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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Churnalism’ Category

“Radical” memes & “radical” churnalism

Brass Eye - radical“the Left’s been infected, too.”
– David Foster Wallace

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement.  But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
– attributed to Niels Bohr

Nick Davies did us all a favour by popularising the term “churnalism“. Now, with one word, we can refer to a common, insidious media process without having to resort to vague terms such as “propaganda”. (That term has its uses, of course).

Most talk of churnalism seems to focus on “mainstream” media and corp/gov PR, but there’s also a “radical” churnalism (eg of the left). For example, if a popular dissident figure publishes a piece on a newsworthy issue, it will likely be republished, reposted, reblogged, facebooked, retweeted, mass-emailed, etc, to an audience of hundreds of thousands. And it soon acquires an “authoritative” status (almost as if it’s been peer-reviewed by a panel of Nobel Prize-Winning Saints). This seems to happen almost every day.

Given that most of my readers, like myself, probably regard most of this “radical” content as somehow on the side of “good” (to the extent that it opposes warmongering, power-hungry, profit-obsessed interests, etc) what comes next may be a little hard to take. David Foster Wallace put it eloquently:

As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95% of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties.

Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude… But the Left’s been infected, too. (David Foster Wallace, interview)

You don’t have to look far – in blogs, Twitter, newspaper comment sections, etc – to see what DFW refers to. It looks as if the “ideological and reductive” aspects thrive most in the fast, unreflecting, copy-n-paste, repost, retweet, mass-mailing environment characteristic of churnalism (“radical” or otherwise). But let’s pause here…

Questioning the status quo has always needed time. Changing your thinking requires time away from economic demands of work and “productivity”. Noam Chomsky pointed out that you can’t undermine conventional pieties in a 15-second soundbite – you need more time. But you need more time, also – much more – to arrive at a state in which you are capable of “undermining” (or even just fundamentally questioning) your own thinking.

Why would you want to undermine your thinking? Well, isn’t that exactly what we demand from others who fundamentally disagree with us? Whether they’re “mainstream” journalists, bloggers or drinking buddies with the “wrong” opinion – we want them to see how deeply wrong they’ve got it. (“You’d have to be an idiot to believe that…”, etc).

We expect those who disagree with us to “be reasonable”, “face the facts”. But it doesn’t work that way, even when the “facts” seem clear-cut and verifiable. It usually takes more than grudging admission of factual error to get someone to change their “position”. We don’t think in facts – our thoughts aren’t strung-together facts. Every “fact” requires a frame to make sense of it (or, as Lakoff puts it, “we think and reason using frames and metaphors”). What we’re really demanding of our political, ideological or informal ‘opponents’ is that they change their worldviews, their cognitive framings (ie their “position”), to more closely match ours.

Imagine such a thing being demanded of yourself. Most of us, even if we had the inclination to seriously question our own “positions”, probably wouldn’t have the time to do a good job of it. For a start, you’d have to trace back through all the “authorities” you accepted since childhood, and ask yourself which claims you checked, and which you took on faith – and whether there were any alternatives you overlooked, etc. A huge task. There are too many other things urgently demanding our attention. So, for now, it’s more convenient (and fairly satisfying, “politically”) to just do a bit of reposting, retweeting, reblogging: “RT new Pilger piece on Assange. I haven’t got time to read it properly, but he always says it better than I could”, etc.

“Radical” memes

“The meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation.”
– Richard Dawkins

There are several different versions of “meme”, but since Dawkins coined the term, I’ll stick with his biological definition. Memes compete with one another to replicate themselves in our minds. A “good” meme is one which spreads easily throughout a population. A good meme doesn’t necessarily imply a “good idea” (eg in the sense of high-quality information) – it’s just good at spreading. As Richard Brodie (author of Virus of the Mind) puts it:

Truth is not one of the strong selectors for memes.
Making sense is a selector… (Richard Brodie)

In other words, people are quick to accept flawed ideas which “make sense” (to them) over accurate-but-challenging ones. Other “strong selectors” for memes (as noted by Brodie, who cites evolutionary reasons) include: Crisis, Danger, Approval, Mission, Authority.

