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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for September 2011

“Benefit tourists”

"Benefits tourists"Sept 30, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph provides a crudely malign formulation: “benefit tourists”. Thankfully, it’s not (yet) as well-established as, say, “benefit cheats”. (Update 2013: it’s now fairly well-established – see below).

“Tourist” is, of course, a frame. There are clearly defined roles and scenarios in the tourist frame: A tourist isn’t looking for work; a tourist is not from around here; a tourist seeks pleasure, a tourist is travelling, a tourist is not escaping from hardship or persecution, or building a new life; a tourist is exploring, sight-seeing or relaxing (ie not looking for work), and perhaps she/he wears sunglasses and a stupid grin.

What’s notable about the Telegraph article (and also this BBC piece and this Daily Mail story) is that the term, “benefit tourist”, is used without any attempt to describe who it refers to (eg categories, criteria). But we can at least infer from media coverage that if the European Commission gets its way, Britain will be flooded with “benefit tourists”.

Update (25/3/13): 93% of working-age immigrants are NOT claiming working-age benefits. The “crisis” claimed by government is “manufactured“.

Update 2 (27/11/13): Over two years on, the “benefits tourism” frame seems well-established and regularly used by the news media and politicians of both right and left. Every time the words are used, the conceptual frame is invoked and its inferences reinforced. Here’s today’s BBC headline:


Written by NewsFrames

September 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Jobs, Telegraph

Ruled by metaphor

Ruled by metaphorSept 29, 2011 – Frame semantics is, to a large extent, about conceptual metaphor. This is a new – and revolutionary – field of research. Previously, metaphor was regarded as characteristic of language alone. And for most people, it’s seen as little more than a matter of rhetorical flourish.

Take “life is a journey”. Merely a poetic metaphor for a purposeful life?

In fact it’s a complex metaphor which fundamentally shapes how we conceptualise our “lives” (eg in “western” societies). You’ve probably felt anxiety over making “no progress”. Perhaps you’ve been “bogged down” or “held back”. Maybe you “missed the boat”, and you “don’t know which way to turn”. You “lack direction” – you’re basically “lost”.*

These are all metaphorical conceptions based on neural mapping of purposeful life with “journey”. We’re not consciously being poetic with language here – it’s the way we think.

Consider:- the metaphor, “life is a journey”, isn’t universal, conceptually-speaking. In some cultures, people just “live their lives” – the idea of being without direction, bogged down, held back, missing the boat, etc, would make no sense to them. (See also my mention of the “time is money” metaphor).

The field of conceptual metaphor has profound implications for psychology and philosophy (particularly metaphysics). Hopefully this will give people a clue as to why framing-type analysis is more important than the clichéd notion of “spin”.

* “Purposeful life is a journey” examples taken from Philosophy in the Flesh (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Written by NewsFrames

September 29, 2011 at 9:36 am

“Bad businesses” – reframing wealth-creation?

Bad businessesSept 27, 2011 – Three of today’s newspapers (Telegraph, Guardian, Mirror) lead with Labour’s attack on “bad businesses”. If the previews of Ed Miliband’s speech are accurate, Labour is attempting to reframe “wealth-creation”. Miliband will say the Tories “talk as if the CEOs and the executives are the only people who create wealth.”

The true wealth-creators, according to Miliband, are “every man and woman who goes out to work”. In other words: JOBS RULE. Work is of primary importance in Labour’s moral-value system. (Back in 2001, the Labour government launched a Work First campaign. JOBS before everything else).

In the framing wars this is no threat to the ideological “free-market” right, where “businesses create jobs”. Even bad businesses. Miliband gets around this by citing “asset strippers” as the main example of “bad business”. (Asset stripping tends to lead to job losses). But this would imply that Labour’s measure of the “good” or “bad” of businesses is how many jobs they “create” or “destroy”.

Does the financial services sector come out as “good” or “bad” in this moral framing? Banks, credit card, loan, insurance companies, etc? They “create” vast numbers of jobs. Mostly low-paid soul-crippling work – eg in call centres; telemarketing nuisance calls, junk-mail production, stuff like that. The “services” they provide can perhaps best be summed up as shuffling lots of ones and zeros around in databases – from relatively poor to relatively rich account holders.

