Good News: Social Ethics and the Press (Communication and Society)

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The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online | Pew Research Center

In our study of news reporting of climate change, we traced the way that the media have constructed uncertainty around the issue and how this has led to disengagement in relation to possible changes in personal behaviours. Finally, we discuss the implications for communications and policy and how both the traditional and new media might help in the development of better informed public debate. E-mail: Catherine. Happer glasgow. The media — television, the press and online — play a central role in communicating to the public what happens in the world. In those cases in which audiences do not possess direct knowledge or experience of what is happening, they become particularly reliant upon the media to inform them.

But they are key to the setting of agendas and focusing public interest on particular subjects, which operates to limit the range of arguments and perspectives that inform public debate. Drawing on a multi-dimensional model of the communications process, this article examines the role of the media in the construction of public belief and attitudes and its relationship to social change. We look at this both at the governmental level, in terms of change through policy action, and at the level of the individual, through commitments to behavioural change. Through discussions of findings from a range of empirical studies, we illustrate the ways in which the media shape public debate and input into changes in the pattern of beliefs.

The conditions under which people accept or reject a message when they are aware of a range of alternatives are fundamental to this process, and are discussed in depth. We then discuss the ways in which such attitudinal shifts facilitate changes at the level of policy. Finally, we examine the way in which audience beliefs and understandings relate to changes in commitments to alter individual behaviours in their intersection with structural support — and the impact of such changes for wider social change.


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The advent of digital media has shown that the world is made up of a mass of circulating, disjointed, and often contradictory information. An effective flow of information between the various distinct groups in the public sphere has historically been made possible by the mass media, which systematically edit and interpret the mass of information, making some sense of the world for audiences. These different groups intersect to shape the issues open to discussion, but the outcome can also severely limit the information to which audiences have access.

The media can effectively remove issues from public discussion. The analysis of media content — of what we are told and not told — is therefore a prime concern.

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But the relationship of media content to audiences is not singular or one-way. Policymakers, for example, can both feed information into the range of media, and also attempt to anticipate audience response to the manner in which policy is shaped and presented. The key point is therefore that all of the elements involved in the communications circuit intersect and are dynamic. Whilst in past research each element e. We begin with media content. Our approach is based on the assumption that in any controversial area there will be competing ways of explaining events and their history.

The Role of the Media in the Construction of Public Belief and Social Change

These often relate to different political positions and can be seen as ideological if they relate to the legitimation of ways of understanding that are connected to social interests. In this way, ideology meaning an interest-linked perspective and the struggle for legitimacy by groups go hand in hand. Our method begins by setting out the range of available arguments in public discourse on a specific subject. We then analyse the news texts to establish which of these appear and how they do so in the flow of news programming and press coverage.

Some may be referenced only occasionally or in passing while others occupy a much more dominant position, being highlighted in news headlines or in interview questions or editorials. The story is organised around this way of understanding migration, and the different elements of the story such as interviewees, the information quoted, the selection of images and editorial comment, all work to elaborate and legitimise it as a key theme.

News may appear as a sometimes chaotic flow of information and debate but it is also underpinned by key assumptions about social relationships and how they are to be understood. At the heart of these are beliefs about motivations, cause and effect, responsibility and consequence. So a newspaper report on people seeking asylum might make assumptions on each of these.

The responsibility is with politicians for failing to stop it and the consequences are that great burdens are placed on British society. There are many flaws and false assumptions in such a chain of understanding. In our content analyses we break down the text to identify the major subject areas which are pursued in the news, and then examine the explanatory frameworks which underpin them.

This qualitative approach involves detailed analysis of key explanatory themes in headlines and the text of news programmes and newspaper articles. We examine the preference given to some arguments in that they are highlighted by journalists or are repeatedly used or referred to across news reports. Further, while there was extensive coverage of the violence, there was very little analysis of the nature and causes. The practical effect was to remove the rationale for Palestinian action. This study showed the way in which the Palestinian perspectives were effectively marginalised in the debate, and the Israeli perspectives promoted.

In some studies we make a quantitative assessment of the presence of such themes across news reporting by counting the use of specific phrases and meaningful terms. On this basis we are able to give an account of the exact language used to develop specific themes and the manner in which the dominance of some was established.

This is then cross-related to our audience research by a process of asking focus group members to write headlines on the subject in question. We have used this approach in a number of studies and typically participants are able to reproduce spontaneously from memory the key themes which we have established as present in media accounts Briant et al.

