Media representations of social class

How are different social classes represented in the mainstream media? 

This post looks at how the monarchy, the wealthy, the middle classes, working classes and benefits claimaints (‘the underclass’) are represented, focusing mainly on British television and newspaper coverage.

Generally speaking the ‘lower’ the social class, the more negative the media representations are, arguably because the mainstream media professionals disproportionately come from upper middle class backgrounds.

NB Social class is  a tricky concept and you might like to review it here before continuing.

Media representations of social class.png

Representations of the Monarchy

According to Nairn (2019) after WWII the monarchy developed close ties with the media industry and worked with them to reinvent itself as ‘the royal family’ and since then they have been represented in the media as a family that are ‘like us but not like us’, and the narrative of their lives is presented as a soap opera, and is part of our day to day media fabric, which encourages us to identify with the royals.

Media representations of royalty also reinforce a sense of national identity: The Queen is the ultimate figure head of the country and royal events form part of our annual calendar, as well as the fact that royals are often in attendance at other national events, such as sporting events for example.

Media representations of wealth

The very wealthy are generally represented positively in the media, for example Alan Sugar and the Dragons on Dragons Den.

The constant media focus on the lifestyles of wealthy celebrities tends to glamourize such lifestyles, suggesting this is something we should all be aspiring to, rather than focusing on the injustice of how much these people are paid compared to ordinary people.

representations wealth media.PNG
Are the wealthy generally represented positively in the media?

The Middle Classes

Middle class (higher income) families seem to be over-represented on day time T.V. especially – in shows such as homes under the hammer, escape to the country and antiques shows featuring typically very high wealth/ income families, and yet presenting them as ‘the norm’.

Most T.V. presenters are middle class, and so they are more likely to identify with middle class guests compared to working class guests, reinforcing the concerns of former as more worthy of attention.

Most journalists and editors are privately educated which means that the news agenda is framed from a middle class point of views.

The working classes

There are relatively few shows which focus on the reality of the lives of working class people.

Mainstream soaps tend to be the most watched representations of the working classes

Jones (2011) suggests the working classes are represented as feckless racists who hate immigration and multiculturalism – coverage of Brexit seems to offer support for this.

Benefits claimants (‘The Underlcass’)

Coverage tends to focus on the poverty of individuals rather than the structural features of society such as government policy which created the underclass.

Media coverage of the underclass is generally negative and they are often scapegoated for society’s problems. Benefits Street is a good example of this.

Please see this extended post for more details on how the media portray benefits claimants in stereotypical ways.

 

 

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Media representations of benefits claimants

In this post I summarize some recent sociological research which suggests newspapers and ‘reality T.V. shows represent benefits claimants in a limited range of stereotypical ways, focusing on them as lazy, undeserving scroungers engaged in immoral, wreckless and criminal behaviour.

A lot of the research below also reminds us that media representations in no way reflect the reality of being unemployed and claiming benefits in the UK.

This research is relevant to the A-level sociology media topic: representations of social class.

Stereotypes of benefits claimants in newspaper articles 

Baumberg et al’s (2012) research ‘Benefits Stigma in Britain’ analysed a database of 6,600 national press articles between 1995-2011.

Baumberg et al found an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on benefit fraud: 29% of news stories referenced fraud. In comparison the government’s own estimate is that a mere 0.7% of all benefits claims are fraudulent.

Common language used to describe benefits as ‘undeserving’ included:

  • Fraud and dishonesty (including those such as ‘faking illness’);
  • Dependency (including ‘underclass’ and ‘unemployable’);
  • non-reciprocity/lack of effort (e.g. ‘handouts’, ‘something for nothing’, ‘lazy’, ‘scrounger’); •
  • outsider status (e.g. ‘immigrant’, ‘obese’)

Language used to describe benefits claimants as ‘deserving’ included:

  • need (‘vulnerable’, ‘hard-pressed’);
  • disability (‘disabled’, ‘disability’).

In general, Tabloid newspapers such (especially The Sun) focused on representing benefits claimants as undeserving, while broadsheets such as The Guardian were more likely to focus on representing benefits claimants as ‘deserving’.

news reporting unemployment.jpg

NB – The Sun and The Mail are Britain’s two most widely circulated newspapers. 

