The Construction of News and the Framing of Dissent

The common perception of news production is that news reports events as or after they happen; a newsworthy event takes place and teams of journalists go out and report the case. This is of course true in some cases such as accidents and other unexpected events. However if a news team had to simply ‘wait’ for news to happen they might find that reality may not fit deadlines in a neat manner. Rather the reality is that news is often as not constructed by the news production team and then published or broadcast. A common version of this can be heard every morning on ‘Morning Ireland’ and most other radio stations. Minister X is interviewed at 8.45 on issue Y and the Nine O’Clock news follows with ‘Mister X stated Y’, this will then be followed up throughout the day with reactions to what Minister X said by opposition politician Z and so on. Minister X may have gone on the radio specifically to state Y, therefore being very much part of the news construction process. Teams of PR agencies and state communication departments spend their days constructing pre-prepared news items for the mainstream media (which are never marked as such); which leads to the direct subsidisation of news by powerful interests. This leads to the very obvious advantages of elites over the rest of society with an ability to shape news agendas and interpretations to suit their own interests.

The 1970s saw an upsurge in institutional studies of media companies often drawing from the sociology of work. These studies have shown how the ‘reality’ constructed by journalists may be what is more easily available or accessible to journalists (or important to journalists) rather than a reflection or mirror of reality (for example see Tuchman 1974, 1978). The construction of news is not a neutral event, work practices, access to sources and overarching ideologies influence how this news is constructed. The ‘news values’ or what is deemed newsworthy is intrinsically ideological as is the interpretation and framing of those events. As Roger Fowler (1991 p.2) succinctly puts it

What events are reported is not a reflection of the intrinsic importance of those events, but reveals the operation of a complex and artificial set of criteria for selection. Then the news that is thus selected is subject to processes of transformation as it is encoded for publication; the technical properties of the medium – television or newsprint, for example and the ways in which they are used, are strongly effective in transformation. Both ‘selection’ and ‘transformation’ are guided by reference, generally unconscious to ideas and beliefs.

The ideological nature of news construction has been clearly on show over the course of the water protests, the literally hundreds of water protests happening on a daily basis seem not to be deemed newsworthy; this clearly fits the mainstream frame of politics being something that happens in the corridors of power rather than on the streets.  Moreover when protests are covered there are common attempts to play them down or describe them as violent as witnessed by the so called ‘sinister fringe’ framing of the water protests. Violence by Irish Water staff, their security firms or police is not being reported in the Irish press. The protests and assorted violence is of course being watched via social media and has now been picked up by the UK based Vice.

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The examiner on Wednesday the 28th of January gave us a clear example of both news construction and framing. A protest the previous Friday (a full five days before) against President Michael D. Higgins had been held in a working class part of Dublin; during the protest some frankly childish insults had been thrown at the President and there had been evidence of pushing and shoving by the Police. The protest in itself however was not the story covered by the Examiner rather the newspaper interviewed Paul Murphy TD and asked him to denounce the protests. Murphy in a nuanced enough fashion said that he thought it was legitimate to protest the President as he had signed the Water Charges Bill and defended the right to protest but that he did not think it was tactically wise to do so, moreover he did not support personalised remarks against the President. The headline however was ‘TD defends Higgins Abusers’ which was misleading as it seems to imply Murphy had come out to defend all aspects of the protest rather than answer a question asked by the newspaper. Murphy was most likely targeted by the newspaper because of his role in a previous peaceful protest, which he had also refused to denounce.

examiner

The Examiner continued its construction of the story on Thursday the 28th with the front page headline; ‘Murphy Protest Remarks Spark Outrage’, this headline was even more insidious as one reading of it could imply that Murphy had a closer connection to the protest. The newspaper rather than Writing ‘Protest Remarks by Murphy Spark Outrage’ place the words Murphy and Protest together which means ‘Murphy’ could be read as an adjective or possessive implying a far closer connection, while this may be put down to simply poor style on the part of subeditors linguistically ‘Murphy Protest Remarks’ is a far stronger and more ideological statement than the ‘Protest Remarks by Murphy’ placing Murphy far closer to the protest than having simply answered a question that was put to him by the newspaper. Murphy himself has stated that he intends to officially complain to the Press Ombudsman about his treatment but the event in itself is extremely useful in reminding us about the role of the media as news factories rather than simply being objective reporters of daily life.

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Fowler, R. 1991. Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press. London and New York: Routledge.

Tuchman, G. 1978. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: Free Press.

Tuchman, G. 1974. The TV Establishment: Programming for Power and Profit. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

Ragbags and Reactionaries: A comparative analysis of the treatment of the ULA and Reform Alliance in five newspapers

On the second of January  Lucinda Creighton held a press conference to announce that she would launch a political party in two months, as of the launch the party had neither name nor policies but rather a hashtag  #rebootireland – which quickly and predictably backfired as the hashtag was mercilessly trolled. Nonetheless the mainstream media  jumped all over the announcement, some critically, and the story  has topped the news agenda for the last two days. It does have to be acknowledged that it is a slow news week which  is probably no accident considering the timing of Creighton’s ‘monster rally’ last year. Nonetheless if we compare this to the coverage on Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy’s recent call for a new  political alliance there was nothing like the wall to wall coverage.  Although there is some speculation on the possibility of a left slate in 2016 on social media, mostly uninformed it should be said, there has been little discussion in the mainstream media. In fact the possibility of a further left slate doesn’t seem to be on the media radar at all, bar the honorable exception of TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Browne.

