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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for the ‘Express’ Category

Conservative framing of welfare

dailyexpress-19-01-2015Jan 22, 2015With each example seen in the media (and not just in the rightwing tabloids) it’s tempting to see conservative framing of welfare as simply crass, vicious and stupid. But that doesn’t help us understand why demonisation of benefits recipients seems popular with large sections of the public (witness the popularity of the Benefits Street style TV shows and the rise of UKIP, etc). A cognitive frames approach helps us to get a better insight into the phenomenon…

The differences between “conservative” and “progressive” (or “liberal”) views on welfare have little to with fact and logic. It’s more about opposing metaphorical framing on morality. This framing underlies much of the “social” policy of the right.

1. Conservative view of social welfare:

Welfare seen as essentially “immoral” because:

  • It’s viewed as encouraging “dependence” on the government, and so is against the morality of self-reliance & self-discipline.
  • It’s not given to everyone, so it introduces competitive unfairness, an interference with the “free market”, and hence with the “fair” pursuit of self-interest (part of the morality of reward and punishment).
  • Since it’s paid for by tax, it “takes” money from someone who has earned it, and gives it to someone who hasn’t (against the morality of rewarding self-reliant, self-disciplined people).

Note the particular moral emphasis here: self-reliance, self-discipline, reward and punishment. George Lakoff has documented at length how these values are central to conservative framing (eg in his books, Whose Freedom? and Moral Politics). Moral differences don’t just concern different ideas about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values. Liberal/progressive views hold “empathy”, “care”, etc, as primary in moral terms, with self-discipline and self-reliance secondary in moral importance. The inverse is true for conservative (or what Lakoff calls “strict father”) morality.

This doesn’t imply crude either/or reductionism or simplistic stereotyping of people. Different value-hierarchies may apply for a given individual depending on the domain she/he is conceptualisng. For example, some people describe themselves as socially liberal but economically conservative.

Rightwing strategy (via think-tanks & conservative media) has been to repeatedly use the metaphorical language of “strictness” on domains which may have been traditionally framed more in terms of looking after others – ie caring. The economic value-hierarchies of the businessperson thus gradually replace a moral scheme in which notions such as “social security” and “safety net” represented primary values. This entails a moral shift, a change in what’s regarded as normal, acceptable “common sense” (and also, according to some cognitive scientists, an accompanying physical change in our brains).

To quote Lakoff’s Moral Politics:

The basis of the classification of successful businessmen as model citizens is very deep, as we have seen. It is the principle of the Morality of Reward and Punishment, which is at the heart of Strict Father morality. To place restrictions on that principle is to strike at the heart of conservative ethics and the conservative way of life. Placing restrictions on moral people who are engaged in moral activities is immoral. (Chapter 12)

Welfare, government regulation, etc, are thus seen as immoral interferences in a moral system of rewarding “success” in a competitive world. This framing encompasses, in obvious ways, the system of “free market” capitalism. For example, in the latter, the successful pursuit of self-interest in a competitive world is seen as a moral good since it benefits all via the “invisible hand” of the market. In both cases do-gooders are viewed as interfering with what is right – their “helpfulness” is seen as something which makes people dependent rather than self-disciplined. It’s also seen as an interference in the market optimisation of the benefits of self-interest.

Under this moral frame, cuts in welfare (etc) are not just seen as a temporary measure of “austerity” (eg until the economy recovers) – they’re seen as a moral imperative for all time, since the alternative is viewed as fundamentally immoral.

2. Conservative view of corporate welfare:

But what about corporate welfare? Given the above reasoning, shouldn’t conservatives view that, also, as immoral according to this framing?

Corporate welfare not (immediately) seen as immoral because:

  • Those receiving it are pre-conceptualised as self-reliant and self-disciplined in the entrenched iconography of the heroic, hard-working, successful “wealth creator”. Under the conservative moral accounting metaphor, they are seen as deserving.
  • The comparison between corporate welfare and social welfare thus doesn’t work on most conservatives (at least not without years of reframing), because the heroes and demons in the conservative worldview are based on “deep” cultural metaphors reflecting the primary morality of self-discipline and self-reliance. This takes the form of: “Why shouldn’t the best people be rewarded – their success demonstrates their self-discipline”, etc.

For a more in-depth look at moral-political framing systems, please see our Essentials of Framing.

Written by NewsFrames

January 22, 2015 at 9:26 am

Tabloid stereotypes – typifying classes by worst-cases

Daaily_Express-19-09-2014Sept 19, 2014 –Today’s Daily Express headline is a particularly nasty example of an irresponsible tabloid practice. Most people would probably (and rightly) think of it as demonisation of a class of people – by constant publication of nightmare cases whose attributes are in no way typical of the class (“migrants”, “benefit claimants”, etc) assigned by the newspaper.