“Radical” discourse isn’t immune from this – one sees the same meme ‘selectors’ here: enemies, heroes, crisis, experts, the battle against nefarious forces, etc. The presence of these elements – more than accuracy, perspicacity, insight, originality, etc – determines the “success” of the “radical” idea/meme, according to memetics.

Continuing with David Foster Wallace:

… political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. (David Foster Wallace, interview)

If the “other side” is seen as corrupt/evil, then this “relentless black-and-whitening” makes sense as being uncompromising. You don’t compromise with evil. In some “radical left” circles I’m familiar with, “radical” has become a measure of the ability to see things “clearly” and starkly in black and white. This seems to precisely mirror (albeit inverted) the “authoritarian” moral logic of what Lakoff calls the “Radical Right”: no room for moral grey, intolerance of “moral contamination”/relativism, and hatred and/or distrust of “liberals” (whatever that term connotes).

What does “radical” mean?

Several different uses for the word ‘radical’ seem widely accepted. It comes from the Latin “radix”, for “root”. Literally “of the root”, but used in the metaphorical sense of “root” as “origin”, “source”, “basis”, “foundation”, etc – and also “primary”, “essential”, “fundamental”.

The term has acquired various political uses/”meanings” – eg via the metaphorical notion of “change from the roots”, as in “affecting the foundations”, fundamentally (rather than superficially) “reformed”, etc. Also, “extreme” – it was once used to describe those belonging to the “extreme section” of the British Liberal party (early 19th C.), etc. Ominously, UK and US governments/authorities increasingly seem to regard “radical” as synonymous with “terrorist”.

Other (better established) synonyms (n. & adj.) for radical include: “avant-garde”, “original”, “iconoclast”, “revolutionary”, “cardinal”, “primal”, etc. Bear those in mind for what follows…

My earliest “intellectual” influences (as a student) were Jung and Surrealism, not Chomsky or Socialist Worker, and this probably explains my perception (or bias) that most of what passes for “radical” in the political realm (via alt-churnalism and meme-spread) looks pretty much the opposite of what’s defined above as “radical” (with the possible exception of “radical” as synonym for “extreme”).

I see little that’s “radical” in copy-n-pasting (or social-media linking, etc) of recycled variations on a “relentlessly black-and-whitened” line whose main function is to identify and denounce the enemy (eg corporate/Western-state) in a tough and uncompromising – but hackneyed – way. (I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve written as “radical”).

With a similar thought in mind, I once tweeted (to nobody in particular):

To me, “radical” is primarily a measure of originality, not of intensity (or frequency) with which you equate “corporate” with “bad”.

That got me an immediate reply (out of the blue) from the radical website, Medialens:

“Nothing to do with originality”? After I pointed out the etymology of “radical” and “original” (root is metaphor for origin/source; originality refers to non-derivative origin/source), Medialens replied again:

Which kind of illustrates what Twitter is good for.

(At the other end of this spectrum, a Guardian piece titled ‘Britain’s 50 new radicals’ seemed to confuse “radical” with “entrepreneur”. See the resulting complaints in the Guardian comments section).

“Radical”: How do you measure information?

“the more probable the message, the less information it gives.
Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems”

– Norbert Wiener, on Cybernetics and Society

With the above, Norbert Wiener simplified Claude Shannon’s equation for quantifying the information contained in a message. In Information Theory, it’s a measure of unpredictability – the information in a message equals the negative of the probabilities that you can predict what comes next. In short, the easier it is to predict, the less information it contains. Dante meets Bosch in a crack lounge.

Thus, as Wiener puts it, great poems contain more information than clichés. Political speech/discourse tends to be among the most predictable & clichéd of all communications – whether it’s hard right, “liberal” or “radical” left. Churnalism of all kinds appears to increase this predictability.