In the next section, we look specifically at media content. The media response to the financial crisis of and its aftermath illustrates the way in which competing ideologies battle for legitimacy. The key instigator to the crisis was that global banks had leant huge sums of money to inflated property markets, mainly in the USA but also in the UK and other parts of Europe.

These loans were often given to people and institutions that would not be able to repay them. It has been argued that the pursuit of profit, and disproportionate bonuses, meant that the deals were being pushed through, and risks ignored. As Elliot and Atkinson put it:. In January , panellists at the World Economic Forum in Davos were asked how the big banks of North America and Europe had failed to spot the potential losses from sub-prime lending. In the UK, the Labour party would have, in the past, been the political party most likely to criticise such a development and the behaviour that caused it.

For most of the twentieth century the Labour party was socially democratic and believed that free market profiteering should be curbed, that the people as a collective should own key sectors of industry and commerce and the rights of working people should be defended. However, after election defeats to the Conservatives in , , and , the Labour party rethought its brand and approach.

In doing so it adopted a very supportive policy towards the financial sector Philo, New Labour would have a bigger safety net for the poor and spend more on health and the public sector.

NEWS MEDIA AND THE NATIONAL PUBLIC AGENDA

Under Blair and his chancellor Gordon Brown later British Prime Minister the deregulation of the banks not only continued but was extended. The finance sector, based in London, is very powerful and can impose pressures on governments with the often repeated argument that it can be relatively mobile in response to less than favourable conditions within any nation state.

The City of London exerts substantial political power, perhaps more so than any other non-governmental sector, and even well-intentioned governments can be extremely nervous of very wealthy individuals and institutions that can move huge sums of money in and out of economies.


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The city of London is an extremely powerful institution, perhaps the most effective lobbyist, I think, in history. But what was the impact of these social, political and commercial relationships on media coverage of the banking crisis? The bulk of the British press is privately owned and the free market and deregulation has consistently been supported by the Murdoch-owned press including The Sun and The Times as well as the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

The Daily Mirror is traditionally more left-wing, but also supportive of the Labour party. Whilst we also have to make the qualification that these are commercial businesses and have to connect with audiences in order to generate sales, it is the case that the majority of the mainstream press were pre-disposed to promote policies on the neo-liberal end of the spectrum. The case is more complex with the British public service broadcaster, the BBC, which is also a key supplier of public information through its television — and less so online — services.

The range of political arguments which appear on the BBC are shaped by its own definition of democracy. The basis for this is that the population vote for elected representatives and the BBC then features these representatives on television and radio and what they say constitutes the limits of democratic debate. In other words, TV debate is mostly limited to the views of the three main parties in Britain, the Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. But since all of these have become wedded to free market philosophy, the discussion of alternatives to this approach becomes very sparse.

Therefore, across the majority of the media the bankers, private enterprise and high profits were celebrated. The economy appeared to be booming, house prices rose and the New Labour government had increased tax revenues to spend on health and education. The result of these factors is that when the crash occurred, those who appeared in the mainstream media to discuss solutions tended to be those who are most supportive of — or drawn from — the system which created the problems.

The British mainstream press did reflect the anger felt by its readers in response to the crash in , many of whom had pensions and savings which were potentially threatened. The Daily Mail roared from its front page:. But amidst the fury, there are no demands here for alternative solutions, such as taking back the bonuses through a wealth tax, or taking the bulk of the financial sector into public ownership.

This exclusion of debate about radical alternatives to cuts, such as taxing the bankers or other wealthy groups, is entirely irrespective of the potential popularity of these policies. This would reduce the deficit because government spending includes interest paid on the debt and because the proposal would avoid the cuts.

Without these, there would be less unemployment and therefore more tax revenue. Such programmes often seek out what they see as extreme debate. These more radical solutions lay outside the media debate amongst those who were asked to contribute. In essence, the message was that the bankers were indeed at fault but there is no alternative. As The Sun explains in this editorial:. Many will ask if it is right that tax payers are forced to subsidise irresponsible borrowers and greedy banks.

Social Media

But what was the alternative? Neither America nor Britain could stand by and watch their economies disintegrate. The Sun , 20th September The argument is then taken further by David Cameron who, as Prime Minister, argued that we must stop attacking the bankers. In the Daily Telegraph he was reported as saying:.

The Daily Telegraph , 15th January In the face of such structures of power, the media acts more as a release for frustration and discontent rather than a forum to explore potential alternatives. No transformation of the economy or the banking system is considered viable and the solution became simply to cut public spending — a key priority of the UK coalition government elected in The central justification for this was that welfare spending was too high.