Apologists for the Express might argue that the headline is factually correct (assuming the details have been reported correctly). But the point is how “facts” and “news” about sensational single cases can be framed in a way that distorts probability judgments, warps logic and incites hatred/fear regarding the class of people referred to.

Prototype Theory: distorting our judgments

Prototype Theory, in cognitive science, looks at the internal structure of categories/classes, and how single class members can stand for the class itself. It offers a useful explanation of what’s going on here (ie how the Express is fucking with our heads, precisely).

Our minds create various kinds of prototype for a given category/class. For example, a typical case, an ideal case and a nightmare case. We tend to use the “typical case” prototype in our inferences about what we consider “normal” (eg statistically, probabilistically) for a category, or class, of people.

Problems arise with something called a “salient exemplar” (a well-known case that stands out for us, for various reasons – including sensationalist media coverage. The tabloids are full of them). The salient exemplar tends to distort our probability judgments about a given class of people if it’s conflated with, or affects our perceptions of, the “typical case”. This can happen quickly, and without much conscious awareness – eg as a result of the repeated media coverage (of the salient exemplar), we have “reflex” associations and responses to the “migrant” frame.

The Express (and it’s not just the Express) knows it would get into trouble with a “KILLER BLACK”, “KILLER GAY” or “KILLER JEW” headline. But it knows it can get away with “KILLER MIGRANT”, just as it knows that it can get away with portraying the class of “welfare recipients” in terms of the “vile” “cheat” salient exemplar. The examples are endless – see my Curious repeating headlines in the Daily Express for a selection).

It isn’t new, of course. Lakoff (in The Political Mind) discusses the uproar that started in 1976, when Ronald Reagan referred to a “Welfare Queen” who had supposedly received $150,000 in government handouts and was driving a “Welfare Cadillac”. As it turned out, nobody could find this person – it appeared to be a made-up stereotype. As Lakoff puts it, “Reagan made the invented Welfare Queen into a salient exemplar, and used the example in discourse as if it were the typical case.” (The Political Mind, p160)

Misleading Vividness fallacy

I mentioned, above, how sensationalist tabloid framing warps logic regarding classes of people. There’s a fallacy in logic known as “Misleading Vividness“, eg the belief that the occurrence of a particularly vivid event (eg a terrorist bombing) makes such events more likely, despite statistical evidence indicating otherwise. Misleading Vividness has strong psychological effects because of a cognitive heuristic called the availability heuristic. There’s a lot of material already available on cognitive heuristics (as a result of the popularity of the work of Daniel Kahneman and others). I think it would be a fruitful area of research to combine this field with that studied by Lakoff et al, particularly with emphasis on media coverage and its effects. In the words of Nassim Taleb (quoted by New Scientist some time ago), media coverage is “destroying our probabilistic mapping of the world”.


Written by NewsFrames

September 19, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Letters to the editor

newspaper-letters-dmOct 16, 2013Over a decade ago, I’d sometimes send letters to newspapers – to see if they’d publish my weird, naive opinions. Surprisingly, they often did. Occasionally, one of my letters would be printed by two newspapers on the same day – as when the Times and Independent published something I wrote about Tony Blair in 2005 (see below).

Even The Sun published a few of my letters – probably out of shock that a Sun reader could actually manage to string a few sentences together. (Of course, I’m not a Sun reader – I just sent letters out to all the newspapers. The first I heard of The Sun publishing my letter was when I received a £15 “prize” from them for it. Jackpot!).

(I pretty much stopped writing to the media when everybody started doing it – as a result of campaigning websites which encouraged a sort of template approach. It got too crowded and rote).

Here are a few examples of my letters which were published…

Dear Editor,
This country is much wealthier than in the 1970s, when most students paid nothing for their education. The “funding crisis” in higher education is created not by lack of funds, but by a dubious political ideology.
(The Sun, 28/1/2003)

Dear Editor,
The way this government talks about work reminds me of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes One free”) Nazi concentration camp entrance sign. Hitler provided full employment. Prison workshops have full employment. Coercion can always create full employment. What happened to leisure? We’ve seen incredible advances in labour-saving technology over the last 30 years, yet working hours have risen during this period. And now government ministers want to promote a “work first” culture. Are they insane?
(Read out on BBC Radio 4 ‘PM’ news, 5/7/2001)