Given a version/definition of “radical” in terms of information, as above (ie unpredictable, non-derivative, original), then what typically passes for “radical” in the political realm looks, to me, like nothing of the sort.

Written by NewsFrames

September 21, 2012 at 12:27 am

A Tale of Two Racisms

24 July 2012 – I intended to write about something called ‘moral licensing’, but the Daily Mail published something (on football racism) that deserves comment. This will probably interest those who’ve followed the John Terry & Luis Suarez cases, but I doubt it’ll interest anyone else, unfortunately. (The ‘moral licensing’ piece – which, in an odd way, is relevant to this – will follow in a few days).

I won’t rehash the Terry & Suarez cases (I’ll assume you know the details). There were some striking similarities between the cases, and some differences – eg process and burden of proof (more on that below). Also, the media coverage. Here’s what caught my eye in the Daily Mail yesterday (23/7/12):

John Terry piece, Daily Mail , 23/7/12

(There’s an online version of this on the Daily Mail site – scroll down past the main story).

It was written by Mail columnist Martin Samuel. The parts which caught my attention were these (my bold):

  • “To brand a man a racist requires only a balance of probability, according to the FA.”
  • “…his outdated ideas about a case needing to be proven.”
  • “Terry did not swing in a proper court, so now he will be tried in one with less exacting standards.”

So, to summarise: The FA’s “standards” in these matters aren’t as “exacting” as they could be. And, anyway, the newfangled “balance of probability” doesn’t establish proof, and it’s insufficient to “brand a man a racist”.

The UK media (en masse, including the Daily Mail) – took the exact reverse of this position over the FA’s “standards” on the Suarez case. “Balance of probability” was regarded as appropriate – yes, a lower burden of proof than “beyond reasonable doubt”, but just fine for the job. And quite sufficient to “brand a man a racist” (actually, “racial abuser”). As for “exacting standards”, the UK press fell over themselves to congratulate the FA on its 115-page Suarez report. Here’s what one fairly typical Guardian piece said about it:

The thoroughness, attention to detail and remarkable depth of the 115-page document […] a report that has prompted legal experts to talk about a document that is “appeal proof”. […] has brought a new meaning to the word transparency by revealing every last detail […] this extraordinary report… (Guardian, 1/1/2012)

This kind of gushing praise for the FA report was all over the newspapers, as was quick denunciation of those who criticised or questioned the FA panel’s verdict. Even before the FA released its delayed 115-page report, criticism of its verdict on Suarez – whether direct or implied – was framed by the UK media as “shameful“, as “confusing” the “zero tolerance messageon racism. When Suarez’s club (Liverpool) raised the issue of lack of evidence, etc, they were denounced as “beyond the pale“, “hypocritical“, and their actions viewed as a “constant undermining of the FA’s role“:

“Some of the words being used to describe the FA and its role in governance on these sort of issues, that is really beyond the pale.” (Piara Powar, BBC, 8/1/12)

(One of the things I learned about the fight against racism – from campaigners such as Piara Powar, Lord Ouseley, Sports editors at the Guardian, etc – was that it entails, indeed requires, an uncritical acceptance of “the FA and its role in goverance on these sort of issues”. I’d never realised this before, as the FA always seemed to me like a dubious assortment of inept old blokes in suits, with a rich history of unprogressive views and general cluelessness. But that’s what the UK media is for – to inform and educate).

Bandwagons, herd-mentality, etc

So, what about Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail – author of the above critical remarks about the FA’s “standards”, etc (in the context of the John Terry case).  Surely he, of all people, didn’t jump on the hack-bandwagon – praising the FA’s Suarez report and dismissing its critics? Actually, that’s exactly what he did. Here’s the damning evidence, from his Daily Mail column, 4/1/2012:

Martin Samuel on Suarez, Daily Mail, 4/1/12Burden of proof

The FA uses the civil “balance of probability” rule of proof. This generally means a lower burden of evidence required to “prove the matter” than applies in criminal cases.

