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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

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 precisely who it refers to (eg categories, financial 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): Apparently 93% of working-age immigrants are NOT claiming working-age benefits. The “crisis” claimed by government is “manufactured“.

Update 2 (27/11/13): Some studies have found “benefit tourism” to be largely a myth. Dominic Casciani, a BBC Home Affairs correspondent, cites some of this research (BBC News, 27 November 2013). He asked what the evidence was for widespread benefit tourism, and concluded:

“The answer is that there is very little – and it is an extremely complex picture. That does not mean that benefit tourism doesn’t exist – but what’s clear is that the evidence points strongly in the direction that people migrate to find work or for family reasons. They are less likely to up sticks to cross borders – or even continents – just for a weekly giro.”Dominic Casciani, BBC News, 27 November 2013

But the “benefits tourism” frame now 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