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

Catherine Happer*a, Greg Philo*a

Abstract

The media play a central role in informing the public about what happens in the world, particularly in those areas in which audiences do not possess direct knowledge or experience. This article examines the impact the media has in the construction of public belief and attitudes and its relationship to social change. Drawing on findings from a range of empirical studies, we look at the impact of media coverage in areas such as disability, climate change and economic development. Findings across these areas show the way in which the media shape public debate in terms of setting agendas and focusing public interest on particular subjects. For example, in our work on disability we showed the relationship between negative media coverage of people on disability benefit and a hardening of attitudes towards them. Further, we found that the media also severely limit the information with which audiences understand these issues and that alternative solutions to political problems are effectively removed from public debate. We found other evidence of the way in which media coverage can operate to limit understanding of possibilities of social change. 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.

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. That is not to say that the media simply tell us what to think – people do not absorb media messages uncritically (Philo, 2008Philo, Miller, & Happer, in press). 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.

Research Context [TOP]

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. As certain knowledges have been promoted over others, they have effectively been given the privileged status of being authoritative and, in some cases, truthful (Fairclough, 2003Glasgow University Media Group, 197619801982Herman & Chomsky, 1994Van Dijk, 1998).

In terms of shaping content, we argue that a number of privileged groups contribute to the production of media accounts, including social and political institutions and other interest groups such as lobbyists and the public relations industry (Miller & Dinan, 20002009). 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. 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. In addition, they anticipate the way in which their words will be ‘mediated’ and reproduced in various media outlets. 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.g. content or effects of media) has often been examined separately, we explain here why it is important to analyse the inter-relations of each of these different components in any discussion of the media’s role in social change. We begin with media content.

Methods: Content Analysis [TOP]

Our approach is based on the assumption that in any controversial area there will be competing ways of explaining events and their history. 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. In the case of media coverage of migration, some arguments and the assumptions that they contain – for example, that a ‘large number’ of migrants constitute a ‘threat’ – may underpin the structure of specific news stories. 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. In past research we have shown, using this method, that news accounts can and do operate to establish specific ways of understanding (Briant, Philo, & Watson, 2011Philo, 1996Philo & Berry, 20042011).

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 ‘real’ motive for people coming might be posited as them seeking a better life or economic advantage. Britain is seen as a ‘soft touch’ for its benefit system, with inadequate laws or administrative structures, and the effect is an uncontrolled ‘flood’. 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. But a central part of our work and our development of new methods has been to show how such key thematic elements and the explanations which they embody can be abstracted from news texts and shown to impact upon audience understanding (Philo, 1990Philo & Berry, 2011Philo, Briant, & Donald, in press).

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. So, for example, in our work on Israel and Palestine (Philo & Berry, 2011), we found that in a content study of 89 news bulletins, there were only 17 lines of text (from transcribed bulletins) relating to the history of the conflict. When journalists used the word ‘occupied’, there was no explanation that the Israelis are involved in a military occupation. This led some viewers to believe that the Palestinians were the ‘occupiers’, since they understood the word only to mean that people were on the land. 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. Much of the news implicitly assumed the status quo – as if trouble and violence ‘started’ with the Palestinians launching an attack to which the Israelis ‘responded’. 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., 2011Philo, 1990Philo & Berry, 20042011). In the next section, we look specifically at media content.

The Shaping of Media Content [TOP]

The media response to the financial crisis of 2008 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 (2008) put it:

 

In January (2008), 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. The one word answer from a group that included the chairman of Lloyds, London… was ‘greed.’ As one participant put it: ‘Those running the big banks didn’t have the first idea what their dealers were up to, but didn’t care because the profits were so high. (p. 11)

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 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992, the Labour party rethought its brand and approach. As a result the party moved away from its traditional policies and sought to show that it was a ‘safe’ custodian of the de-regulated free market economy. In doing so it adopted a very supportive policy towards the financial sector (Philo, 1995). New Labour was elected to power in 1997 on the slogan ‘Things can only get better’, which was a reference to the perceived decline in public services and of corruption and sleaze in public life. New Labour would have a bigger safety net for the poor and spend more on health and the public sector. But nonetheless its new leader, Tony Blair, was seen as continuing Thatcher’s key economic policies, including deregulation of the City of London and the banking system.

