Newspapers can ‘bias’ the presentation of quantitative data by stretching out the scale of the data they present, making differences between bars seem larger than they actually are (or vice versa!).
Quantitative research methods are usually regarded as being more objective than qualitative research methods as there is less room for the subjective biases and interpretations of researchers to influence the data collection process in quantitative research.
However, bias can still creep into quantitative research and one way this can happen is over the decision in how to present the data in even a basic visualisation.
Specifically, one can take the same data and stretch out the scale of a graph displaying that data and give the impression that the differences between the subjects under investigation are wider than in the original presentation.
Bias in scaling graphs
A recent example of what I’m going to call ‘bias in scaling graphs‘ can be found in how an article by The Guardian displays recent data on how much GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has grown in different European Countries between 2019 to 2022.
the same data from the Office for National Statistics in a more ‘stretched out’ scale which
Now you might think ‘this is quantitative data so it’s objective’ and on that basis no one can argue with what it’s telling us – the U.S. economy is doing VERY WELL compared to most Euro nations, growing more than TWICE as fast is the impression we get.
And after all, this is fair enough – a 2.6% growth rate is more than twice as fast as a 1% or less growth rate!
Note that the data is ALMOST the same – except for Britain’s data being different at 0.6% positive rather than negative – the Guardian article was written after the UK Gov report on the basis of the UK Economic growth forecast being downgraded, but everything else is the same.
My point here is that the data above is (almost) the same and yet the graph has been ‘squashed’ compared to the graph showing the same data in The Guardian article – note the scaling is the same – if you look above you can see that the US Bar is twice as high as the EU bars, but the difference APPEARS smaller because it’s not as stretched.
The Guardian achieves its stretched out scale by displaying the bars horizontally rather than vertically – that way there is more room to stretch them out and make the differences appear larger in a visual sense.
And with the UK now in an economic downturn it makes Britain seem further behind compared to other countries than what would have been the case with the more squished presentation in the Government’s version.
But aren’t they both biased…?
In a word yes – someone has to decided the format in which to present the data which is going to skew what people see.
But the reason I’m calling out The Guardian on this is for two reasons:
it’s unusual to display bars horizontally, the standard is vertically, but there’s not way you can stretch out the visualisation vertically without it looking very odd.
The differences are quite small – we are talking 1-2% points of change so having a more squished scale to represent the small differences seems appropriate, The Guardian has chosen to exaggerate these from the original display possible to make them seem larger than they actually are.
Signposting and Related Posts
This material should be of interest to anyone studying Research Methods.
It’s also a useful example of Left Wing bias in the media, most sociologists focus on right wing bias!
State hand-outs for TNCs and more support for the rich – this is neoliberalism on steroids!
The New British Prime Minister, Liz Truss, recently announced her plans to help families and households through the current cost of living crisis.
The main policy to be introduced is an energy price cap which limits the average amount each household will pay capped at £2500.
NB this policy doesn’t mean that every household will pay a maximum of £2500 , that figure is the ‘easy to understand’ figure based on what the new price-per-unit of energy that OFGEM has to work with will be, which will mean an average house going forwards will be paying £2500 on energy until October 2023 (those calculations based on how much energy an average household has been using historically).
Of course if one ‘average household’ keeps the heating up at a toasty 25 degrees all winter they will still be paying more for energy than a similar household which keeps its thermostat at a more reasonable 18 degrees.
And so larger houses will be paying more than £2500, smaller houses and flats probably less than £2500.
HOWEVER, the cap on the unit-of-energy price still benefits the rich more than the poor, and. one simple chart from The Guardian shows how…
According to the figures above the following types of household save the following amounts per year with Truss’ new energy policy…
Detached houses save £1400
Semi-detached save £1150
Mid terraced save £950
Purpose built flats save £650
And as a general rule it is the wealthier and higher income earners who live in detached houses, while it’s the working and lower classes who live in mid terraced and flats.
So what we see here is that this Tory Policy saves the average wealthy household £750 a year more than the average poorer household.
As you can see from the above the richest households spend almost twice as much on energy as the poorest households, which means any uniform energy price cap will benefit them proportionately more.
This is one of the reasons why the above report proposes a more nuanced policy approach of a variable cap and energy prices increasing the more households use, which would help the poor more compared to the rich and make the wealthier households contribute more to dealing with rising energy prices.
The Tories allow the Corporations to Keep their Profits
According to UK Treasury figures Energy firms are expected to make an additional ‘unexpected’ £170 billion in profits over the next two years due to the increase in energy prices.
One policy the government could have pursued to tackle rising energy prices is thus to use a windfall tax on the two major UK energy corporations – Even just a 10% tax on £170 billion would raise £17 billion to help weather the storm.
And now she is repaying them by guaranteeing to allow them to keep ALL of their profits from this crisis, be effectively using tax payers money to pay them everything above the price cap for at least another year.
The most likely situation is that MOST of our
New Fracking and Oil Exploration Licenses
A more longer term policy (or lack of it) is to issue several new licences to allow firms to drill and frack for oil and natural gas in the North Sea and (probably) poorer parts of the United Kingdom.
