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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for the ‘Headlines’ Category

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

Hit by media metaphor

Hit by media metaphorOct 3, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph provides a good example of a media metaphor for causation: “Minimum wage hits jobs for young”. “Hits” is a primary metaphor which expresses causation in terms of direct physical action (eg muscular force). Metaphors of this type tend to strengthen our over-simplistic (and often false) notions of causality between complex phenomena.

It’s commonplace in our thinking to see one thing as the direct cause of another, and in this way we impose narrative structure onto large-scale abstractions where it might not actually exist. In this particular case, complexities and indirect “systemic” factors in whatever “causal relationship” exists between minimum wage and youth-unemployment are excluded by the conceptual metaphor, “hits”.

Metaphorical framing doesn’t just map words from one conceptual domain to another. It also imposes (in a genuinely restrictive way at the “neuron-firing” level) certain inferences and reasoning. In the example “A hits B” (where both A and B are complex sociological phenomena, largely abstract constructions), inferences concerning direct, forceful action are activated according to the “hits” metaphor. Reasoning and inferences for indirect, “systemic” forms of “causation” are not part of this neural mapping. (Note that these processes are occurring rapidly and outside of conscious awareness).

George Lakoff has argued at length (in his book, Whose Freedom) that conservative moral views tend to correlate more with “direct causation” framing, whereas “progressive” frames enable us to think more easily in terms of “systemic causation”. Social, economic and political policies are, of course, based on assumptions about causation.

It can’t be repeated often enough that conceptual metaphor/framing is not just about language and “spin”. There are no clever deconstructions to be made here. But there is a more fundamental point about how media metaphors shape our reasoning at a level we’re generally not aware of.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

October 3, 2011 at 10:06 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

“Scrounging families”

"Scrounging families"Sept 2, 2011 – The BBC reports this story under the headline, ‘NUMBER OF WORKLESS HOUSEHOLDS FALLS’. The Express goes with “SCROUNGING FAMILIES’, “anger” and “fury” – and again quotes the rightwing pressure group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance (a regular source of framing for the UK press).

Here’s the first paragraph on the Express’s front page (2/9/11):
“ANGER at the scale of Britain’s ­benefits culture erupted last night after official figures showed there are nearly four million households where no one works.”

So, “anger erupted” at these official figures (from the Office for National Statistics, ONS). Whose anger erupted? Here’s what the ONS figures actually show (courtesy of an ONS graph):

ONS workless 1996-2011

Note the fall in “workless households” since 1996, followed by an increase coinciding exactly with the recent recession (shaded bar).

Perhaps “anger erupted” over something else. The fourth paragraph on the Express front page says: “The ­figures yesterday triggered renewed fury at the £180billion annual welfare benefits bill being picked up by taxpayers.”

This is the standard, misleading device of citing the total welfare bill in a story about the unemployed. It’s misleading because only a small fraction of this amount goes on unemployment benefits (£6.6bn directly in 2010; two-thirds of the total welfare figure goes on people over working age, and there are various benefits for those who have jobs, and contribution-based benefits that need to be taken into account, etc).

The welfare-as-crime frame

The Express front page talks of “the culture of benefits dependency that was allowed to spiral out of control under the previous Labour government.” The spiralling “out of control” of an immoral “culture” evokes the crime frame. Politicians and media often use a “criminal offender” type of lexicon to talk about welfare recipients. This tendency seems to go back a few decades at least, although I suspect media analysis would show it to be increasing in recent years (in the same way that use of terms such as “benefit cheats” has increased). Thus, government advisers were quoted by the Times (17/9/99) as saying that “penalties for the persistent unemployed will be harsher”. Terms such as “hardcore” are applied to “persistent” unemployed. Benefits are being framed as a moral issue – this is how “anger” and “fury” are induced, via moral outrage. The implication is that punishment is the cure (and that, therefore, people shouldn’t complain about getting their benefits cut).

(Updates: a later Daily Express headline used a different type of welfare-crime association: “1.2M CRIMINALS GET BENEFITS”. Also, Tony Blair used the odd phrase “hard core of socially excluded families”).

“Spiralling out of control”? 

Back to reality (or at least to statistical representations of it). We should be looking at welfare spending as a proportion of GDP, not in “absolute” terms:

Uk welfare spending 1950-2011 This chart is taken from the excellent UK Public Spending website. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for “fury” here. Perhaps the Daily Express editors need to take an anger management course? And perhaps they should stop acting as a propaganda outlet for the rightwing TaxPayers’ Alliance group…

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 2, 2011 at 10:28 am

The new “unconscious” (part 1)

The "new" unconsciousSept 1, 2011 – Today’s Mail headline will provoke diverse reactions: indifference, confusion, curiosity, anger, guffaws, etc. The word “anarchists” alone denotes a highly “contested” concept, leading to different responses.

Cognitive science uses the term “cognitive” to refer to all the mental operations involved in such responses.* It holds that the vast majority of these are “unconscious”. This isn’t the Freudian or Jungian “unconscious” – it’s something new in scientific terms (starting around the 1970s). It owes more to empirical research than to sexual/poetic insights (of Freud, Jung etc).

The “cognitive unconscious” has huge implications for philosophy and psychology. And also for “media studies”. One such implication is that it’s not all about “intelligence”. A common (but ignorant) criticism regarding “framing” analysis is that it assumes people are “stupid”, susceptible to “spin”, that they can’t think for themselves, etc. This criticism typically comes from tabloid newspaper editors when confronted with the charge that their headlines induce fear and hatred.

Cognitive science tells us that these reactions of fear and hatred have little to do with the relative stupidity/intelligence of readers. In fact, a high IQ is no defense against having such reactions, since the cognitive processes which underlie them are mostly unconscious. What’s required as a defense is knowledge of these processes, which comes from empirical research. That’s what the field of “frame semantics” is about.

Of course, there are a lot of stupid people around, but that’s a different topic…

* This is a different usage of “cognitive” than in traditional philosophical discourse, where it refers only to conceptual or propositional thought. In cognitive science, “cognitive” may even include physical, bodily processes which underlie our conscious experience.

Written by NewsFrames

September 1, 2011 at 8:54 am

If the headline is big enough…

Another headline on high pay in public sectorAug 30, 2011 – The title of today’s entry is from Citizen Kane: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough!”

Not that high pay in the public sector isn’t a valid news story. One wonders, though, when three newspapers (Express, Mail, Telegraph) all lead with stories on public-sector pay (over the course of 6 days) – particularly given the other newsworthy situations occurring on the planet.

The Telegraph quotes a Tory politician: “Ordinary people will be outraged that bonuses are being paid at all in the public sector…”. Compare the quote from another Tory in the Mail’s front-page coverage of a similar story, five days ago: “…this sort of generosity would not be found in the private sector”.

An interesting topic for academic study would be the timing of news stories. Why are we supposed to be thinking, right now, about high pay in the public sector? Why did the MPs’ expenses scandal get reported just when public outrage over the bail-out of banks was peaking? Without empirical studies, we’re left with useless speculation, “conspiracy theory” and Citizen Kane. Fnord.

Written by NewsFrames

August 30, 2011 at 9:06 am


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