Many journalists seem to forget that “balance of probability” is a flexible rule, and that the more serious the allegation, the greater the burden of evidence required to prove the matter. This is clearly stated in the FA panel’s 115-page report on the Suarez case (see paragraphs 76-80). Paragraph 80 states: “The FA accepts that the Charge against Mr Suarez is serious, as do we. It is for this reason that we have reminded ourselves that a greater burden of evidence is required to prove the Charge against Mr Suarez.”

Martin Samuel’s piece, above (on the Terry case), perhaps confuses the issue over “proof” and “standards” (depending on how you interpret his wording). “Balance of probability” doesn’t, in itself, imply “less exacting standards”. It implies a lower burden of evidence, which is not the same thing – it doesn’t mean a licence to be sloppy. In fact, on the Suarez case, the media seemed convinced that the “balance of probability” rule had been applied to the most exacting standards. (Close scrutiny of the FA panel’s report reveals that this wasn’t the case. The FA’s own prescription for stronger evidence – in accord with the seriousness of the allegations – seems to have been “forgotten” by the FA’s panel, and completely overlooked by the media. No direct evidence/witness testimony was submitted in the Suarez case. And so the ironies pile up…).

Please also see: the original piece I wrote exposing media falsehoods on the Suarez case: Media on Racism: Part 1 – Churnalism (this article “went viral” on social media, and has been read by several hundred thousand people to date).

Written by NewsFrames

July 24, 2012 at 1:16 am

Media on Racism: Part 1 – Churnalism

Top Gear - "Lazy Mexicans"Jan 6, 2012 – 2011 provided some “high-profile” news stories about racism – but even the “quality” press provided little more than churnalism. No doubt it’s safer for reporters to recycle established or “official” views than to delve deeper (or, Editor forbid, to reframe the issue for greater insight). This type of churnalism has its own dangers, as we’ll discover…

Two cases, in particular, are worth looking at (and comparing): BBC2’s Top Gear and Luis Suarez (Liverpool FC footballer). Part 1 considers churnalism and misreporting. (Part 2 will address the media framing).

Top Gear & “Lazy Mexicans”

In January 2011, Jeremy Clarkson and his fellow Top Gear presenters did a routine about “Mexicans”. This led to a trickle of news coverage after a complaint from the Mexican ambassador, but it didn’t become a “proper” story until after Steve Coogan wrote a comment piece (for the Observer) which pointed out that Clarkson & co would never target Africans, Pakistanis or Jews with comparable group-stereotype jokes. When I say it became a “proper” story, I don’t mean penetrating, insightful coverage… I mean: “Celebrity A blasts Celebrity B”.

The official officials who officiated in this case were the BBC and Ofcom. First, the BBC:

‘In a letter to Mexico’s ambassador in London, the BBC said it was sorry if it had offended some people, but said jokes based on national stereotyping were part of British national humour.’

Coogan commented: “The BBC’s initial mealy-mouthed apology was pitiful. It cited the more benign rivalry that exists between European nations (ah, those arrogant French, over-organised Germans), and in doing so neatly sidestepped one hugely important fact – ethnicity […] The Beeb’s hand-wringing suggested tolerance of casual racism, arguably the most sinister kind.”

The media regulator, Ofcom, then cleared Top Gear of breaching broadcasting regulations:

‘Ofcom said Top Gear “frequently uses national stereotypes as a comedic trope and that there were few, if any, nationalities that had not at some point been the subject of the presenters’ mockery…”.’

Interestingly, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) later upheld a complaint about the show:

“Although the remarks were humorously intended […] their tone and cumulative effect seemed to the ECU to give the impression of reinforcing, rather than ridiculing, the stereotype”

All of which raises some important questions, none of which (to my knowledge) were addressed by media coverage – certainly not by the BBC. (I’ll attempt to deal with these questions in terms of framing in part 2 of this article):

  • Is national stereotyping necessarily less serious than racial stereotyping, and if so, why?
  • Is national stereotyping okay as long as you abuse all nationalities uniformly and humorously?
  • Does the same logic apply to racial stereotyping, and if not, why not?
  • Should TV celebrities be punished as severely as, say, footballers?

