N E W S • F R A M E S • • • • •

About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Moral outrage on tap

spielberg-outrage-triW A R N I N G :
Repeated dosage of Moral Outrage
may turn you conservative.

July 31, 2014 – Individuals have been doing “sickening”, “disgusting” things since…  well, at least since the beginning of recorded history. And if we accept that it’s important to ruminate on the terrible acts of strangers, then there’s an endless supply to choose from. We can be 24-Hour Outraged People. It’s our moral obligation.

You may laugh at that reductio, but have you looked at “quality” newspaper comment pages or popular web forums recently? Moral outrage has become such a ready, familiar mode of cognition – and expression – that it functions like a sort of currency, particularly in online social “transactions”.

Unfortunately, moral outrage – like fear – tends to activate authoritarian conceptual frames while it inhibits empathy. Empathy precludes the perception of a human being as a “monster”, “animal”, “sub-human scum”, etc. That much seems obvious. But perhaps it’s less obvious that headlines which repeatedly refer to human beings only by the crimes of which they’re convicted (or merely accused) – eg “The Predator”, “The Welfare Cheat”, “The Racist” – will tend to inhibit, in a broader way, the experience of “empathy” on which progressive morality (and, generally, “liberal” politics) is based. Empathy is towards other people (including, but not limited to, victims). Moral outrage is exclusively concentrated on what seems “lower” than human.

daily-mail-28-07-2001There was a time – not long ago – when newspapers such as the News of the World got a lot of mileage from “paedo” hysteria. Chris Morris’s Channel 4 comedy, Brass Eye (full video here), satirised this “coverage” hilariously, capturing all its absurdity and hypocrisy. And then, of course, the Daily Mail (and others – including government ministers) turned their outrage on Morris and Channel 4. How dare they joke about such a serious subject?

Channel 4, and other commentators in the more “liberal” areas of the press, rightly shrugged, sighed, and effectively said: “You idiots, can’t you see that it’s satire, and that it’s satirising media coverage, and in particular the type of reaction we’re getting from you right now”.

July 19, 2001

The Guardian

Chris Morris, the satirist who tricked politicians into railing against a fake drug “cake”, has caused controversy again by duping celebrities into endorsing two fabricated anti-paedophilia campaigns for his latest TV series.

A furious Phil Collins last night said he was taking legal advice after having been filmed with a T-shirt bearing the words “Nonce Sense” while giving “advice” to children. […]

The programme, clearly designed to satirise the hysteria surrounding the issue last year, was due to be shown earlier in the month.

I wonder if the Guardian and Channel 4 would take the same progressive view towards such satire in today’s climate (post- Jimmy Savile type scandals, etc). Given some of the Guardian’s recent attacks on the satiric humour of The Onion, the creator of Family Guy, Reginald D. Hunter’s ironic use of the “N” word, etc, I’m not too confident they would.

Certain types of moral outrage – like fearmongering – should probably be viewed as a media virus, or a special type of contrived “news” frame. Repeated often, and widely (a bit of moral outrage with breakfast every morning), they strengthen the neural connections on which this mode of cognition are based. Of course, in the “liberal” press it’s (mostly) directed at different things than in the rightwing tabloids. But the logic of the currently fashionable “zero tolerance” type framing applies to both, together with a tendency to demonise individuals (as opposed to simply condemning the crime/”crime”).

Why do these tendencies reinforce conservative moral systems? Because they’re based on conservative (authoritarian, so-called “strict father”) premises such as tolerance-as-weakness, character weakness as direct cause of immorality, etc. These moral premises may be unspoken (and unconscious), but they directly oppose the progressive morality of tolerance-as-virtue, compassion/empathy as ‘integral’ with systemic causation, etc.

I’ve previously written about the Luis Suarez saga(s), and how media outrage appeared (to put it mildly) disproportionate to the actions of one individual. The Guardian was probably the worst in terms of sheer volume of moral outrage (exceeding the tabloids in this regard). The emotion released apparently so warped the perceptions of some journalists, that they routinely got the facts wrong (one senior sports reporter for The Independent admitted to me, by email, that he had indeed made some erroneous, and fairly serious, accusations – these were never corrected in the newspaper).

Another recent (slightly less emotive) case concerned a magazine “report” that Steve Coogan had been dismissively critical of Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian campaigning. This “story” was soon republished by others (eg The Independent) and, by the churnalism process, became this claim: “STEVE Coogan claims Angelina Jolie’s efforts to help refugees and rid wars of rape is ‘off-putting’.” An army of tweeters then expressed their moral outrage at Coogan. Felicity Morse, the Independent’s social media editor (whose tweets I mostly enjoy), tweeted the following to her 15,000 followers:


The implication was that Coogan “hates” those who “try to end rape in war”. A serious, reputation-damaging suggestion. As it turned out, the report was completely wrong – Coogan’s remarks weren’t directed at Jolie at all. To me, the problem was not so much that the report was later confirmed to be wrong, but that you could see beforehand that the claims didn’t logically follow from the quotes attributed to Coogan. (I had gently warned Felicity about this immediately after her tweet – to no avail. Moral outrage has its own logic, its own course to run).

The Independent later amended its article, but only enough to save face. The headline (which now reads: Steve Coogan appears to brand Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian efforts ‘off-putting’…) is still misleading, since the whole premise on which the story was based has evaporated.

