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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for the ‘Headlines’ Category

“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

“Scrounging families”

"Scrounging families"Sept 2, 2011 – The BBC reports this story under the headline, ‘NUMBER OF WORKLESS HOUSEHOLDS FALLS’. The Express goes with “SCROUNGING FAMILIES’, “anger” and “fury” – and again quotes the rightwing pressure group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance (a regular source of framing for the UK press).

Here’s the first paragraph on the Express’s front page (2/9/11):
“ANGER at the scale of Britain’s ­benefits culture erupted last night after official figures showed there are nearly four million households where no one works.”

So, “anger erupted” at these official figures (from the Office for National Statistics, ONS). Whose anger erupted? Here’s what the ONS figures actually show (courtesy of an ONS graph):

ONS workless 1996-2011

Note the fall in “workless households” since 1996, followed by an increase coinciding exactly with the recent recession (shaded bar).

Perhaps “anger erupted” over something else. The fourth paragraph on the Express front page says: “The ­figures yesterday triggered renewed fury at the £180billion annual welfare benefits bill being picked up by taxpayers.”

This is the standard, misleading device of citing the total welfare bill in a story about the unemployed. It’s misleading because only a small fraction of this amount goes on unemployment benefits (£6.6bn directly in 2010; two-thirds of the total welfare figure goes on people over working age, and there are various benefits for those who have jobs, and contribution-based benefits that need to be taken into account, etc).

The welfare-as-crime frame

The Express front page talks of “the culture of benefits dependency that was allowed to spiral out of control under the previous Labour government.” The spiralling “out of control” of an immoral “culture” evokes the crime frame. Politicians and media often use a “criminal offender” type of lexicon to talk about welfare recipients. This tendency seems to go back a few decades at least, although I suspect media analysis would show it to be increasing in recent years (in the same way that use of terms such as “benefit cheats” has increased). Thus, government advisers were quoted by the Times (17/9/99) as saying that “penalties for the persistent unemployed will be harsher”. Terms such as “hardcore” are applied to “persistent” unemployed. Benefits are being framed as a moral issue – this is how “anger” and “fury” are induced, via moral outrage. The implication is that punishment is the cure (and that, therefore, people shouldn’t complain about getting their benefits cut).

(Updates: a later Daily Express headline used a different type of welfare-crime association: “1.2M CRIMINALS GET BENEFITS”. Also, Tony Blair used the odd phrase “hard core of socially excluded families”).

“Spiralling out of control”? 

Back to reality (or at least to statistical representations of it). We should be looking at welfare spending as a proportion of GDP, not in “absolute” terms:

Uk welfare spending 1950-2011 This chart is taken from the excellent UK Public Spending website. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for “fury” here. Perhaps the Daily Express editors need to take an anger management course? And perhaps they should stop acting as a propaganda outlet for the rightwing TaxPayers’ Alliance group…

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 2, 2011 at 10:28 am

The new “unconscious” (part 1)

The "new" unconsciousSept 1, 2011 – Today’s Mail headline will provoke diverse reactions: indifference, confusion, curiosity, anger, guffaws, etc. The word “anarchists” alone denotes a highly “contested” concept, leading to different responses.

Cognitive science uses the term “cognitive” to refer to all the mental operations involved in such responses.* It holds that the vast majority of these are “unconscious”. This isn’t the Freudian or Jungian “unconscious” – it’s something new in scientific terms (starting around the 1970s). It owes more to empirical research than to sexual/poetic insights (of Freud, Jung etc).

The “cognitive unconscious” has huge implications for philosophy and psychology. And also for “media studies”. One such implication is that it’s not all about “intelligence”. A common (but ignorant) criticism regarding “framing” analysis is that it assumes people are “stupid”, susceptible to “spin”, that they can’t think for themselves, etc. This criticism typically comes from tabloid newspaper editors when confronted with the charge that their headlines induce fear and hatred.

Cognitive science tells us that these reactions of fear and hatred have little to do with the relative stupidity/intelligence of readers. In fact, a high IQ is no defense against having such reactions, since the cognitive processes which underlie them are mostly unconscious. What’s required as a defense is knowledge of these processes, which comes from empirical research. That’s what the field of “frame semantics” is about.

Of course, there are a lot of stupid people around, but that’s a different topic…

* This is a different usage of “cognitive” than in traditional philosophical discourse, where it refers only to conceptual or propositional thought. In cognitive science, “cognitive” may even include physical, bodily processes which underlie our conscious experience.

Written by NewsFrames

September 1, 2011 at 8:54 am

If the headline is big enough…

Another headline on high pay in public sectorAug 30, 2011 – The title of today’s entry is from Citizen Kane: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough!”

