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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Headlines’ Category

Government “hits” BBC

I_Newspaper_12_9_2013Sept 12, 2013 “Government hits BBC with threat of regulation” (today’s i headline). What’s the story here? Well, a government minister wants the National Audit Office (NAO) to scrutinise the VAST sums of PUBLIC MONEY paid in severance deals to BBC executives.

A few things you should know:

  • 1 in 10 prosecutions in the UK are for non-payment of TV licence.
  • Last year, 180,000 people got a criminal record for non-paid TV licence.
  • BBC execs got a total £60m payoff – equivalent to 412,000 licences.*
  • Some BBC execs got more than £1 million in severance deals.
  • Meanwhile, PRISON for many people who didn’t pay their £145 TV licence.

The_Daily_Telegraph_22_8_2013Now we know what it’s about, let’s return to that headline: “Government hits BBC with threat of regulation”. I’ve previously written about the “hits” metaphor (for direct causation), which seems to be common in headlines which contain abstract nouns and institutions-as-actors.

From today’s i headline, you might think the BBC was independent of government and currently relatively unregulated. And the idea that “regulation” is generally bad and threatening might be reinforced (any takers for unregulated cops/banks/corporations?). All of which seems ironic and darkly amusing to me, given what we know about the BBC.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about “hits” as news metaphor for direct causation, let me give you some more interesting examples…

Causal news frames**

News headlines often use direct causation metaphors to frame complex social issues. All such metaphors have their own logic, which is transferred from the physical realm of force to the more abstract social realms of institutions, politics, beliefs, etc. The effect is inescapably “reductive”, but not necessarily invalid (some metaphors – and their imported logics – are more appropriate than others). Here are some examples of such metaphorical causal expressions:

  • Public generosity hit by immigrant wave
  • 72% believe Iraq on path to democracy
  • Obama’s leadership brought the country out of despair
  • Majority fear Vietnam will fall to communism

Each of the causal logics here is different – for example, the notion that one country “falls” to communism, while another takes the right “path” (to democracy). Of “falling to communism”, Lakoff & Johnson remark (Philosophy in the Flesh, p172) that the ‘domino effect’ theory was used to justify going to war with Vietnam: when one country “falls”, the next will, and the next – unless force (military might) is applied to stop the “falling”. The metaphor of taking a “path” has very different political entailments. A nation might not even resemble a democracy, but if it chooses the “right path”, it “deserves” US military and economic “aid”, to help overcome any obstacles put in its “way”. (Incidentally, rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

The different types of causal logic resulting from each metaphor may seem obvious when spelt out like this. But the point is that the reasoning in each case is evoked automatically by the metaphorical frame; it takes effect without being spelt out, without being “made conscious”. Rather, the logic – including political inferences – is an entailment of a frame that’s simply activated by the language used.

* Some reports say that £396m total (in severance deals) was paid to BBC staff, with £25m going to its 150 top managers.

** I’ve copy-n-pasted most of this from an earlier long post. You probably don’t remember – even if you did read that far in the earlier post, which seems unlikely. And, hey, journalists get paid for recycling old, sloppy material. I do it for virtuous reasons.

Written by NewsFrames

September 12, 2013 at 2:33 pm

“The young lack grit”

Daily_Mail_21_8_2013Aug 21, 2013 When I saw this Daily Mail headline (this morning), I thought: With all we know about the economic malaise and its causes, what would conservative ministers and newspapers focus on? Of course: that youngsters lack “grit”.

It seems such obvious, clichéd BS to “us” – and I recall Noam Chomsky explaining that he doesn’t criticise rightwing newspapers because it’s “too easy” (he focuses instead on “liberal” media).

And yet… The Daily Mail has millions of readers. Millions more see its prominent headlines (while at the supermarket or newsagent). And we know that conceptual frames work mostly unconsciously – “below” our awareness. And that repetition affects us “deeply” at this “level”.