Under Blair and his chancellor Gordon Brown (later British Prime Minister) the deregulation of the banks not only continued but was extended. The reasons for Labour’s supportive relationship with the finance industry were not simply electoral. 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. Will Hutton, British journalist and former Chief Executive of the Work Foundation, has argued that as London began to rise in the league tables of international finance, ‘New York and London were in an unseemly race to regulate less’ (Hutton, 2008, p. 2). 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. As Maurice Glasman of London Metropolitan University commented on Channel 4’s Dispatches:

 

The city of London is an extremely powerful institution, perhaps the most effective lobbyist, I think, in history. It’s a city government that represents one interest alone, which is the financial interest. (14th June 2010)

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. An added dimension is that in the most powerful unelected groups, such as the bankers themselves and other members of the financial class, are likely to have an immediate access to the BBC and other media outlets, because they are treated as ‘experts’ and important decision makers. 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 2008, many of whom had pensions and savings which were potentially threatened. The Daily Mail roared from its front page:

GREED THAT FUELLED A CRASH (14th October 2008)

The Sun’s headline was more succinct:

 

SCUMBAG MILLIONAIRES

Shamed Banked Bosses ‘Sorry’ For Crisis (11th February 2009)

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. As a test we developed a proposal to pay off the British national debt by having a one-off tax on the wealthiest 10% of the population. This group has private wealth of £4trillion (mainly in property and pensions). A tax of one fifth of this amount would have paid off the national debt which was around £800billion. 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.

The Glasgow University Media Group commissioned a YouGov poll on this which found that 74% of the UK population would be in favour of this approach. The Guardian covered the proposal (Philo, 2010) and the BBC featured it in marginal programmes such as The Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 (14th September 2010) and the Lunchtime Daily Politics on BBC 2 (15th September 2010). Such programmes often seek out what they see as extreme debate. On the Daily Politics, the proposal was introduced by the presenter as being from ‘cloud cuckoo land.’

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 Sunexplains in this editorial:

Many will ask if it is right that tax payers are forced to subsidise irresponsible borrowers and greedy banks. But what was the alternative? Neither America nor Britain could stand by and watch their economies disintegrate. (The Sun, 20th September 2008)

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:

David Cameron: stop seeking vengeance on bankers

Voters must stop seeking to “take revenge” on banks and accept they are vital to economic recovery, David Cameron said yesterday. (The Daily Telegraph, 15th January 2011)

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 2010. The central justification for this was that welfare spending was too high. A receptive popular media highlighted stories of ‘scroungers’ and ‘shirkers’, although the bulk of welfare cuts is in fact directed at the elderly and those in low-paid work. The banking crash and the intrinsic problems of the economic systems were replaced in the public agenda with other issues allegedly requiring urgent solutions – and groups other than the bankers being the target of political action (Briant et al., 2011Philo, Miller, & Happer, in press).

The Impact of Media Content on Public Belief and Attitudes [TOP]

We have shown the way in which public debate is shaped by ideological battles relating to powerful groups in society, but in what way does this highlighting of ‘preferred’ views and explanations influence audience understanding? A key aspect of our method has also been to study media content and processes of audience reception simultaneously, in order to understand the way in which audiences negotiate their beliefs and attitudes in response to media messages. These messages are not received uniformly by all audiences, and the level of influence that they have varies greatly. We have been interested in exploring the key factors in the capacity of audiences to accept or reject messages, and the consequences of this for the shaping of public understanding.

In 2011 the Glasgow University Media Group undertook a study of UK news coverage and attitudes and beliefs about disability and disabled people (Briant et al., 2011). This involved, firstly, a content analysis across comparable periods in 2004-05 and 2010-11, designed to track changes in style, content or volume across media coverage of policy change relating to disability benefits and, in particular, to highlight media responses to the recent cuts made by the UK coalition government. This work was complemented by an audience reception study to assess the way in which reporting was being negotiated by members of the public in terms of beliefs, perceptions and attitudes, and further to explore the key trends highlighted in the content study.

The analysis showed that, across the sample periods, there had not only been a significant increase in the reporting of disability in the print media, but this increase had been accompanied by a shift in the way that disability was being reported. The subject had become more politicised and there had been a reduction in the proportion of articles which described disabled people in sympathetic terms, whilst those focusing on disability benefit and fraud had grown. In our accompanying audience studies, we found that audience members’ ideas on what constituted a typical newspaper story on disability coincided with the findings of our content analysis, with benefit fraud being a key theme identified. They were also very clear on what the intended message was – but there were disagreements over whether it was believed. When we asked the groups to consider what the percentage of people who were fraudulently claiming disability benefits was the responses varied from ‘about 10%’ right up to 70%. The official figure is closer to 0.5% (DWP, 2013). When asked to justify where they got their figures from respondents talked about both newspaper articles (for example the informant above who estimated fraud to be at 70% cited an article in the Daily Express) but also referred to their own experiences, with almost all claiming that they knew people who were fraudulently claiming one form of disability benefit or another. However, as these comments suggest, the assumption of its widespread nature was not always related to a certainty about those actually claiming fraudulently, but a perception supported by the belief that the system is very easily manipulated:

Speaker 1: It’s really easy to fake symptoms. Or even bad backs.