Not that high pay in the public sector isn’t a valid news story. One wonders, though, when three newspapers (Express, Mail, Telegraph) all lead with stories on public-sector pay (over the course of 6 days) – particularly given the other newsworthy situations occurring on the planet.

The Telegraph quotes a Tory politician: “Ordinary people will be outraged that bonuses are being paid at all in the public sector…”. Compare the quote from another Tory in the Mail’s front-page coverage of a similar story, five days ago: “…this sort of generosity would not be found in the private sector”.

An interesting topic for academic study would be the timing of news stories. Why are we supposed to be thinking, right now, about high pay in the public sector? Why did the MPs’ expenses scandal get reported just when public outrage over the bail-out of banks was peaking? Without empirical studies, we’re left with useless speculation, “conspiracy theory” and Citizen Kane. Fnord.

Written by NewsFrames

August 30, 2011 at 9:06 am

“War” on “scroungers”

"War" on "scroungers"Aug 28, 2011 – Regarding this familiar frame (‘Workers vs Scroungers’) the Express informs us that:

  • The number of “scroungers” has doubled “since the recession”.
  • The number of young “scroungers” has trebled “since 2008″.
  • A quarter of hardcore “scroungers” are “aged over 50″. (100,000 of whom lost their jobs at the start of the economic crisis).

That tells us something about the term “scroungers”.

What the Express describes as a “war” against “scroungers” in fact consists of proposals by the (no doubt) well-meaning IPPR, a “Labour-leaning think-tank” – to get the long-term unemployed into jobs. The IPPR says: “…we need as many people in work to maximise tax revenues. The Government should be aiming to increase the employment rate…”

We can separate the IPPR’s bizarre notions from the malign framing of the Express – but only to a degree. They both seem to frame work/jobs in ideological terms, although it’s less obvious with the IPPR. Does tax revenue need to come from created/subsidised human labour, rather than from, say, the currently untaxed zillions made with virtually zero labour in international finance (eg currency markets)?

(Note: the real “war” on the unemployed was revealed earlier this year in a Guardian report).

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

August 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Express, Headlines, Jobs

History of “moral decline”

"Moral decline"Aug 21, 2011 – This Observer headline is another example of reinforcing a frame while negating it. What we see here is “moral decline” – that is how we conceptualise the issue, regardless of the following word, “not”.

Most media coverage of the “rioting” excludes the perception that it has always occurred in Britain. The country has a long history of insurrection. Even in quaint coastal villages, whole communities criminally conspired against the authorities (eg the customs men) – in Ye Olde days, when murder and violence were more common .1

In 1898, newspapers in England warned of the menace of “hooligans” and of a “dramatic increase in disorderly behaviour”. The Times reported “organised terrorism in the streets”.2

In every decade of the 20th century there were similar media panics.

Alternative headlines:

1. See: Ted Robert Gurr, Historical Trends in Violent Crimes, 1981; Manuel Eisner, Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime, 2003.
2. Quoted from Laurie Taylor’s article, Looking with a historical eye, published in the 1995 Channel Four booklet, Battered Britain.

Written by NewsFrames

August 21, 2011 at 9:21 am

“Mansion tax”

Mansion taxAug 20, 2011 – A good example in the Telegraph of how negating a frame can reinforce a frame. The “mansion tax” has been pushed by the Lib Dems as a way to tax the rich (on properties worth more than £1m). The Telegraph puts forward Eric Pickles’ argument that this will affect “ordinary middle-class families” and “hard-working home owners” because of “high property prices in some areas”.

But the Telegraph’s headline, ‘NO TO THE MANSION TAX’, works against this argument. It might just as well be saying, “No to taxing the landed aristocracy”.

The number of people who glance at newspaper headlines (in the newsagent, supermarket, petrol station) far exceeds the number actually reading the newspaper copy. In this case, the Telegraph’s own headline works against the newspaper’s position.

Written by NewsFrames

August 20, 2011 at 10:25 am

Posted in Headlines, Telegraph

“Stealing” jobs

Express 18/8/11

In the wake of the UK riots, the Daily Express prints this headline: ‘MIGRANTS ROB YOUNG BRITONS OF JOBS’ (18/8/11).  To what extent will this “incite” hatred/violence – compared, say, to the hatred/violence which two youths failed to “incite” with Facebook pages (for which they were each sentenced to 4 years in prison)?

It’s impossible to rob or steal a job, although the financial desperation required to accept a low-pay, long-hours job (with idiot boss, appalling conditions, etc) is probably similar to the desperation required to rob or steal.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

August 18, 2011 at 9:52 am

Posted in Express, Headlines


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