Given Liz Truss’ pro-corporate and light regulation stance it’s unlikely these licenses will come with terms which see the profits from such resources go back to the people – far more likely is light regulation, low tax and profit extraction to distant lands.
Liz Truss’ Energy Policy – Relevance to A-level sociology
This policy is very much neoliberal – she is not taxing large corporations and giving out new licences for corporations to suck out our natural resources (NB we don’t have details, but I’m anticipating very lax regulation here).
We might even call this hyper neoliberalism – Truss is proposing a straight transfer of tax payer funds to Corporations – naked and visible and no effort to hide it, usually with pro-privatisation policies this is obscured, but not here.
Meanwhile her energy cap does little to help the poorest and more, proportionally to help the richest.
It’s also worth going back and reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine – that seems to apply here – we have a crisis and the right wing use it to pass even more wealth to the rich…
So this evidence also suggests support for the Marxist view that the government, ultimately (or at least in its current form) works in the interests of the elites and Transnational Corporations.
The Pandemic has increased health inequalities in England, according to a recent report by the Institute of Health Inequalities – Build Back Fairer – The Covid-19 Marmot Review: The Pandemic, Social and Health Inequalities in England.
Prior to the Pandemic, from 2010 to 2020, health inequalities between the least and most deprived were increasing in England.
Pre-pandemic, increases in life expectancy had stalled, but life expectancy for the most deprived 10% of the population actually decreasing in some regions (such as parts of the North East and London) during some years in that 10 year period.
Covid-19 increased health inequalities
The charts below show the mortality rates per one thousand between March and July 2020.
As you can see, there are drastic differences already between the least and most deprived deciles – 600/ 100 000 for the poorest decile, compared to 400/ 100 000 for the wealthiest decile.
But the difference is greater when we look at the covid related mortality rate – this is 200/100 000 for the poorest, compared to nearly 100/ 100 000 for the wealthiest.
So health inequalities increased from a difference of 1.5.1 to nearly 2:1 as a result of the Pandemic.
Some of this difference is explained by the different levels of exposure due to occupation – as a general rule, professional workers are more able to work from home and stay isolated, while manual workers and care workers need to actually go to work in person, and this is reflected in the different mortality rates by occupation (‘social class’) for the same period as above:
Explaining health inequalities… it’s not ALL about the Pandemic
Professor Marmot is at pains to point out that these health inequalities were in existence BEFORE the pandemic, and that government health policies between 2010 to 2020 explain WHY poor people have died in such huge numbers from covid-19 and why England has the highest covid related mortality figures in Western Europe.
In particular Marmot points to the following government policies:
A political culture that undermined social inclusivity and cohesiveness and failed to promote the common good
Widespread inequality, which is bad for socio-economic outcomes in general, with the most deprived ‘steered’ towards poor living conditions and unhealthy lifestyles.
Government austerity policies – an underfunded health and social care sector.
In terms of what to do, the report makes a number of suggestions, mainly to do with introducing policies to improve health outcomes of the most deprived, and this will take a broader/ deeper approach to social change rather than just being about health!
Relevance to A-level Sociology
This is a VERY sociological report – putting the covid mortality rate in longer term context.
The point is that we can’t just blame the Pandemic for killing people – certain types of people (the poor) died in larger numbers proportionality to the rich – which means there was a social cause to the high covid death toll in England.
And that cause was, according to this report, already high levels of existing inequality.
This is a rare example of some long-term quantitative analysis, it sounds almost like Functionalism/ Positivism in its approach.
There seems to be increasing evidence that around three dozen people attended a party at Downing Street in December 2020, shortly after tier three lockdown restrictions were introduced.
These lockdown rules explicitly prohibited people from having social gatherings (like Christmas Parties) and even prevented people from visiting their relatives who were in care homes or hospitals, meaning, quite literally, that in some cases the government lockdown rules meant some people never saw their close family members again.
And during that time a few ministers and downing street officials were breaking these rules, partying, and laughing about it, as well as now denying it ever happened, despite mounting evidence that this incredible double standard took place.
This Sky News Report below offers a useful summary of the issue and is also particularly damning of those involved, it’s kind of hard not to be!
Clearly this is a deviant act on the part of a small minority of powerful people within government, but how can we apply sociological perspectives to this event?
Errrrr…. I’m struggling with this one.
According to Functionalists, crime is supposed to promote positive functions by increasing social integration and regulation, but that simply isn’t the case here – this just turns people against the supposed leaders of our country, creating a sense of division not only between the public and themselves, but also within the Conservative Party.
This event seems to challenge the relevance of Functionalism – it seems to suggest that for Downing Street there is one rule for the plebs and another for themselves, which isn’t anything to do with integration, won’t help with maintaining social order and just doesn’t sit well at all with the whole Functionalist framework.
Some people were prosecuted for holding parties during lockdown 2020, the same time as this Downing Street Party took place, presumably the Home Secretary himself knew this was taking place and yet no one was prosecuted here.
