News values define what journalists, editors and broadcasters consider as newsworthy.

The best known list of news values was supplied by Galtung and Rouge (1970). They analysed international news across a group of newspapers in Norway in 1965 and identified a number of News Values shared by Norwegian journalists (1)

News Values

Galtung and Rouge did uncover more news values, the list below is just a selection of the most ‘dramatic’:

Extraordinariness – rare, unpredictable and surprising events have more newsworthiness than routine events.

Threshold – the ‘bigger’ the size of the event, the more likely it is to be reported.

News values London Riots
The London Riots were the largest act of mass criminality in a generation

 

Unambiguity – the simpler the event, the more likely it is to be reported.

Reference to elite persons – events surrounding the famous and the powerful are often seen as more newsworthy.

Reference to elite nations – events in nations perceived to be ‘culturally similar’ to the United Kingdom are more likely to reported on – for example, disasters in America are more likely to be reported on than disasters in African countries.

News Values September 11th
S11 – Would a similar disaster in Africa have dominated the U.K. headlines for so long?

Personalisation – if events can be personalised easily they are more likely to get into the news.

Negativity – bad news is regarded as more newsworthy than good news.

grenfell tower fire news values
Negative events are more likely to make the news

 

According to Galtung and Rouge, journalists use News-Values to select-out certain events as less newsworthy than others, and they thus act as gate-keepers – they quite literally shut out certain events, and let other events into the news-agenda, thus narrowing our window on the world.

There are some contemporary critiques of the concept of News Values, but I’ll come back to those later!

Sources

(1) Chapman 2106, Sociology for AQA A-Level, Collins.