In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. Some academics did, with Daniel Boorstin probably at the forefront of this group, predicting much of the modern day news dilemma in his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. Yet most people were not prepared for the rise of “fake news”, the impact of news as entertainment, the level of sophistication with which audiences are analysed and manipulated, the impact on politics. In light of the last few years’ events, it’s fair to ask: can the news media continue to act as producers of meaning whilst remaining within the structures of formal rules about impartiality?
To answer this question, let’s analyse two news reports. Both are focused on the same event: the Berlin Christmas Market attack that took place on 19 December 2016. The first video is from Sky news, a privately owned news broadcaster. The second video is from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a public broadcaster. Both reports were published on 20 December, the day after the attack, and on the surface the two reports seem very similar. However, closer analysis shows many differences in the narrative created.
Events, Media Events, and Pseudo-Events
Boorstin posited that there are:
- Events – that which happened
- Media Events – that which would probably have happened, but takes on certain peculiarities because of media presence
- Pseudo-Events – that which is staged specifically to be reported on, without reporting it would not happen
Was the Berlin Christmas Market attack a media event, or even a pseudo-event? Would Anis Amri have been instructed by a terrorist organisation to carry out the attack if they didn’t know media coverage was guaranteed? If so, how was the nature of the attack affected by the knowledge of the usual style of media coverage? While no more than speculation can be offered to answer these questions, they are worth asking. To what extent is terrorism motivated or affected by the media?
Both channels selected to report on this story, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The reports were both compiled by broadcasters targeting residents of the United Kingdom, and English-speaking audiences farther afield. The attack in Berlin was likely of interest to most Europeans and probaby also to Americans and Canadians – the societal group often referred to as “The West”.
The BBC is publically owned, while Sky was founded by magnate Rupert Murdoch, who owns 39% of the company and eleven days before publication of the clips in question was reported to have made a bid for a complete takeover. Murdoch is associated with far right broadcaster Fox News, and tabloid newspapers such as The Sun in the UK. While the UK has rules of impartiality in force for both public and private broadcasters, Sky is viewed as leaning towards conservative values. The Conservative party in the UK was only a few months past a vote to leave the European Union.
The influence of ownership is clear in the construction of the messages. For example, the BBC’s report opens with the fact that a lorry had, for the second time that year, been used as a weapon. The Sky report mentions the fact nearer the end of the report, with little emphasis, and the caveat “appears to”. This choice can be seen as due to private ownership of the broadcaster. The reporters at Sky are beholden to a business mogul who would in turn want to promote the interests of people he considers friends or business associates, with a lorry a symbol of commerce and trade. Emphasising the use of a lorry as a weapon is undesirable from a business mogul’s perspective: should anyone decide to act on this with access restrictions on heavy goods vehicles, it would have a negative effect on business owners. In contrast, emphasis of the fact that the weapon in the attack was a lorry is desirable from a social interest perspective, and if acted on could have a positive effect on society, by making people safer. This shows a bias towards social interest with the public broadcaster, and bias towards business interests with the private broadcaster.
The decision to report, and the amount of time and effort put into the report, were affected not only by the nature of the event and ownership of the broadcaster, but also by its relevance to the main target market of both channels: residents of the United Kingdom. The message is shaped to tell people what they want to hear, and to tell people what the controllers of the medium want them to hear. A number of creative decisions imbibe the Sky report with an underlying message of how the British citizen’s foray into Germany led to her being in danger, and that danger moreover is linked to Germany’s refugee policy. Just months before, fear of being completely overrun by immigrants and refugees played a major part in the Brexit vote. At the time of the report Article 50 had not yet been triggered, but was rumoured to be due to be triggered early in 2017. The ruling Conservative party therefore would benefit from a continued inflation of the immigrant/refugee fear among UK citizens.
Use of Language
This subtle framing of the narrative as one of troubled Europe is clear throughout Sky’s report. The featured expert points out that Europe had been warned, the reporter then mentions the truck had Polish number plates, and closes with a statement referring to people waiting to hear if terrorists have spilled more blood on Europe’s streets. The word German is used only once in the whole report (“German police say…” at 1:12), while the word Europe is used twice. The only accents heard are British, the only language heard is English. A narrative is created of this being a Europe affair, a threat associated with being part of the continent, with familiar British voices describing the horror of this event in Europe.
The BBC report frames the narrative as a European issue, but with emphasis on humanising the victims. The reporter uses the words Berlin (1x), Germany (1x), Germans (1x), and makes reference to how the country looks to France’s similar experience and sets the same goal – to not let terror disrupt their way of life. In contrast to the Sky report, one eyewitness speaks with a clear German accent and the other with a partial German accent. Furthermore, footage of Germany’s Chancellor is shown, addressing a press conference in German (translated into Australian-accented English), and their Interior Minister also speaking German, the translator in this case having an English accent. A priest is also shown making a statement in German, the reporter explaining his clearly emotional statement. The overall effect is an emphasis on the family aspect of Europe, the ties between the direct victims and the whole world.
