This was originally posted to my old blog on 20 February 2017.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall suggested that mediated information must be examined through the lens of what he dubbed the Circuit of Culture:
The circuit shows how every element influences and is influenced by every other element. Nothing stands alone, nothing escapes the effect of the discourse in which the message is delivered. Let’s examine an article I saw shared on Twitter through the lens of this circuit. You can read it here. I’ll wait (but I also summarise the content below).
Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:
What, more or less, does this article say?
I want to summarise and highlight the following reported facts:
Village vigilante who informs on illegally parked cars dubbed a ‘prat’ by furious traders
Take note also of the sidebar in red text on the left, in this snip of how the article is presented:
A summary of the content:
An anonymous vigilante has caused outrage in a village by reporting illegal parking. Many drivers were consequently fined. The mystery vigilante “has been accused” of going around looking for illegally parked cars to report to the traffic warden. Drivers “popping into shops” have been reported by the “informer, making them and traders furious”.
The anger of a trader who wrote a strongly worded letter is described.
It is mentioned more than once that attendants of a pantomime were “reported and given tickets”.
“The issue has become so heated and caused so much outrage in the village, councillors have held talks with parking officers over concerns too many tickets will deter shoppers.”
A Conservative councillor is quoted saying that the matter has caused a lot of upset, that she agrees people should park correctly but that “the biggest thing about Rottingdean is the survival of the High Street. ‘Anything that upsets that is not welcome. Traders are having a hard time and there are a lot of empty shops at the moment.'”
The final paragraph states: “Parking compliance in the village is considered by Brighton and Hove City Council, East Sussex, to be ‘quite good’, with just 162 tickets issued in six months.”
Two images are included, a councillor interviewed about the matter:
And a photo of an “angry letter” penned and displayed by one of the traders interviewed:
Who created this message?
The Article appeared in The Telegraph, a UK newspaper known to have a politically conservative slant. It is considered a broadsheet rather than a tabloid. We’ll look at the significance of its perceived political association in more detail later.
What makes it newsworthy?
The issue is framed as one that threatens the livelihoods of traders in the village. Since the 2008 financial collapse, economic struggle has been an emotive topic, at the forefront of people’s minds in Britain. The village in question is on the South coast of England, within commuting distance of London. While this area has not felt the impact of the financial crash as much as places farther North, the fear and insecurity brought about by the collapse is widespread.
Moreover, drivers are a a dominant social group in the UK. Most people travel by car, and therefore see the world from the perspective of drivers. The article focuses entirely on the perspective and interests of drivers, framing the story as being about a mean-sprited “prat” causing hardship for motorists.
What creative techniques are used to draw one’s attention?
The use of a borderline profanity uses shock value to grab the attention. There is also a photo of a “strongly worded letter” which a “furious trader” had put up in a window.
How might different people understand this message ‘differently’?
This is where it gets interesting, and where the blunt bias of the reporting becomes obvious. Imagine if you’re a wheelchair user, or a parent who regularly pushes their child in a pram. You may view the issue of illegal parking in a very different light from the frame chosen by the writers of the article in the Telegraph. This Louth Leader article, for instance, takes a very different tack, accusing drivers in the headline of being irresponsible. The article describes the frustration of a wheelchair user who finds drivers parking illegally impair his ability to get around.
The facts are that people broke the law, got reported, and in many cases were fined as a result. We don’t know from the article whether there is a shortage of legal parking spaces in the village, which may have been another way to frame the story. So we could have written the headline as follows:
Anonyous Hero Takes On Scoff-Law Drivers
Lack of Parking Leaves Fined Motorists Furious
Lack of Parking Threatens Village Traders
The story could have been framed differently, either through the lens of those who would sympathise with the person reporting the violations, or sympathise with motorists but suggest poor infrastructure is to blame (and by implication the councillors or government officials responsible for its development), or sympathise with traders and suggest blame as described above. It could even be shown from the perspective of a quaint village being overrun by illegal parkers. That begs the question:
Why was the article in the Telegraph framed the way it was?