Dear Editor
Re: Flu Epidemic – Last year’s Government clamp-down on “sick-note culture” was regrettable. Taking time off sick is increasingly seen as a bad career move, with the result that everyone in the office catches flu. My advice: prevention is better than cure, so call in sick before you get ill.  (The Guardian, 12/1/2000)

Dear Editor,
Gordon Brown says full employment is achievable. Problem is, half of UK jobs produce no “real wealth”, no resources or services useful to human life. These pointless jobs (many in financial services) have no effect except to move money around in databases, benefiting the rich. It used to be called usury. People actually burn up fossil fuels travelling to these pointless jobs.  (The Independent, 16/3/2001)

Dear Editor,
On average, fewer than 10 children are killed each year by strangers in England and Wales, according to government figures. Road accidents, however, kill or seriously injure several thousand children every year. The media obsession with paedophiles distorts perceptions of risks to children.  (The Sun, 26/7/2000)

Dear Editor,
The way politicians talk, you’d think welfare fraud and juvenile delinquency were the two greatest threats to civilisation. Being young and unemployed*, I feel more threatened by politicians.
(News Of the World, 10/12/2000 –- *the bit about being “young and unemployed” wasn’t 100% true)

Dear Editor,
The government has overlooked an obvious way to tackle road congestion: give employers financial incentives to allow staff to work from home. If only 10% of office staff worked one day a week at home, we’d notice a significant reduction in road traffic (and pollution).
(Printed in the Independent & Daily Express, 18/12/2002)

Dear Editor,
Tony Blair dismissed the Lancet report on Iraqi deaths. He also dismissed the LSE report on ID-card costs. He now dismisses the Chatham House report linking the London bombings to the Iraq war. Is it rational behaviour to simply dismiss everything that contradicts one’s worldview?
(Printed in the Times & Independent, 20/7/2005)

Written by NewsFrames

October 16, 2013 at 10:56 am

Curious repeating headlines in the Daily Express

express-dejavuJan 24, 2013 – You’ve probably noticed the Daily Express headlines which feature the weather or some health-related story. It seems that most Express headlines fall into one of these categories:Daily_Express_24_1_2013

1. Weather/floods
2. Health/illness
3. The EU/Euro
4. Pensions
5. “Migrants”, benefits, “skivers”

Exceptions seem uncommon. Okay, you get the occasional “royals” story, and there was a time when house-price rises/falls could have been added to the list. See for yourself, using the compilations of front pages, below (which I’ve colour-coded to match the above categories).

Occasionally, two of the topics are combined in one headline (see example, above left – “ALL MIGRANTS TO GET A BRITISH PENSION”).

The first collection of front pages shows every Daily Express from 18 January 2013 (top left) back to 29 October 2012 (bottom right), with all exceptions shown (uncoloured):

The latest circulation figures show the Express selling many more copies than the Times, Guardian and Independent (roughly the same number as the Telegraph, and fewer than the Sun and Daily Mail).

The next compilation of Express front pages covers the period from early August 2012 (top left) back to May 2012 (bottom right) – it’s not a complete list, and excludes some exceptions as well as other examples which conform to the above topics:


Written by NewsFrames

January 24, 2013 at 8:53 am

The ever-popular “war on workshy” frame

Oct 8, 2012 – Today’s Express headline concerns the “WAR ON WORKSHY”. I first became aware of this “war” back in 1998, when the following headlines screamed at me (on March 27th, 1998):


I was unemployed at the time, and I took it personally – it seemed like a war on me. It also struck me as being political and journalistic bovine excreta. The same media had just reported the lowest official unemployed count for 18 years (given as 1,383,800 in The Daily Telegraph, 19/3/98). Government figures showed that only 5% of welfare expenditure went on the unemployed, including benefit fraud. (The percentage is pretty much the same today – see my earlier post).

As Larry Elliott (Guardian’s economics editor) put it at the time:

“..ministers should stop conniving in the fallacy that the welfare state is in a terminal crisis when it palpably is not…What is not legitimate is to pretend that welfare is a luxury Britain cannot afford”.
(Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 19/1/98)

It’s all déjà vu for me. We were in a “terrible crisis” then, and we’re in a “terrible crisis” now. And we’re encouraged to think about this crisis – repeatedly – in terms of a war between “hard-working families” and “workshy scroungers”. Or, as today’s Express puts it:

Senior Tories believe the move will be popular with millions of hard-working families who are fed up with workshy scroungers ripping off the benefits system. (Express, October 8, 2012)

This frame tends to exclude the thoughts: 1) that large numbers of “hard-working families” are themselves dependent on various benefits (since the market often doesn’t pay a survival/living wage), and 2) that many of those “hard-working families” will eventually find themselves unemployed (at which point they land in the “workshy scrounger” category – until they can find another job).