Both reports use amateur footage and commentary to create the illusion of real-ness and an insider insight into what happened. However, Sky relied only on British witnesses, while the BBC played audio from a witness with a clear German accent, and footage from another witness who looks as if they could be of middle eastern origin, whose accent is less definitively German. This can again be understood to be an effort on the part of Sky to create rapport with their audience, while the BBC either tries to create a sense of unity with European compatriots, whose emotions in this incident would be easy to identify with; or is attempting to accurately report on the event as an attack on Germans, not UK citizens, and an attack that hurt everyone, including people of middle eastern origin.
It is notable that Sky’s clip used a female reporter, and two female witnesses, while the BBC’s clip used a male reporter and two male witnesses. This could have been a coincidence, but may have been a deliberate choice to create a certain meaning. Women are often considered more vulnerable due to their physiological differences from men. From a patriarchal point of view, their position is close to that of possessions. A threat to them is a challenge to masculinity and a threat to the social group, because of their role in reproduction. The terror of “they’re going to rape our women” is a common theme in far right political thinking, and opting to feature two female witnesses and a female reporter acts as a “dog whistle” to this mindset. In more academic terms, there may be a juxtaposition of British females alarmed and threatened with the devastation of the Berlin attack to evoke a connotation of threat to the self, to “us”, with this threat to a different country.
The BBC report uses similar connotative communication, pointing out that the location of the attack is near a church ruin serving as reminder of the “savagery” of World War Two. This is likely to speak particularly to a well informed viewer with a liberal mindset, who is more likely to be aware of the extent of the bombing endured by German citizens towars the end of the war, and such incidents as the Dresden firestorm. Including this reference, followed directly by a German priest barely able to hold back tears, making reference to France and pleading for life to not be stopped, can equally be seen as a “dog whistle”, but to the liberal mind: the suffering of the ordinary people in World War Two made no distinction with regards to nationality. It was a universal experience. The suffering caused by the Berlin attack, too, is a universal experience. The enemy aims to disrupt or end life as it is, and resisting that goal is a common purpose which should transcend borders and nationalities.
While I believe a bias is clear in Sky’s reporting, I believe a bias is also clear in the BBC’s reporting. Yet an identifiable effort is also made by the BBC to include all facts. Their report does not shy away from naming the nationality of the suspect, and directly addresses the elephant in the room: the contentious feelings around refugees pouring into Europe, and this attack on a country seen as particularly welcoming to them.
Viewing the two reports one after the other it is clear that each broadcaster uses deliberate and perhaps in some cases unconscious communication techniques to create a narrative supporting a preferred meaning. It demonstrates the value of gathering information on which to base our understanding of the world beyond our lived experience from more than one source. Even a source that is publically owned and committed to neutrality cannot escape bias in its reporting. If we only ever watch Sky, or only the BBC, we can become unaware of a contradicting opinion. This holds true also if we get our news from a few different sources, but they all hold the same bias. We can live in an illusion of being well informed, while in fact only hearing different sources say the same thing.
Considering the above analysis, is it possible now to answer our original question?I believe we can.
First, with modern sophistication in communication techniques and audience analysis, media has become one of the most powerful tools in history. It should be regulated and controlled to limit the extent to which it can be used to manipulate the masses, with full knowledge that such regulation can never do more than curb its abuse. Sky News is a good example of a privately owned broadcaster at least restrained by regulation: its bias has to be subtle, and there is at least a regulatory body holding them accountable. In contrast, America’s Fox News is an example of a virtually unregulated privately owned broadcaster. Their effect on public opinion and politics, and their virtual immunity from consequences even when their presenters tell outright lies, has been examined extensively. Both Sky News and BBC are bound by legal requirements for neutrality. These rules keep Sky from bias as rampant as seen on America’s Fox News, and provide an additional incentive and standard for the BBC.
In this milieu, where broadcasters are obligated by law to strive for impartiality, news media can indeed continue to act as producers of meaning, and remain within the structures of formal rules about impartiality. I believe, however, that they will fall short of the ideal more often than they don’t. With a public as informed and exposed to media as we are today, it is difficult to avoid connotations and the construction of meaning even when you are actively trying not to. Yet the value of the exercise is not in succeeding, but in trying.
We need the stories of humanity mediated to the point where we can understand the world outside our lived experience. Media has an important role to play, and should be supported through imposed standards encouraging broadcasters to strive for neutrality. The problems of rampant bias and political control must additionally be addressed through a shift in policy to where media literacy is considered as vital a basic skill as reading and mathematics.