There are many more cases. In fact, they now seem a daily occurrence. What used to be a regular staple of the worse tabloid rags now appears to be a large part of what fills space in supposedly progressive newspapers such as the Guardian and Independent (particularly on their websites, where space is unlimited). In the latter cases, the issues referenced (eg anti-racism, anti-sexism) may be progressive, unlike in the tabloids. But the underlying moral framing of outrage looks the same – the Trojan horse of ‘zero tolerance’ and the conservative logic of essences and moral ‘character’.

Note: I hope I don’t alienate any of my readers with the above. I often feel morally outraged at events, both distant and close to me – it’s not something I demean. My purpose has been to focus on one particular ‘framing’ aspect of moral outrage – something that, to my knowledge, nobody else has focused on. 

Written by NewsFrames

July 31, 2014 at 8:27 am

11 Responses

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  1. the pre-assumed frame i’m seeing is that twitter amounts to something more than shit-stirring from inactive journalists.


    July 31, 2014 at 9:23 am

  2. Thanks for this excellent article. Full of insightful observations. The central gist of it, that mediated moral opprobrium usually strengthens authority frames, while weakening empathy, looks like a very important point to me. Will this be picked up (as it should be) by the wider “progressive” audience which I assume you’re aiming at? Probably not, for various reasons. For starters, it’s a new idea and may seem “against the (neurological) grain” for many – for the time being at least.

  3. Up to a point, Lord Copper! But surely it’s right to be outraged by the civilian deaths in Gaza? And to believe that bosses “touching female employees up”, and husbands hitting their wives, are unacceptable? Both these beliefs, and the outrage at civilian casualties, represent a genuine ethical advance.

    I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s book Our Better Angels: he shows that at one time, torture and various kinds of violence were simply accepted in a way that they are not today–including what today is called “collateral damage”.

    Of course, it’s right to reflect on one’s own sense of outrage; and for Israel, for example, to become a pariah state would not help either them or the Palestinians. As you say, empathy is very necessary.

    Today’s Independent carries a story that Germany has been brokering a compromise deal with Russia over Ukraine, which sounds hopeful, and if so, good for Germany! So much better than British moral posturing. But “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue”.

  4. your point is well taken, and i think you’re prob right. i struggle with the notion that moral outrage is always effectively conservative although i appreciate your argument is more nuanced than that. the thing is, i think it’s sometimes needed. moral outrage, that is. in reaction to things like misogyny or homophobia – or war, torture, the really awful things. issues which naturally give rise emotion, as they should. what’s the alternative? i guess you’re saying progressive forms of empathy are the alternative?

    jessica t

    July 31, 2014 at 10:55 am

  5. Good points, John and jessica. I think I should clarify that I’m not coming at it from the question of whether moral outrage is “right” or “wrong”. I’ve now added a little note at the end of the post to clarify slightly.

    I think that like fear, moral outrage, may be “right” and “natural”. Certainly I feel moral outrage, just as I feel fear, over many things. But my point is about making conscious, aware, informed allowances concerning how moral outrage affects our thinking at some levels (especially the repeated, “mediated” types).

    • With that proviso, I agree! And I’m interested in Frank Furedi’s book about moral crusades in relation to Savile. I’m about to get a book from the library by Jonathan Haidt on the same issue.

      John Dakin

      July 31, 2014 at 4:06 pm

  6. Current bbc.co.uk top story reads: An attack that killed 10 people at a UN-run Gaza school was a “moral outrage and a criminal act”, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said.

    Is this further dose of ‘moral outrage’ that is turning us all conservative? Surely not!

    martin b

    August 3, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    • Well, the fact that an atrocity is an atrocity, and that people (including myself) are morally outraged about things like bloody atrocity doesn’t, to my mind, alter any of the points I make above. But if you think it does, I’d be interested to see how your logic runs!

      Incidentally, here’s a good example of how to report on Gaza with a frame of empathy, human-level suffering. Note that there’s not much in the way of “moral outrage” (although the slaughter is unequivocally condemned). I suspect this may be a more effective approach – at least more effective than, say, the kind of US moral outrage following 9-11, which led to more bombing, and then more bombing, and then more bombing… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACgwr2Nj_GQ

      • I just felt that the original examples you used have little political consequence. The important cases are the strategically framed messages that draw upon widespread outrage to promote conservative policies, for example the BNP continue to take advantage of Lee Rigby’s murder to argue for the death penalty. But I definitely agree that fear and uncertainty triggers the strict father model.

        martin b

        August 4, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      • There’s certainly no shortage of moral outrage being whipped up by the rightwing tabloids, and I agree that those cases seem to have more direct consequence. But they wouldn’t be a good illustration of the general “global” point I’m making about moral outrage – they’d simply illustrate a conservative “flavour” of outrage.

        In a way, the abundance of fairly trivial examples in left-leaning newspapers illustrates the point best. If you look at what’s written, you see little difference in the framing or intensity of the moral outrage on these cases. Hence the title, “moral outrage on tap”, and the point about it becoming a sort of cognitive habit even on these relatively trivial cases.

        You could also argue that it’s becoming so commonplace that when the media does report on something like Gaza, the real shock, outrage and horror is somehow devalued by the saturation of over-stimulated outrage about everything. But I don’t make that point, as it’s a tad trite.

  7. I now see the point you were making that the media tends to prevent us thinking with compassion and wisdom by coaxing us into a state of outrage. The ability of the tabloids to whip up ‘moral outrage’ is certainly a powerful weapon, sometimes it’s used for a possible just end, e.g the Daily Mail almost single-handedly stirring up enough public outrage to cause Fred Goodwin’s knighthood to be repealed but of course it’s almost always used for negative purposes.

    martin b

    August 4, 2014 at 8:10 pm

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