(To put it another way: Professor Chomsky might find it “too easy” communicating his criticisms of rightwing media to fellow Chomskyites, etc – but how easy would he find it communicating those criticisms to Daily Mail readers?)


I don’t have time to write this (I’ve got a river to swim, a mountain to climb and a crap-job interview* to attend), so I’ll limit myself to a brief jotted note:

“Grit” (synonym: “firmness of character”) keys into a “moral strength” metaphor/worldview – part of the “strict” (ie authoritarian) morality which has been linked with conservative thinking. I wrote about this here.

* Not really. I don’t “waste my time” on such things any more. My “character” doesn’t need any “building”, thanks. And if it did, the last place I would go to “build” it is a God Damn job (said in a John Wayne voice).

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

August 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm

A Daily Mail front page you won’t see…

daily-mail-03-04-13-rowlingApril 8, 2013JK Rowling should perhaps be given a Nobel Prize for getting a generation of kids to read books. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s generated endless amounts of tax revenue. How was this phenomenon nurtured? By a little time and space on the dole.

You’d be surprised how many successful people developed their craft on the dole. In a way, most successful corporations also require a long period on the dole. Do you think Boeing and Microsoft would have achieved commercial success without decades of state-funded research and development in aerospace and computing?

Any true wealth-generating activity requires periods of “social nurturing” which aren’t profitable. They’re not self-funding in the short term; they are dependent. (We realise this for children – we call it “education”. The money spent on it is regarded as social investment).

“Investment” (in human beings) was also one of the ideas – along with “safety net” – behind “social security”. The welfare state was created in the forties, in a post-war economy which was nowhere near as wealthy as now (imagine: computer technology didn’t exist).

But, for decades, the rightwing press, “free market” think-tanks, politicians and pundits (not just of the right) have wanted you to think differently about social security. They want you to think of “welfare” as an unnecessary nuisance which costs more than everything else combined.

To that end, a simple set of claims, accompanied by a certain type of framing, is relentlessly pushed into our brains by newspaper front pages and TV and internet screens. It has two main components:

  1. Vastly exaggerate the real cost of “welfare” and falsely portray it as “spiralling out of control” (how this is done is explained here and here). Misleadingly include things like pensions in the total cost when you’re talking about unemployment. (This partly explains why people believe unemployment accounts for 41% of the “welfare” bill, when it accounts for only 3% of the total).
  2. Appeal to the worst aspects of social psychology by repeatedly associating a stereotype (the “benefits scrounger/cheat”) with the concept of “welfare”. One doesn’t have to be a prison psychologist to understand how anger and frustration are channeled towards those perceived as lower in the pecking order: “the scum”. (According to a recent poll, people believe the welfare fraud rate is 27%, whereas the government estimates it as 0.7%).


It’s a potently malign cocktail. When imbibed repeatedly, there’s little defense against its effects. Even those who depend on benefits come to view benefits recipients in a harshly negative light (see Fern Brady’s article for examples). Those politicians who aren’t naturally aligned with rightwing ideology go on the defensive – they talk about “being tough” and “full employment“. It just reinforces the anti-welfare framing.

The strangely puritanical – and deeply irrational – obsession with “jobs”, “hard-working families”, etc, at a time in history when greater leisure for all is more than a utopian promise (due to the maturation of labour-saving technology, etc) seems an integral part of the conservative framing – which is perhaps why many on the “left” find it difficult to provide counter-narratives.

But that would require another article. For now I’ll leave you with a short video explaining Basic Income – a fast-spreading idea which is highly relevant to the above. (Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently championed Basic Income as a “big idea” to unite the left).

Written by NewsFrames

April 8, 2013 at 8:35 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:



Several months after I posted the above article, Press Gazette ran a similar piece titled: ‘Groundhog day: Why Daily Express front pages may leave readers with a sense of deja vu’ (August 7, 2013). It has a different selection of examples of Daily Express front pages than mine (more on the health and weather themes, and some from the period when house prices was a constant headline subject). Here’s the link to it.