Although now this is out in the open, where the Media are concerned, they are very damning of Downing Street, so there isn’t any Agenda Setting going on atm!
There is something a bit surreal about this event – it’s taking place largely in the media – how else could it be?
There is also a level of uncertainty about who attended the party, and the government is being very evasive, but maybe that’s not so much postmodern it’s just the government lying like it does so much of the time.
This is also a great example of traditional power structures being challenged by the media.
Having said this one thing that isn’t postmodern is the public reaction – surely no one can support this, people being united against the government’s own deviance. (But this ISN’T support for Functionalism it’s very different to what they envisaged.)
And this also says to people ‘stuff the rules, just do what you want, we did!’
The party at number 10 – final thoughts
This really is just tragic. One rule for them, another for us plebs.
Sociology aside, how can anyone feel anything but repulsion over these double standards?
Students like to think that their exam results are primarily down their own individual effort and ability (their ‘merit’ if you like), and these are two of the factors which influence their exam results.
However, the results statistics clearly show us that social factors such as parental income, wider social class background, gender and ethnicity clearly impact the results.
To put it in stark terms: being born to middle class Indian parents gives you a much better chance of getting 3 A grades at A-level compared to being born to white working-class parents.
Granted, that within your ‘cultural’ grouping, individual factors such as raw intelligence and ability are going to effect results, in some cases that ability and effort will be so outstanding that some white working class kids will do better than some middle class Indian kids, but on average, social factors effect the results too.
Thus, you could say that we end up skewed, unfair results every year, because the exam results are at least partially measuring class, gender and ethnic background.
The school that pupils attend also has an ‘effect’, on average, with some schools getting persistently good results, mainly the independent schools, a few schools seemingly doomed to failure, and most schools chugging along somewhere in the middle.
However, that said, at least when individual students sit exams, they are assessed by the same standards, and ranked against each other according to those same standards, and they can move up and down from their ‘class/ gender/ ethnicity’ base-average depending on their individual effort and ability, or lack of either, so in that sense, exams are fair.
What usually happens once all the exams have been marked, according to the same standards, is that the chief examiners look at the spread of results, and then decide what raw mark translates to a pass grade (an E grade), and what amount of raw marks counts for an A* grade.
Generally speaking, the 2 boundaries – U/E and upper A* yield similar percentages each year – in Sociology it’s around a 98% pass rate and a 5% A* rate (NB that is from memory so excuse any inaccuracy), and then within that students receive A-E grades relative to other people, with everyone having sat the same exam.
The 2020 Results Fiasco
This ‘standardisation’ of students sitting the same exam and then those exams being marked according to the same standards didn’t happen this year because students have not sat exams.
Instead, exam results were based on teacher predicted grades , and then modified according to a black-box algorithm, which, as I understand it, took account of factors such as the track-record of the school.
The problem with results being based on teacher predictions
On the face of it, teachers are the ones best place to decide what grades their students would have got, had they sat the exams: they know their students, they have evidence from at least a year’s worth of work.
The problem is that teachers don’t use the same standards to mark work – some are harsh, some are soft, having different theories about the best way to motivate students, so if mark-book grades are to be used as evidence, students are not being assessed in the same way.
A second problem is that teachers will inflate the predicted grades, at least most of them will – it’s a competitive system, so of course you’re going to game the results up as far as you can without the grades looking like a complete fantasy.
Different teachers and schools will have different comfort levels about how far to push these grades. Some would have actually been professional and given accurate grades, so that’s another reason why teacher and institution grades aren’t a great way of awarding results.
However, the strength of this system is that even if teachers have exaggerated results, they should have exaggerated them in line with their perceived effort and ability of their pupils, so at least it takes into account these individual level factors.
Enter the algorithm
Hence why the exams authority moderated the results – they know there is bias between institutions. And at the end of the day, we’ve ended up with overall results which are slightly better than previous years, which seams, on average, a fair way to do it.
By the logic of an algorithm which works on averages, that is fair – for this year’s students, on average, to come out with slightly better results.
Assuming the algorithm has tweaked all the students results in one institution across all subjects to the same degree, we should have fair individual level results too.
In a nutshell, it’s cases like these….
As I understand it the problem is that some schools especially have been penalised more than others, especially rapidly improving schools, and any school where the teachers have been stupid enough to be honest about predicted grades, their pupils would have lost out massively too.
I’m not sure how representative these case studies are, TBH I think they’re in a minority, but honestly, it’s not great for those students involved!
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)…
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
Panic and Risk based around uncritical use of statistics
Enforcing the importance of social control
‘The War footing’
Celebrities ‘like us’ in isolation
Sharing ‘isolation coping strategies’, while staying isolated
Victims: Private tragedies made public
New heroes (frontline workers and volunteers, especially NHS workers)
The importance of trusting medical experts/ technical solutions to Covid-19
The economic impact/ bailout of covid-19/ ‘pulling through this together’
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’
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.