After decades of relentless tabloid attacks on the unemployed, the cited Tories are probably right – in a sense – about the “popularity” of the proposed welfare cuts. Because the “real” war is in the framing, and the Framing Wars are currently being won by the rightwing press (which, as noted recently by George Monbiot, gets much of its editorial content direct from neoliberal thinktanks). We see an indication of the success of this framing (in shaping people’s thinking) from the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey, which reports that:

62% agree that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, more than double the proportion who thought this in 1991 (27%)

So, don’t think about the trillion pounds spent bailing out the banks, or the $21 trillion stashed in tax havens by the tax-avoiding super-rich, etc – those are separate, different news compartments. Focus your anger on the unemployed people. The frames in your head tell you they deserve it.

Alternative headlines:

◊ Read more about the metaphorical framing of welfare here and here,
– and more about the framing of work here & here.

Written by NewsFrames

October 8, 2012 at 8:52 am

Welfare “criminals”

Welfare "criminals"Dec 28, 2011 – Today’s Express front page reports that 33% of JobSeeker’s Allowance recipients have “records of offending” in the last five years. The Sun and Telegraph also covered this story under the blunt headings: “One in three on dole is a criminal”; “Third of unemployed are convicted criminals”.

The figures reportedly come from a “data sharing agreement between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice”, but at the time of writing, neither DWP nor MoJ appear to have this finding on their websites. [See update, below*]

Predictably, the rightwing TaxPayers’ Alliance (so-called) is quoted by the Express. Robert Oxley (TPA campaign manager) says: “The minority who split their days between claiming benefits and getting rich from the proceeds of crime are giving those who fall on hard times a bad name”. Of course, there’s no indication that the crimes involved made anyone “rich” – after all, we’re not talking about Goldman Sachs here.

(For example, poor people receive criminal records for watching TV without a licence. I don’t see anyone getting rich from that “crime”.)

Not that the details matter to the hard-right ideologues at the Express, Telegraph, Sun and TaxPayers’ Alliance. What matters for them is that welfare is framed as “criminal” and immoral. What matters to them is that public anger is directed away from the wealthy beneficiaries of public misery, and towards “criminals” and people receiving benefits. And if the distinction between “criminals” and people receiving benefits is blurred, that’s viewed as a bonus.

* Update – This story has also been covered by the Daily Mail, Mirror, Star, Metro and Times, but the “government study” on which it’s based remains unavailable – which means it’s difficult to check the figures, and to put them into context. One aspect of context is statistical comparison – for example, 1 in 4 US adults has a criminal record (according to Yahoo! News), the same ratio that the Express cites for all out-of-work UK benefits recipients. It would be interesting to see what proportion of Express journalists has a criminal record.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

December 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm

“News” = recycled clichés

News clichesOct 31, 2011 – This morning’s front pages present an arresting selection of news clichés

The Daily Express alerts us to a “CRISIS” in something-or-other, and a “BOOST” to pensions. The Express’s front page story is actually about an “idea” which is being “considered” (by the government).

“i” and the Belfast Telegraph go with “SHAKE-UP” (in education). I think we all know what that means.

The Daily Mail reports that the Church of England is at “WAR” with an ill-defined noun (“sleaze”). Slightly more interesting is the information that the church currently invests millions in Internet Service Providers.

The Mirror front page informs us that it’s “WAR” between the Prime Minister and Nick Clegg on Europe. (It’s not a trivial matter that the metaphor of armed conflict is commonly used on complex social and economic issues which have little to do with armed conflict. More on this when I discuss the “war” metaphor in a future piece).

The Evening Standard tells us that somebody important “HAILS” “women power”; the Wall Street Journal reports that a “SHAKY OUTLOOK” lingers in Europe. (If you have a photo of a lingering shaky outlook, please email it to me immediately).

The Telegraph lets us know that some money from somewhere will be used to “KICK-START” the economy; The Times reports that David Cameron is seeking “RADICAL REFORM” on something-or-other.

The Scotsman headlines with the story that charities are being “HIT” by a “CASH SQUEEZE”. (See my previous comments on media use of the “hit” metaphor).

To Summarise:

Shake-up in education, shaky outlook in Europe, war between church and sleaze, war between Cameron and Clegg, a hypothetical “crisis fund” to boost pensions, a bit of money to kick-start the economy, charities hit by cash squeeze, Cameron (when he’s not at war) seeks radical reform on adoption, and the Queen hails women power.

All in all, a rich collection of headline bullshit.

Written by NewsFrames

October 31, 2011 at 12:20 pm


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