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

Daily Mail lies about strikes

Daily Mail lies about strikesNov 28, 2011 – Today’s Daily Mail headline reads: ‘NOTHING WILL STOP US FROM STRIKING’. The Mail adds that “unions won’t discuss a last-minute peace deal” and that “Union leaders have declared there is nothing the Government can do to avert the biggest strikes in a generation this week”. [See update #2 below – the Mail has rewritten its story]

The message is clear: “the unions are hell-bent on confrontation”“nothing” will stop them. (Incidentally, the Nov 30th strikes have massive public support according to polls from the BBC, Guardian, etc – but that’s not part of the Mail’s narrative).

What are the Mail’s statements based on? The report doesn’t mention the source, which is, in fact, an interview with Brendan Barber (TUC head) on BBC’s The Politics Show (27/11/11).

The Mail’s lie becomes clear when one compares its headline (and other statements) with what Barber actually said in the interview. (The following is my transcript of Jon Sopel’s interview with Brendan Barber and Francis Maude, starting at 12m 20s):

Jon Sopel (BBC): Mr Barber we’re about to speak to Francis Maude who is listening to this interview. Is there anything he could say that would get you to call off your action?

Brendan Barber (TUC): Well, at this stage I think that’s probably unlikely…

Sopel: So there’s nothing he can say?

Barber: What Francis Maude has to do, with his colleagues in government, is he has to give people confidence that there is a secure, fair pension going to be maintained for the future… at the moment people simply do not have that confidence…

Sopel: Mr Barber, sorry to interrupt you, isn’t that a rather extraordinary position that there is nothing that the chief negotiator [Maude] could say here on Sunday lunchtime that would get you to call off your action on Wednesday?

Barber: Well, he could certainly have a try… [Barber then outlines the specific policies being forced through by the government, which he wants them to reconsider] … if they’d really take a step back on some of these issues… but having talked to Mr Maude and his colleagues rather a lot over recent months, I fear he’s not prepared to say that – which leaves us with a real difficulty… Unless he comes up with something very surprising then, of course, the action will be going ahead this week.

Sopel: (now questioning Francis Maude): Have you got anything to say to Brendan Barber that might avert these strikes on Wednesday?

Maude: Yes, I’d say, Brendan, call it off. Now. (Listen to the rest of Maude’s comments, starting after 14m 20s).

As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, news frames often provide a narrative with a hero and a villain. This usually boils down to causation in some sense. Who is causing the thing which is making people angry? (And who is trying to prevent that thing from happening?). The “answer” is clear from the Mail’s headline. But since the Mail doesn’t even provide source details, it would be difficult for a casual reader to see that it’s a lie.

Alternative headlines:

Update #1, 28/11/11: The Sun has also run with this story (‘Unions chief: We won’t halt strike‘). The Sun is a bit more honest than the Mail – it accurately quotes Barber (“Well, at this stage I think that’s probably unlikely”) and mentions The Daily Politics as the source. The Sun’s first paragraph, however, contains the same lie as the Mail’s: “The leader of the TUC vowed yesterday there is NOTHING the Government can say to make unions call off Wednesday’s strike.”

Update #2, 28/11/11: The online version of the Daily Mail’s headline article (which I also link to above) has been completely rewritten since this morning. The lying headline has been replaced with something about Michael Gove. I’ve scanned the newspaper article, so you can see the original version here. Update #2b, 3/12/11: the online version appears to have been rewritten yet again on 29/11/11, this time with the focus on Ed Miliband rather than Michael Gove.

Update #3, 30/11/11: The Sun (on 29/11/11) asked TUC head Brendan Barber to write 200 words on the case for the strike. Apparently it was so good – so convincing – that the Sun wouldn’t publish it. You can read it here.

