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.
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.
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.
White working class underachievement is persistent and real, but contemporary government reports are potentially biased in that they might fail to take seriously critical (left wing) analysis of issues such as this. Students might like to read the summary below, and check out the actual full report and consider whether or not this report provides a full picture of the causes of white working class underachievement, or whether its agenda is limited by ideological (neoliberal) bias…
A summary and sociological analysis of a recent government report on white working class underachievement….
Summary of the Government Report on White Working Class Underachievement
The summary below is taken from the House of Commons Education Committee on Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children, First Report of Session 2014-15
The possible causes and contributors to white working class underachievement are many and various, and include matters in home life, school practices, and wider social policies. We received evidence on a broad range of policy areas and relevant factors, many of which fell outside education policy. Our report holds a mirror up to the situation—it does not attempt to solve the problem on its own—but it is clear that schools can and do make a dramatic difference to the educational outcomes of poor children. Twice the proportion of poor children attending an outstanding school will leave with five good GCSEs when compared with the lowest rated schools, whereas the proportion of non-FSM children achieving this benchmark in outstanding schools is only 1.5 times greater than in those rated as inadequate. Ofsted’s inspection focus on performance gaps for deprived groups will encourage schools to concentrate on this issue, including those that aspire to an “outstanding” rating.
Our inquiry focused on pupils who are eligible for free school meals, but there are many pupils just outside this group whose performance is low, and it is known that economic deprivation has an impact on educational performance at all levels. Data from a range of Departments could be combined in future to develop a more rounded indicator of a child’s socio-economic status and used to allocate funding for disadvantaged groups. The improvement in outcomes for other ethnic groups over time gives us cause for optimism that improvements can be made, but not through a national strategy or a prescribed set of sub-regional challenges. Schools need to work together to tackle problems in their local context, and need to be encouraged to share good practice in relevant areas, such as providing space to complete homework and reducing absence from school.
Policies such as the pupil premium and the introduction of the Progress 8 metric are to be welcomed as measures that could improve the performance of white working class children and increase attention on this group. Alongside the EEF “toolkit”, our recommendation for an annual report from Ofsted on how the pupil premium is being used will ensure that suitable information on how this extra funding is being used.
An updated good practice report from Ofsted on tackling white working class underachievement would also help schools to focus their efforts. Meanwhile, further work is needed on the role of parental engagement, particularly in the context of early years.
The Government should also maintain its focus on getting the best teachers to the areas that need them most, and should give more thought to the incentives that drive where teachers choose to work. Within a school, the best teachers should be deployed where they can make most difference. Schools face a battle for resources and talent, and those serving poor white communities need a better chance of winning. White working class children can achieve in education, and the Government must take these steps to ensure that that they do.
While the summary recognises that a number of factors contribute to white working class underachievement, including policy and home based factors it basically (obviously?) ends up concluding that the problem can be fixed by individual teachers and schools within the existing system, without making any major changes to the current system.
The evidence cited to support this view is that ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds do not significantly underachieve compared to their richer peers (the message being ‘if they can do it, so can poor white kids); and the fact that ‘schools can and do make a difference’.
The suggested strategies to improve the standards of white working class kids include:
Schools dealing with the issues in their local contexts (fair enough I guess)
Schools ‘sharing best practice’
Getting the best teachers to where they are needed the most – which mainly means coastal areas (although there is no mention of how to do this)
Yet more monitoring by OFSTED (into how the Pupil Premium is being used)
Doing more research on how to engage parents, implying that they are somehow to blame.
What is NOT considered is the broader social and cultural inequalities in the UK and the possibility (some may say FACT) that the education system is actually run by and for the middle classes and white working class kids just see it as ‘not for them’, as this research by Garth Sthal suggests:
Garth Stahl worked as an educator in predominantly white working-class and boy heavy schools in London for nine years and recently spent one year researching the educational experiences and aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in order to better understand how they came to understand the educational provision provided to them.
He argues that white working-class underachievement is symptomatic of a much larger social, cultural and economic inequality, which plagues the British education system, in which pupils’ performance has an extraordinarily strong positive association with social class.
A summary of his research is as follows:
Schools negatively label white working class boys as ‘lacking in aspiration’ and write many of them off before the enter the school building, putting them in lowest sets and paying less attention to them, as they believe they have no chance of achieving 5 A-Cs.
White working class boys are well aware of how they are negatively labelled in educational environments, and the poor quality of education they are receiving, and also the constraints of their social class position.
In response, they often excluded themselves from the school’s neoliberal “aspirations” agenda of university entrance and social mobility
They preferred employment that was ‘respectable working-class’ such as trade work which they considered for “the likes of them” and where they would feel comfortable.
The boys were also haunted by a fear of academic failure – they realised that they would be blamed for their failure and thus be made to feel a sense of shame because it (Even though deep down they knew they had less chance of succeeding than their middle class peers).
On the other hand, they also feared academic success. Good exam results would mean pressure to further their education, and to enter into areas that felt foreign, such as university, where they potentially would be made to feel uncomfortable.
Application and Relevance
Taken together these two items show how research which implies that we need system-level change will not be considered in government education policy – and serves to show up the bias and limitations of government reports which feed into social policy.