Given the widespread public anger over the bailout of banks (with taxpayers’ money), it would seem a good time to raise big questions about the type of “wealth” “created” by the banking and “financial services” sector.

But instead we get a kind of backwards reframing of “wealth-creation” from Labour. The “moral virtue of jobs” was a framing victory for the early industrialists/capitalists. E.P. Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class, (1963) described the process. Molly Scott Cato provided an excellent update (with regard to New Labour) here.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 27, 2011 at 10:14 am

Posted in Guardian, Jobs, Mirror, Telegraph

Daily Mail does “God”

Daily Mail does "God"Sept 25, 2011 – Today’s Mail on Sunday announces ‘£5 OFF AT TESCO’ – a fitting headline for this Holy Christian day of worship.

There’s also a story about how the ‘BBC TURNS ITS BACK ON YEAR OF OUR LORD’. The Mail accuses the BBC of “dropping the terms BC and AD in case they offend non-Christians”.

But the final paragraph of the Mail article contradicts this claim: “The BBC has not issued editorial guidance on the date systems. ‘Both AD and BC, and CE and BCE are widely accepted date systems and the decision on which term to use lies with individual production and editorial teams’.”

Whatever. More interesting to me is the strange assortment of framing in the Mail piece:

“absurd political correctness”
“change just for the sake of change”
“alien language/Europhile agenda”
“sidelining Christianity”
“dumbing down of the Christian basis of our culture”
“BBC trying to undermine Christianity by pushing an aggressive secularism”

Some of this framing is taken directly from “Several prominent Christians” (eg “The Rev Peter Mullen, Anglican chaplain to the London Stock Exchange”). The Mail also helpfully points out that the website for BBC Religion and Ethics is “headed by commissioning editor Aaqil Ahmed, who is a Muslim…”.

It’s a bizarre and untypical headline article, but it tells us something about the editorial “position” of the Mail. Something for future reference… And what will the shoppers at Tesco make of it, as they glance at the newspaper stand?

>> See also the blog on this Mail story from Tabloid Watch.

Written by NewsFrames

September 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Daily Mail

Stupid economic metaphors

Stupid economic metaphorsSept 23, 2011 – Today’s Daily Mail headline uses David Cameron’s ‘economics-as-shotgun’ metaphor. ‘i’ goes with “Global slump” – as if everyone on the planet simultaneously collapsed onto the sofa.

On last night’s Question Time (BBC1), Vince Cable talked about the economy with the phrases “on a tightrope” (twice), and “very dangerous world” (twice). By “world” he meant the abstraction known as the “global economy”.

An audience member on Question Time queried the premise that economic “growth” was necessary. Harriet Harman responded by saying the deficit can’t be cut “if the economy is flatlining”. She didn’t expand on this. So, we have the “growth” metaphor answered with a medical metaphor (for clinical death). Is it surprising that people are confused about economics?

Of course, we need abstractions and metaphors in order to discuss conceptually-complex issues. But what’s evident from last night’s Question Time, and this morning’s newspaper coverage, is that very little but a series of vague, conflicting economic metaphors (representing “conventional wisdom”) gets spoken. Meanwhile, what are we to make of the claim of expert economist, Professor Paul Ormerod, that: “as the twentieth century draws to a close the dominant tendency in economic policy is still governed by a system of analysis inspired by the engineers and scientists of the Victorian era”. (Ormerod, The Death of Economics).

Ormerod explains how a Victorian metaphorical worldview underlies the model of competitive equilibrium which provides much of the rationale for implementing “free-market solutions” to all economic “problems” (an ideological approach which has been dominant in the UK and US since the early 1980s).

One gets the sense that it’s the map, rather than the territory, which is fucked (or “flatlining” or on a tightrope, or staring down a gun-barrel, etc) in the case of economics. And that, in itself, can lead to unfortunate (or even tragic) consequences for the territory.

Meanwhile, the world still has pretty much all the stuff it had last month. And there hasn’t been any sudden global population explosion in the past few weeks. And valid questions on real resources, environmental issues, etc, tend to be framed separately from the “economic crisis” – in “public” (ie media/political) debate at least – compartmentalisation and specialisation.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 23, 2011 at 10:27 am

Two kinds of moral framing

Two kinds of moral framingBuckminster Fuller defined “wealth” (in contrast with money) as that which “nurtures” life.