Written by NewsFrames

November 28, 2011 at 1:13 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, 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

How not to frame “workers”

How not to frame "workers"Oct 26, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph front page provides an example of the socially-dominant “worker” frame. The headline contains the first clue: “Give firms freedom to sack their slackers”. (This is the “finding” of a “report” commissioned by David Cameron – see update*). The Telegraph explains:

‘Under current regulations, workers are allowed to “coast along” and employers are left fearful of expanding because new staff may prove “unknown quantities” who are impossible to sack, the report says.’

Here’s the frame in a nutshell:

  • “Free market” means firms are free to manage their own resources.
  • Resources are acquired and disposed of – in a way which minimises costs, maximises “efficiency”, etc.
  • Labour is just another resource (as in “labour market”).

“Workers are resources”

Hidden by this metaphorical frame is the human experience of working in a job, and the distinction between meaningful activity and dehumanising work (not to mention work which physically harms). Orthodox economics of both right and left “treat labor as a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials, and speak in the same terms of its cost and supply” (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). Workers’ rights movements have fought against exploitation of workers (with some important successes) but have tended to implicitly accept this economic framing.

Work “ethic” plus

Linked to the “labour as resource” metaphor – in a sort of unholy neural coupling – is the moral framing of work which comes from religious traditions, most notably from the Protestant (or, rather, Puritan) Work Ethic. You don’t have to consciously subscribe to these religious beliefs to be affected – moral guilt over “laziness” seems to affect practically everyone in our society (but not in all societies – the framing isn’t universal).

And thus we arrive at these strange notions:

  • Work is morally virtuous regardless of the experience of the worker.
  • Firms should be “free” to make this experience even worse.

And so (to cut a very long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers” merged with market fundamentalism. And, to many, it looks just like “common sense”. Meanwhile, metaphorical terms such “flexible labour” (or worse, “cheap labour”) hide the reality of human degradation.

The Independent reveals that the author of the “report” (multi-millionaire venture capitalist, Adrian Beecroft) has interests which include “an online company offering payday loans at huge rates of interest”. The Independent quotes “Lib Dem sources” who called Beecroft an “ideological” figure: “He is a private individual who has produced a report not based on any evidence.”

Yet another case of someone with the “right” ideological views producing a Mickey Mouse “report” which becomes front-page news. For further examples, see my earlier piece on the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Written by NewsFrames

October 26, 2011 at 11:04 am

“Consumers too lazy”

Consumers too lazySept 17, 2011 – Today’s Times leads with the “news” that a minister has an opinion about lazy consumers. Specifically, Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, says that “Consumers must take some of the blame for high energy bills because they cannot be bothered to shop around for the best deals”.

Why is this front-page news for the Times? Presumably it’s not meant as an attack on Huhne in particular, otherwise the headline would be something like: ‘HUHNE – “STRUGGLING FAMILIES ARE JUST LAZY”.’

The millions of shoppers who glance at the Times headline today will see a message about LAZY CONSUMERS. It’s not the result of a poll or a scientific study. It’s someone’s opinion, and it’s a frame. Alternative frames might be LACK OF TRANSPARENCY in fuel costs, or CONSUMERS OVERCHARGED, (which convey something about market failures), etc. Another frame is REGULATOR SHORT OF POWER (the Times ran with this in a 2008 piece). Ofgem (the regulator) talks of CONSUMERS BAMBOOZLED by complex and unfair pricing. Labour focuses on PROFITEERING ENERGY COMPANIES.

But here we have LAZY CONSUMERS. So, the market works just fine – it’s the lazy consumers that cause the problems. How about: OVERWORKED CONSUMERS? That’s not an established frame (people are overworked, consumers simply shop). But it might help us to appreciate why many “consumers” “cannot be bothered” to “shop around” for the “best deals”. After all, it’s HARD WORK FATHOMING ENERGY PROVIDER BS.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Posted in Headlines, Times

“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