Trial by media – Luis Suarez

(Note: references to “para” are to relevant numbered paragraphs in the FA report)

This incident started during a football match, after Patrice Evra (Manchester Utd) made the offensive remark, “your sister’s pussy”*, to Luis Suarez. It’s alleged (by Evra) that Suarez used racial insults in the dialogue that followed. (*Evra made the remark in Spanish: “Concha de tu hermana” para 87).

The official officials who officiated in this case were the Football Association (FA) and their “independent commission” (ie three blokes selected by the FA).

Trial by Media - Luis SuarezSuarez denies making racial insults. The case boils down to meanings of “negro” in Spanish (nearest equivalent in English is “black”). Suarez claims he said “negro” once, inoffensively. Language experts consulted by the FA agreed that: “the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190)

Suarez claims he said “Por qué, negro?” (“why, black?” – para 205). Evra claims he said “Porque tu eres negro” (“Because you are black” – para 205). The latter could be taken as offensive according to the FA’s language experts, but the phrase struck them as “slightly unusual” (para 182), whereas the phrase claimed by Suarez “sounded right linguistically and culturally”. (Para 191)

Initially Evra claimed (in English) that Suarez said, at one point: “I don’t talk to you because you niggers” (para 131). He later withdrew this claim, after realising Suarez had said, in Spanish, “negro”, not “nigger”. (The report quotes Evra admitting that he is “not exactly fluent in Spanish” – para 87). As the FA’s experts pointed out, “the Spanish word ‘negro’ cannot simply be translated as ‘nigger’.” (They also point out that “It may be used affectionately … it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech … several famous people in Uruguay are known as ‘el negro’…” (para 172)

These important details (and much else of relevance) somehow went unreported in most media coverage following the FA’s publication of a 115-page report listing the reasons why the 3-man panel found Suarez “guilty” (but not of being “racist” – paras 224, 414, 454). Unfortunately, ‘churnalism’ had taken the place of responsible reporting…

“Racial abuse” churnalism

The report was published by the FA on New Year’s Eve – which probably didn’t help. What journalist wants to spend the last hours of the year reading 115 pages on racial abuse allegations?

The Guardian led the way with lazy, irresponsible churnalism. Three Guardian articles (each by Stuart James, plus another from Andy Hunter) stated as fact that the panel ‘found that Suárez used the word “negro” or “negros” seven times’.

But no such thing was “found” (even though the panel used that word). There was no evidence or corroborating witness statements confirming the number of times Suarez said “negro”. There was nothing but Patrice Evra’s word. (And Evra had altered his account – he initially told Canal+ TV that Suarez used the racial term “at least ten times” (para 154), but later claimed that this was just “a figure of speech”para 159 – with the FA report stating that he later claimed Suarez used the word “negro” five times – para 205).

In fact, what the report clearly shows is that there was no evidence or supporting witnesses to back up either player’s version of the crucial dialogue between them on the pitch. The entire case came down to one man’s word against another’s. This explains why the panel spent so much time trying to establish a case (again subjective and uncorroborated) that Suarez’s testimony was “unreliable”.

Headline churnalism: “unreliable” evidence

Following the publication of the report, the Press Association ran with: “FA: Suarez evidence ‘unreliable’,” and virtually all major UK media followed suit with similar headings. In what way was the evidence unreliable? The report cites two things – firstly, a few inconsistencies in Suarez’s accounts of the sequence/timing of events (although the panel concedes this is understandable given that Suarez, unlike Evra, wasn’t permitted to see the video footage while being interviewed, and thus relied on memory more – para 320).