George Lakoff says morality comes in two varieties: “nurturance” & “strictness”. (Remember Freud on “oral” and “anal” phases: nurturant breast-sucking, strict toilet-training).

Most media framing on jobs, welfare, “scroungers”, “dependency culture”, “hand-outs”, etc, reinforces (and derives from) what Lakoff calls “Strict Father Morality”. Central to this morality are self-reliance, self-discipline and “strength”. These are regarded as of primary importance. (They also feature prominently in “free market” ideology).

“Nurturant” morality, on the other hand, places empathy (or “care”, “love”, “compassion”, “community”, etc) in the primary position of importance (with things like self-reliance as secondary).

One can easily see “Strictness Morality” in religions which emphasise punishing father figures (eg Jehovah). And one can see a rationalist version of it in philosophers such as Kant, who wrote: “Accept no favours which you might do without. Do not be parasites nor flatterers nor … beggars. Complaining and whimpering … are unworthy of you”. (Kant, Metaphysics, ‘Concerning Servility’)

So What?

Both kinds of morality are established in our brains. Resisting either doesn’t really work, but an enormous amount of money is currently being spent on promoting Strictness Morality in areas that have long been located in the realm of nurturance. A “safety net”* (a virtue in nurturance morality) becomes “dependency” (a deadly sin in strictness morality), etc.

Understanding the two moral systems, and their underlying metaphors, can sometimes be more helpful than imagining a battle between moral people (our side) and immoral people (the other side).

* For more on the “safety net” metaphor, see this George Lakoff article.

Written by NewsFrames

September 21, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Contested concepts in the news

Contested conceptsSept 19, 2011 – George Bush used the words “freedom”, “free” and “liberty” 49 times in his 20-minute speech at the 2004 Republican Convention. The defining frame of Bush’s administration was “defending freedom”.

Freedom is a “contested concept” – it means different things to different people. It has a simple “uncontested core” (a central meaning everyone agrees on), but mostly it consists of blanks that need to be filled in with frames and metaphors.

For example, everyone agrees that coercion and harm interfere with freedom. At a visceral level, if you restrain or injure someone, you are interfering with their bodily freedom of movement. Beyond this basic level, the meanings of “coercion”, “harm” and “freedom” are contested. Take recreational drug use. Is it liberating or harmful? The blanks need filling in.

By “blanks”, I don’t mean the facts and particulars, but the value systems activated via conceptual metaphor and frames. The battle to fill in the blanks is being won by the right – conservative media, corporate thinktanks, etc. This isn’t about “spin”. It’s about how we conceptualise at the level of “common sense”.

The Mirror asked: “How can 59,017,382 people be so dumb”? But it’s (mostly) not a question of intelligence. If a person is unaware of their own deep frames and metaphors, then they’re unaware of the basis for their moral and political choices. One’s frames and metaphors define the range of one’s “free will” – you can’t will something that you can’t conceptualise.

The conceptual blanks get filled in to a scary degree by media repetition. Conduct your own experiment to confirm this: next time there’s some “shocking” news all over the front pages, ask a few relatively intelligent, moderate people for their views on the news story. Then stand back and observe how little of what they say doesn’t originate in mass-media framing (in a typical case, and I don’t mean the basic “facts” that we naturally rely on media to provide).

Written by NewsFrames

September 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Posted in Frame semantics, Mirror

“Consumers too lazy”

Consumers too lazySept 17, 2011 – Today’s Times leads with the “news” that a minister has an opinion about lazy consumers. Specifically, Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, says that “Consumers must take some of the blame for high energy bills because they cannot be bothered to shop around for the best deals”.

Why is this front-page news for the Times? Presumably it’s not meant as an attack on Huhne in particular, otherwise the headline would be something like: ‘HUHNE – “STRUGGLING FAMILIES ARE JUST LAZY”.’

The millions of shoppers who glance at the Times headline today will see a message about LAZY CONSUMERS. It’s not the result of a poll or a scientific study. It’s someone’s opinion, and it’s a frame. Alternative frames might be LACK OF TRANSPARENCY in fuel costs, or CONSUMERS OVERCHARGED, (which convey something about market failures), etc. Another frame is REGULATOR SHORT OF POWER (the Times ran with this in a 2008 piece). Ofgem (the regulator) talks of CONSUMERS BAMBOOZLED by complex and unfair pricing. Labour focuses on PROFITEERING ENERGY COMPANIES.