Stigmatising benefits claimants

Finally, the study found an increase in articles about benefits claimants which focused on the following stigmatising themes:

  • fraud
  • ‘shouldn’t be claiming’ (for reasons other than fraud)
  • never worked/hasn’t worked for a very long time
  • large families on benefits
  • bad parenting/antisocial behaviour of families on benefits
  • claimants better off on benefits than if they were working
  • claimants better off than workers
  • immigrants claiming benefits

More neutral/ positive themes included:

  • compulsion of claimants (e.g. workfare, benefit conditionality)
  • cuts to benefits
  • need

As with the themes of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, Tabloids produced more stigmatising content than the the broadsheets.

negative reporting benefits claimants.jpg

Stereotypes of benefits claimants in reality T.V. shows 

Ruth Patrick (2017) has analysed the representations of those on benefits and in poverty on reality television shows such as ‘Benefits Street’ and Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole.

The number of such shows has exploded in recent years, but while they claim to provide and honest ‘realistic’ insight into  lives of Britain’s benefit claimants and those living in poverty, Patrick and others argue they are sensationalised and present stereotypical representations of those on welfare.

If we look at the opening scenes for the first series of Benefits Street for example, these featured:

  • sofas on the pavement,
  • men on streets drinking cans of lager,
  • women smoking cigarettes on their doorsteps.

Overall such shows present benefits claimants as lazy shirkers who don’t want to work, and as people who are different to the hard-working majority.

Such shows emphasize the difference between the working majority (‘us’) and the workless minority (‘them’) and invites us to identify ourselves against benefits claimants, and possibly to see claiming benefits as something which is a choice, long term and morally wrong, rather than as something which is a necessity, usually a short term stop-gap before a return work.

This interview with Jordan, who took feature in Benefits Britain as a claimant offers an insight into how negative representations of the unemployed are socially constructed by media professionals:

Jordan claims that he usually keeps his flat tidy, but was told by the producers to deliberately not tidy it up before they came round to shoot, because it would make people feel more sorry for him.

He also claims that the media crew bought alcohol and cigarettes for the shoot, and told the ‘claimants’ that if they didn’t consume them before the shoot was over they’d take them away again, which led to lots of images of the cast drinking and smoking, when Jordan claims he would only usually do this on special occasions.

Relevance of this to A-level Sociology/ Media studies….

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that newspapers and ‘reality’ T.V. present you with the reality of ‘life on benefits’ – in fact both of these sources present highly sensationalised accounts of what it’s like to actually be unemployed.

All of the above research is based on careful content analysis which picks out the main ways in which benefits claimants are stereotyped and thus represented in a limited way.

This post has only focused on representations, forthcoming posts will focus on why mainstream media professionals choose to represent benefits claimants in negative, stereotypical ways.

Sources 

 

Gender Norms and Stereotypes – A Visual Representation

Men are simple and straightforward: they just want quick sex with porn-star lookalikes, exaggerate the number  of sexual partners they have to gain status and need women to give them space to get on with the important matters of  football, beer and sleeping.

Women are more complex. They prefer wining, dining and love-making, feel the need to downplay their number of sexual partners for fear of slut shaming, and their ultimate goal in life is to manipulate a man into giving them the babies they have an obsessive need for.

Or maybe not…

In a recent book ‘Man Meets Woman’, visual artist Yang Liu presents some binary pictograms depicting the roles, relationships, and clichés of male and female experience.

Yang Liu says of the project:

“We are living in an age of constant social change, in which the subject of the sexes … is rapidly evolving in people’s consciousness. Each generation re-assesses and questions the role models currently in place…

It is interesting to see how Man/Woman clichés have indeed changed in our daily lives and to what extent the attributes that were assigned to the sexes in the past, often centuries ago, are still relevant in today’s society. And to consider which desirable role models are already rooted in our thinking but are still in the process of transformation”.

Below are some of the pictograms taken from the text, look at them consider the questions at the bottom of the post.

Love and Sex 

love and sex

The Sexual Double Standard

sexual double standard

Sexual Experiences

sexual experiences

Perfect Evening 

perfect evening

Perfect Partners 

ideal partners

Babies

babies

 

  1. To what extent do men and women themselves still conform to the traditional (binary) gender norms (stereotypes) depicted in these pictograms?
  2. What do you think the transformative potential of such visual art is? (How effective a technique is this for getting people to break free of binary-thinking where gender is concerned?
  3. Is it a good thing for women and men to start thinking and acting in more gender-diverse ways (breaking through binary stereotypes.

 

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