Secondly, the panel said it was “unsustainable and simply incredible” for Suarez to describe his behaviour as “conciliatory and friendly” given that “the players were engaged in an acrimonious argument”. (Para 453)

If journalists hadn’t been so quick to ‘churnalise’ the report’s key “findings”, they might have noticed the problems with this – its circular, subjective nature. The panel apparently took as given the very premise under dispute (ie the “acrimonious” nature of Suarez’s “behaviour” – which remains uncorroborated by witness statements and video footage. The panel’s interpretations of Suarez’s expressions and gestures – eg the pat on the head [para 243] – remain deeply subjective and contested).

As a result of this churnalism, every major newspaper report covering this “unreliable evidence” story failed to mention one of the most important pieces of “unreliable evidence” – namely Patrice Evra’s withdrawn initial claim that he was repeatedly called “nigger” (he later conceded it was “negro”), and his withdrawn claim that Suarez said the racial ‘N-word’ “at least ten times” (paras 154, 159). These inconsistencies are at the heart of the allegations, unlike the arguably more minor inconsistencies in Suarez’s account.

Inconsistencies in the “official” report

Another thing that journalists might have highlighted (if they hadn’t been in such a hurry to copy-n-paste summary “findings”) was glaring inconsistency in the report itself.

One striking example is the panel’s “rejection” of the claim that Evra was angry throughout the match – that he was “tipped over the edge” by events (para 333), putting him in an agitated/vengeful state of mind. Here’s what the report said:

‘We rejected that submission […] Mr [Ryan] Giggs described the Liverpool v Manchester United game as the biggest match. He did not consider that Mr Evra was wound up save in so far as everyone was wound up to a certain extent given the fixture. We reject the submission that Mr Evra was unduly wound up such that he was tipped over the edge to pursue vengeance against Mr Suarez.’ [Para 333]

But this conclusion that Evra wasn’t “tipped over the edge” (prior to accusing Suarez) is inconsistent with the testimony of Giggs cited earlier in the report:

‘It was obvious to Mr Giggs from looking at Mr Evra that he was upset. He said that Mr Evra did not seem quite with it, you might call it red mist […] Mr Giggs then told Mr Evra to calm down and not get himself sent off’. (Para 114 – my emphasis)

The report also states that Evra was “angry” from the very start of the match, “when he was seen to dispute the outcome of the coin toss with the referee” (para 329). (Evra, by his own admission (para 92), threatened to “punch” Suarez during the game). Of course, none of this negates Evra’s own testimony – but it provides a clearly relevant example of the panel’s inconsistent treatment of the evidence.

To my knowledge, not a single newspaper commented on inconsistencies of this type, which are evident throughout the report. The reporters had their easy-to-churn, momentum-propelled story: the “unreliability” was all Suarez’s. He was not only a racist, but a liar (although they wouldn’t word it quite so bluntly as that). Case closed. How could it possibly be otherwise?

“No Excuse”

Argentine players display bannerAn apparently widely-held view arising from the Suarez case (including, it seems, among Guardian writers and editors) is that since Suarez admitted using the Spanish term “negro” (once), he is guilty of racial abuse, that all mitigating circumstances boil down to “excuses”, and that those who defend him are effectively harming efforts to eradicate racism.

This view has far-reaching implications, of course. Even convicted murderers are granted the right to protest their innocence, citing lack of evidence, mitigating factors (such as self-defence, etc). Their defenders are not usually accused of misguidedly supporting murder – at least not by the “liberal” media.

So what explains these “deep” differences in conceptual approach? Was Patrice Evra correct when he claimed that the Spanish for “your sister’s pussy” translates to “fucking hell” in English? (para 87). And are there any meaningful comparisons to be made between the Top Gear and Suarez cases in terms of media treatment? All this will be addressed in Part 2, which concentrates on the media framing aspects…

Click here for Part 2 of this article >

[Update 11/1/12 – Football lawyer, Daniel Geey, has looked in detail
at some of the evidential inconsistencies which I mention above].

Written by NewsFrames

January 6, 2012 at 3:02 am

Posted in BBC, Churnalism, Guardian, Racism