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!

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The social construction of crime

A key idea in the sociology of crime and deviance is that crime is socially constructed which means that whether an act is criminal or not is determined by social processes. In the case of crime, the introduction of new Acts of Parliament which change the law constantly change the nature of crime.

As a result, there are many things that were not illegal in the past which are criminal and thus illegal now.

A brief timeline of some recent changes to the law illustrate this…

1973 – Motorcycle helmets made compulsory

Before 1973 it was perfectly legal to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, not so from 1973.

(Source)

1991 – rape within marriage made illegal.

Previous to this it was held that men could not rape women within marriage, because the marriage union was equivalent to consensual sex at any time. The illegality of rape within marriage was not formalised until the 2003 sexual offenses act.

Source: The Week

1994 – informally organised Raves made illegal (sort of)

In 1994 The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was aimed at clamping down on anti-social behaviour. It effectively gave the police new powers to break up raves, or any informally arranged gathering of 100 or more people listening to music involving a series of repetitive beats.

The 1992 Castlemorton rave, the biggest ever informally organised rave in British history, is one of the events that led to the establishment of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Anti-Social Behaviour Act…

NB the act didn’t technically make it illegal for you and your mates to organise a rave, it just makes it easier for the police to break them up, slap an injunction order on you, and then arrest you the next time for breaking the injunction order.

This notorious act also made it easier for the police to break up road protests, move on travellers and arrest hunt saboteurs.

Source:Wiki

2007 – the smoking ban

Made it illegal to smoke indoors in public places such as public transport and bars.

2016 – The Psychoactive Substance Act

In 2016 the selling of so called ‘legal high’s such as Spice was made illegal through the  the psychoactive substance act

Acts restricting (or allowing) the use of psychoactive substances are useful examples in themselves to illustrate how ‘crime’ is socially constructed. While the UK has been toughening up its drug laws increasing numbers of states in America have been making the growing and sale of cannabis legal.

2020 – parents to be banned from smacking children in Wales (probably )

Smacking your children isn’t illegal in England, at least as long as you don’t leave any physical signs of bruising on them, but there is currently an act going through the Welsh parliament that aims to ban the physical punishment of children by parents outright. It looks set to pass at some point in near future.

Putting it all together…

So in 1972 you could have drunk a couple of pints in the pub while smoking (in the pub), organised an attended a quick Rave with your mates with all of you high on Spice (or whatever so called ‘legal highs’ existed in 1972), ridden back home on your bike without your helmet on (assuming you were within the drink driving limits) and then forced yourself on your wife without her explicit consent, and non of that would have been illegal, thus you would have committed no crime.

At out the same scenario today and you’d be breaking multiple laws and looking at a lengthy jail term.

NB this post makes no judgement about the morality of any of the above acts or laws, it’s merely to highlight the extent to which crime is socially constructed.

Further info/ find out more…

Drug timeline UK https://www.theweek.co.uk/65464/when-was-cannabis-made-illegal-in-the-uk

Why has Police Recorded Crime Doubled in Three Years?

The number of violent crimes and sex offences recorded by police in England and Wales have more than doubled in the last four years.

violent_crime_statistics

This is an excellent article by the BBC summarising this trend, with a pretty shocking embedded video in which reporters witness two serious crimes: one ‘moped mugging’ and another just ‘regular’ attempted mugging in a park.

The latest police figures for the 12 months to September from 44 forces show:

  • 68,968 robbery offences, up 29%
  • 138,045 sex offences, up 23%
  • 37,443 knife crime offences, up 21%
  • 1,291,405 violent crime offences, up 20%

However the ONS says higher-harm violent offences, such as knife crime occur in relatively low volumes, and also tend to be concentrated in cities and are therefore not “well-measured” by the Crime Survey.

Analysis (from the BBC)

Although there’s likely to be a dispute about the accuracy of the police crime figures because they hinge, to some extent, on the way forces log offences, how pro-active they are and the willingness of victims to come forward, they clearly demonstrate a rapidly rising caseload.

At the same time, the number of police officers has continued to fall: in the 12 months to last September, down 930 to 121,929. That combination – rising crime, declining police numbers – is creating enormous strain for forces.

Applying Perspectives to explain this increase in crime:

From Right Realist perspective, this increase crime will be a direct result of the declining police numbers, although the decline is so small, it probably doesn’t explain that much of the decrease.

From a Left Realist perspective, it could be due to increasing levels of marginalisation and relative deprivation (more likely?)

I think we can rule out postmodernism in the above cases – I don’t think (I might be wrong) that serious violent and sexual offences are done for the ‘thrill of the act’ – I’m fairly sure criminals don’t enjoy mugging people, for example.

From an Interactionist point of view, this increase in Police Recorded Crime (NB not reflected in the CSEW) is just an artefact of more people reporting crime – so there’s not necessarily a corresponding underlying increase.

What do you think the reasons are for the increase in the amount of violent crime recorded by the police in recent years?

 

 

Is the Surge in Hate Crime just due to an Increase in Reporting?

Has there been an increase in hate crime since Brexit?

The Number of hate crimes reported to the police in England and Wales between 2012-13 and 2016-17 jumped by 90%, but is this because of an actual, underlying increase in hate crime incidents (or the seriousness of incidents that would warrant reporting), or is it just because people are now more likely to report ‘hate crimes’, maybe having interpreted something as a hate crime when, in fact, it wasn’t.

There is some evidence that suggests ‘misinterpreting’ or ‘over-reporting might be the case – court convictions in 2016 were lower than in 2010.

Possible increases for the increase in reporting are as follows:

  • The authorities actively encourage it
  • incidents can be registered anonymously
  • The victim or witness to a crime only has to interpret a crime as being racially motivated (for example) for it to be classed as a hate crime.
  • No evidence is needed to back up the reporting of the hate crime to get it recorded.

So it might just be, that there has not been an increase in hate crime at all, this could just be a complete social construction.

In fact, this ‘increase’ might be harmful – in that it suggests that we are more divided than we actually are!

Sources

The Week, 16 December 2017.

BBC Article 

 

The Criminals in the House of Lords

Lord Bassam, Labour’s soon to be chief whip in the House of Lords has just agreed to repay £41 000 in expenses. The peer claimed a remarkable £260 000 over seven years to cover the cost of his accommodation in London, despite the fact that during that time, he commuted daily to his accommodation in London, a trip for which he claimed an additional £41 000 in travel expenses.

Elite Crime.png

It might appear that logic would dictate that one of these must be a Fraudulent claim, a fraud committed against the UK taxpayer who pays these expenses, given that you can’t do both at the same time!

However, no sanctions or prosecutions were brought against Lord Bassam, because peers of Lord Bassam do not define his actions as a Fraud, just a ‘breach of the rules’.

Imagine if this had been someone in work claiming benefits – it’s pretty much the same thing! It’s a fraud against the UK taxpayer – the state would have taken action action against such a person.

This is a great illustration not only of how crime is socially constructed, but also yet more supporting evidence for the Marxist view of crime – in this case that ‘fraud’ is only ‘fraud’ when it’s being ‘committed’ by the poor.

 

 

 

 

 

Lord Bassam is far from the only only criminal peer: a recent study identified 16 ‘silent’ peers who had collectively claimed about £400 000 in expenses and daily allowances, over a year in which they had made no contribution whatsoever to debate.

 

https://www.parliament.uk/biographies/lords/lord-bassam-of-brighton/3504/register-of-interests

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.