Politicians of the left are not being put under any pressure from journalists about whether there will be a slate, they are not being questioned about whether talks are ongoing between groups or what their policies might be – something that presumably is of interest in the lead up to the general election and certainly of interest to those outside the political mainstream.  In polls, the left continues to be lumped in with the ‘Independents and Others’ group which itself is hardly scientific and not particularly informative. This is especially odd considering the recent development of one of the largest grass roots political movements in decades – the anti-water charge campaign, sections of which have been engaged in illegal acts of direct civil disobedience. From a party political point of view the Socialist Party has won seats in the two most recent by-elections. One could only imagine the coverage Lucinda Creighton would have if she and here group were involved in a mass movement and had won a number of by-elections.

The Irish political scene is changing with cracks appearing in the old edifice, the duopoly of power of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail  is being challenged by  Sinn Fein which, at least south of the border, is campaigning on a  left-Keynesian manifesto. The Labour Party is facing the abyss and there has been a  breakthrough of socialist groups and independents in the recent local elections and by-elections. On the streets the anti-water charges movement has brought literally hundreds of thousands out to demonstrate, yet the mainstream  media still remains focused on the possibility of yet another right wing party, and one based on a very shaky foundation.

To test this seemingly overt political bias we conducted some research comparing the treatment of two mass meetings, firstly the launch of the United Left Alliance which was held in the Gresham Hotel on the 29th of November in 2010, and secondly the  launch meeting of Lucinda Creighton’s Reform Alliance on the 25th of January in 2014. To compare the two alliances we looked at the press coverage of both groups and launches in five newspapers: The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Irish Examiner, The Sunday Independent and The Sunday Business Post. The period chosen is the month in the lead up to the two launches and two weeks thereafter. The two groups and meetings were chosen as they both had a generally similar social and political weight .It may be argued Creighton as an ex Minister and leading a split of seven government members added more political weight in terms of parliamentary politics, however it could be also be argued that the ULA with hundreds of political activists and two political groups with national branch networks had more social weight. As discussed in an earlier post that can be read here, the ULA received minimal attention with only ten articles (none of which covered the launch meeting) in the six week period. The articles made up a total of 1173 words in the entire period*.

ULAvsRAtotalartwc_final

On the other hand the Reform Alliance was covered in a total of 119 articles with a total wordcount of 55,213 words. The Reform Alliance received detailed and sometimes critical coverage, in fact as time went on it could be seen that the newspapers seemed to lose faith with the prospects of the alliance developing into a party at all. Generally though the Reform Alliance was treated in a neutral tone in the majority of articles (with a significant proportion treated negatively and a smaller number treated positively).

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So why is this important? After all hasn’t the mainstream media post-crisis lost much of its credibility? Hasn’t the water charge movement grown in spite of the mainstream media both playing it down and framing it negatively? And haven’t we bypassed the traditional  media with our own social media pages leaving less reliance on the traditional media to popularise issues and events? While some of that is partly true, it is also the case that the mainstream media still dwarfs, both in readership and resources, the alternatives. And the  issue of mainstream media influence remains important.  While the mainstream media may not be able to tell you what to think, it can still tell you what to think about. In other words it still plays a crucial agenda-setting role. In political terms media attention (even critical) can put a political group on the agenda and build up political profiles, or on the contrary it can treat a political group negatively or even worse ignore them completely.  The media can even help establish the very concept of what is political or not, for example the local meetings, marches and local events are not deemed to be political compared to the breathless mutterings of pol-cors on the latest minor parliamentary manouvers. Indeed street meetings, protests and anything involving the demos are oft as not framed as semi-criminal events to be feared. The entire framing of the parameters what is politically permissible or even possible is one of the clearest ideological roles of the mass media today. And again this research underlines the need, as difficult as it is, to fund and develop an alternative media sphere that can see beyond those parameters.

The fact that the media ignored the ULA in 2010 is hardly surprising, Irish political journalism doesn’t rate extra-parliamentary politics as politics at all and they were most likely unaware that the the left existed at all in 2010. Likewise, it is of no great surprise that sections of the media are fascinated by Lucinda Creighton; the semiotics of a young, blonde, articulate, middle-class ex-minister – the veritable Fine Gael poster-girl – are obvious and one wonders if Billy Timmons or Fidelma Healy-Eames were leading the group, would it get half the attention; but overall there seems to be an ultra-reactionary element around Independent News and Media pining for a populist strongman (or woman)  to sort out this country once and for all.

 *Articles are only counted when they are  about the ULA or RA, articles only mentioning the alliances are not counted.

Henry Silke 3/1/2015