Representation and Identity
The identity of the paper’s readership is politically conservative. This political view corresponds with a neoliberal philosophy, in which focus is on smoothing the way for the wealthy and powerful first and foremost, arguing that their prosperity will benefit all. Conservatism is also linked to support for driving over green transport, and for lack of support or concern for social welfare – those most reliant on walking for transport, and therefore most likely to be adversely affected by illegal parking, are often in a lower socio-economic band, a class for which politically conservative people have little sympathy (pp. 8-11). Drivers are generally considered the more powerful and wealthy, with greener transport options such as walking and cycling sometimes associated with a lower socio-economic status, while car ownership confers (p.7) prestige and status. It should not be surprising then that there is a correlation between liberalism, which is more associated with socialism, and support for cycling and walking. The framing of the article can therefore be seen as catering to the views of the target consumers, and conforming to the current dominant discourse surrounding traffic and transport issues.
The person who reported the parking violations is called a prat (though of course this is presented as a quote from a trader). This term is used or shown five times in the report: in the headline, twice in the written content, in a photo of a hand-written note, and in a prominent, highlighted sidebar. This person is also called a vigilante and an informer – both terms laden with negative associations.
In the course of production, interviews were only conducted with people whose views aligned with that of a frame that may have been chosen before the reporter even arrived to collect data on the matter. No attempt at neutrality or balance is evident.
The article is distributed online, and I have been unable to ascertain if it was also included in a print version of the paper. If so, it is possible space restriction could have played a role in its production.
It also seems the identity of the person who reported the crimes is not known, though the writer of the “strongly worded letter” refers to a gentleman, and elsewhere a business owner is quoted as referring to a man. The person who reported the crimes could therefore likely not have been interviewed for their point of view, and to explain what motivated their actions. The journalist may not have had the means to travel to the village and gather first hand data – everything in the article could have been gathered by phone, email, and other remote means. This may have restricted their ability to find people with opposing views, or to notice and follow up such problems as insufficient legal parking spaces.
This refers not only to government laws, policies, and rules; but also to more subtle “unwritten” rules which dictate “what is considered acceptable and unacceptable within a given cultural context” (quote from class notes distributed by my lecturer). On the face of it, people broke the law, were reported, and were fined, and other people were angry because they believe this enforcement of the law will impact their livelihood. Because the law-breakers were drivers and the law they broke is considered socially acceptable to ignore, the person reporting the crime is painted as the villain. Consider what sentiments would be if the law-breakers were a gang of thieves. If a trader complained about the impact on their business if the thieves were jailed, it is unlikely the resulting story would be framed as the “prat” vigilante daring to report transgressions of the law.
The cultural context and regulation allows for law-breakers to be portrayed as the victims and the person reporting their infractions to be portrayed as the villain.
While the article skirts dangerously on stoking hatred against the person who reported the violations, and an extremely one-sided view is presented, no official laws or regulations are broken.
This article is available online, and it is a written news item. As discussed, the readership is thought to be mostly politically conservative, and likely to be drivers who will be able to decode the message through their frame of reference and experience, which will enable them to sympathise with the emotions felt by drivers fined for parking illegally.
However, the internet is a wider thing than just the intended readership of the Telegraph. I laid eyes on the article because it was shared on Twitter by an account dedicated to advocating for the case of pedestrians and cyclists, placing particular emphasis on how they are endangered and marginalised by the behaviour of drivers. They in turn were retweeting someone who shared the link to the article, whose profile picture is of someone cycling, and whose description is “Likes bikes.” Their comment: “Not all heroes wear capes.”
Not all heroes wear capes https://t.co/Nice17FrrC
— Steve Cromwell (@steveocrom) February 18, 2017
My own bias is no doubt clear in my analysis. As someone who cycles or walks everywhere I go, I often experience first hand the frustration and sometimes danger caused to me as pedestrian by motorists parking illegally. I therefore read the article through that frame of reference. It is not possible to escape our biases, but we must recognise them and actively try to be fair and balanced in both the messages we send, and in our assessment and analysis of the messages we receive.