But here we have LAZY CONSUMERS. So, the market works just fine – it’s the lazy consumers that cause the problems. How about: OVERWORKED CONSUMERS? That’s not an established frame (people are overworked, consumers simply shop). But it might help us to appreciate why many “consumers” “cannot be bothered” to “shop around” for the “best deals”. After all, it’s HARD WORK FATHOMING ENERGY PROVIDER BS.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Posted in Headlines, Times

The News – created by TaxPayers’ Alliance

TaxPayers' Alliance on BBC and in Daily MailSept 15, 2011 – The BBC’s Daily Politics gave a platform yesterday to TaxPayers’ Alliance director, Matthew Sinclair (on “energy bills”). Meanwhile, the Daily Mail quoted TaxPayers’ Alliance chief executive Matthew Elliott (in an article on how ‘Union chiefs plot wave of strikes to cripple country’). Elliott also has a Daily Mail blog.

Earlier this month I cited some “newscreated by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (on “benefits cheats”) which appeared in the Telegraph and Mail. Also, on Sept 2, the Express quoted TaxPayers’ Alliance in a front-page story on “scrounging families”. The front page of the Express on August 24 quoted Emma Boon of Taxpayers’ Alliance in a story about public-sector pay rises. The next day (Aug 25) the Mail quoted Emma Boon in a front-page story on Quangos.

As you can see, the TaxPayers’ Alliance is very active and highly successful at shaping the news. Who are they, and how do they get so much media coverage?

“Thinktank” funding & framing

The Taxpayers’ Alliance is a rightwing pressure group, but it calls itself “Britain’s independent grassroots campaign for lower taxes”. In a Guardian article on the secretive ways of so-called thinktanks, George Monbiot lists TaxPayers’ Alliance as one of several groups which refused to provide useful information on the sources of their funding. So, a “grassroots” “alliance” of “taxpayers” which doesn’t want us to know about its funding.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) uses frames which are well-established in the tabloid press: “benefits cheats”, “wasteful EU bureaucrats”, “fat cats” (public-sector variety), “rip-off” energy bills, etc. Emotive issues which get headline coverage. A TPA spokesperson typically cites the “public” “outrage” and “fury” which has supposedly “erupted” as a result of not following “cost-cutting” (and ideological “free-market” rightwing) solutions which TPA recommends.

TPA uses populist language: “It’s shocking that so few benefits cheats are facing serious punishment for their crimes. If crooks think the system is a light touch, with little or no consequences for being caught, then they will carry on fleecing the taxpayer without hesitation.(Matthew Elliot, TPA Chief Executive, in Daily Mail)

TaxPayers’ Alliance Press Release Archive >>

Tweet a “Thinktank”

I’ve created a list of UK thinktank twitter accounts here. Use it to publicly query a thinktank of your choice on the sources of its funding. (This was an idea originally floated on Twitter and promoted here by George Monbiot).

Written by NewsFrames

September 15, 2011 at 11:51 am

“Family life in crisis”

"Family life in crisis"Sept 14, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph provides a good example of compartmentalising stories. We’ve been trained (or “educated”) to automatically associate claims about “family life” with certain worldviews. In this case, the threat to “family life” is “compulsive consumerism”. Here’s the Telegraph’s opening paragraph (from front page):

‘PARENTS are trapping their children in a cycle of “compulsive consumerism” by showering them with toys and designer labels, instead of spending time with them, a UN report has found.’

The UN (Unicef) report found that parents work longer hours in the UK than in countries such as Sweden (where children were reported to be happier). Parents in the UK were found to be “too tired”  to play with their children.

The Telegraph reports these findings on long working hours. So how does it compartmentalise? By not presenting the context on why we’re overworked – the recent history, and the Telegraph’s diabolical role in it. The Telegraph has, for decades, promoted propaganda from business groups opposing legislation which would put limits on harmful working hours. Here’s the latest example (from just a few weeks ago).

Written by NewsFrames

September 14, 2011 at 9:56 am

Posted in Headlines, Jobs, Telegraph


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