Speaker 2: That’s the biggest one isn’t it, bad back?

Speaker 3: And if you want to defraud then ... people know don’t they, they know what to say and how to get round the system, so there’s a big increase in people knowing how to defraud the system.

Further, there was a great deal of resentment directed at the large numbers of people believed to be fraudulently claiming benefit:

Speaker 1: Makes you angry for people who work full time and there are loads of people who are scamming it… I mean when you’ve been scrimping and scrapping and yer man’s not too well, you know what I mean?

Speaker 2: They get the best of everything… Because they’re getting their rent paid… They’ve learned the system. You know there are people getting Chinese deliveries every night and you can’t afford it.

In this sense there was evidence that the media coverage, combined with the processes of logic (that the system was easy to defraud and therefore it was likely that people would do it), and claims of knowledge about specific cases resulted in the development of beliefs about disability and fraud. On the other hand, disabled people themselves expressed significant anger at some of the press reporting and at the accusations linking disabled people with scrounging and fraudulent claims. For some of these, the issue of disabled people not receiving the level of support they required was a bigger issue than fraud. In these cases, disabled people used their direct experience to reject the news message.

Direct experience was therefore a substantial factor in the negotiation of the media message. The power of the media message tended to be heightened in those cases in which there was no direct experience or other knowledge of an issue, and conversely to decrease when people had direct experience. In the disability study the large majority of those we spoke to had some experience of disability either through a close family member or close friends, many of whom had tried to get benefits and had failed. One participant, for example, talked about how hard it had been for her mother to get any benefits and another described the difficulties her partner had faced in trying to get access to the services he required. But this did not lead to a simple rejection of the of the media message – the power of the media message could remain and in fact, we found that audience members often held the two potentially competing beliefs at the one time – recognising the widespread and genuine hardships of disability but also believing that huge numbers were not deserving of benefits.

In a similar way, when we studied TV and press reporting of mental illness, we found that it focussed on violent incidents. People who worked in the area of mental health and who had professional experience tended to discount this media view and highlight that only a tiny minority of those with mental health issues were potentially violent. Yet there were also examples in which the fear generated by media coverage overwhelmed direct experience. In the following case a young woman described how she had worked alongside elderly people in a hospital. There people were in no way dangerous or violent yet she was afraid of them because of what she had seen on television:

The actual people I met weren’t violent – that I think they are violent, that comes from television, from plays and things. That’s the strange thing, the people were mainly geriatric – it wasn’t the people you hear of on television. Not all of them were old, some of them were younger. None of them were violent – but I remember being scared of them, because it was a mental hospital – it’s not a very good attitude to have but it is the way things come across on TV, and films – you know, mental axe, murderers and plays and things – the people I met weren’t like that, but that is what I associate them with (Philo, 1996, p. 104).

Across these studies, thus, we found that a number of factors including direct experience, knowledge from other sources, logic and the generation of fear or anger contributed to the degree to which audiences accepted or rejected the media message. A consistent theme is that where there is a lack of alternatives presented, the message is much less likely to be rejected.

Overall, the mainstream media in the UK have given very little space to views beyond those offered by the main political parties. In relation to the financial crisis, this has reduced the range of responses to a choice between having cuts now, as offered by the current coalition government, or having them later, as offered by the Labour party. This closing down of options may be seen to have affected public understanding of the necessity of the cuts, with successive polls showing that the majority support them, including those on welfare (ICM/Sunday Telegraph, 2012YouGov, 2012). A YouGov poll from 2010 (YouGov/ITN, 2010), the period in which our disability research was conducted, found that more than two thirds of the population ‘supported more stringent testing of people claiming disability living allowance’. Whilst social changes at the level of the current transformation of the welfare system do not require public support, they are certainly facilitated by it, and just as crucially by the elimination of active opposition. This is primarily because governments constantly strive for electoral support. In this sense the dual role of media coverage in generating public anger combined with the presentation of benefits cuts as an inevitable ‘solution’ to the economic crisis has made way for these quite radical social changes to be pushed through by limiting the potential for public resistance. While the interplay of public opinion, policy implementation, and social change is complex, the media can often play a legitimising role. In the next section, which looks at audience reception of media accounts of climate change, we introduce a further element to our analysis of media and social change: that of the key factors which influence individual and collective behaviour.

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