The Media: Masking advocacy with carefully managed language

This is an adapted version of a longer essay looking at combining a Propaganda Model based media analysis with a Conversation Analysis approach to analysing news interview interaction. The subject is a series of Prime Time Late Debate programmes which aired in February (and which we looked at at the time), about a month prior to the last election.

Impartiality (often used interchangeably with neutrality) is considered a cornerstone of modern professional journalism. The BBC’s Director of News Helen Boaden recently commented: ‘[BBC] ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have […] continued to rise over the last three years’ and ‘[a]s the perception of trust and impartiality increases, so do our audiences’ because ‘impartiality is an important factor in the audience determining its choice of broadcast news provider’. Similarly, RTÉ state in the introduction to their Programme Standards and Guidelines:

Fundamental to all we do has to be a rigorous commitment to some key editorial principles: Fairness and Honesty; Impartiality; Objectivity and Accuracy; Integrity and Independence; Diversity of Opinion; Respect for the Vulnerable; Accountability

RTÉ is a major provider of the vehicle for public debate. On our airwaves the listening and viewing public should be able to hear all sides of national debate. They should be able to regard the presenters of programmes as neutral and not coming down on one side of an issue of public controversy.

And the guidelines give particular focus to the role of interviewers as arbitrators of debate:

There is a particular onus on programme presenters to be impartial. Presenters should be seen as referees between competing viewpoints, encouraging debate. When an interview is taking place with only one side in a debate represented the presenter may put competing viewpoints to the interviewee.

Looking at two episodes of Prime Time we’re aiming to test whether these rigorous guidelines are realised in the real world and ultimately to ask whether it’s even possible or desirable to demand journalists strive for neutrality. The two programmes we’ll look at were broadcast in the weeks preceding the last general election. The first programme was broadcast on the 3rd February and the second on the 17th February (Late Debate, 3rd Feb) (Late Debate, 17th Feb).

The two panels featured people from all the major parties (Richard Boyd Barrett, Ivana Bacik, Mary Fitzpatrick, Lucinda Creighton, Eoin O’Broin, Eamon Ryan, Michael Mulcahy, Claire Daly, Brian Hayes, Dominic Hannigan), along with non-party affiliated political figures (John McGuirk) and economists and banking experts (Cormac Lucey, Michael Taft, Moore McDowell, Sinead Penthony). While clearly not a representative sample from across the political spectrum (featuring only five women, no trade union representatives, few non-business experts, no political activists and no experts from the social sciences), the predominantly well paid professionals (mainly working in the public sector) that make up the panels do offer some diversity of views on the significant matter under discussion, the Irish economy.

The topics for the programmes were billed as follows, ‘So just how big does your politician think the State should be? What functions should it carry out? And more importantly, what functions should it carry out directly, and what should it just buy in?’ and ‘Can the State really create jobs?’. The central theme of the programmes therefore is the role of government in the economy.

If we were to take the Propaganda Model as a basis we might reasonably argue that despite the presence of these guidelines business friendly discourses of minimal state interference, low tax rates and competitive wages would be disproportionately valued by the interviewer – with these discourses aligning more closely with the interests of corporate advertisers and owners, while also minimising the prospect of negative reactions from powerful sources of flak (e.g. the government). Alternative discourses of high taxation for the wealthy, increases in the minimum wage, proposals for economic stimulus and negotiated write-down on individual and sovereign debt on the other hand would likely provoke these same sources and are therefore likely to be more negatively valued.

Evidence of this predicted preferential treatment of certain discourses is clearly visible in media reporting. Take for example the issue of Ireland’s property bubble and the discourses around the economic measures proposed to deal with its fallout. On the issue of property media reporting is highly biased in favour of discourses of personal responsibility, with the popular refrain being ‘we all partied’. A view held simultaneously by our Minister for Finance and the “newspaper of record”. To emphasise this point it is worth noting that the issue of personal mortgage debt forgiveness took three years to reach the media consciousness. On the issue of Ireland’s economic recovery, austerity measures, as opposed stimulus spending, overwhelmingly dominate media discourse. As we have shown, in the lead up to the first of several emergency budgets in 2009 ‘the [media] debate was […] entirely skewed towards cuts, aimed at increasing ‘competitiveness’ by driving down wages’, alternative budgetary proposals were conspicuous by their absence.

In his recent book Sins of the Father Conor McCabe writes that much media discourse on the economic crisis that has unfolded in Ireland since 2008 has been dominated by myth. There is the myth of the ‘Irish property-owning gene’ where newspaper articles explain the housing bubble of the early 2000’s as a result of a uniquely Irish genetic disposition to home ownership. On the contrary, McCabe cites Eurostat statistics of EU home-ownership in 2006 that placed Ireland eighteenth, with owner-occupancy at ‘just under 74 per cent’ down from a high of 79 per cent in the 1990s. There was also the myth that Ireland’s political and financial establishment have a singular propensity for immoral behaviour. In response to this McCabe simply notes that the financial crisis was not an Irish phenomenon (Near FM interview with Conor McCabe), a fact pointed out for more cynical reasons by successive politicians attempting to deflect attention from their personal responsibility. McCabe though does not make this point to deflect from any individual culpability, he accuses the system, saying: ‘The ruthless pursuit of profit is not personal; that is the way business works. And what is condemned as immoral in times of crisis is often praised as savvy and pragmatic in times of prosperity’.

McCabe could reasonably add to this the myth of Ireland’s ‘bloated’ public sector. Examples of this economic myth are scattered throughout the press. For example, in 2008 Matt Cooper wrote in the UK The Sunday Times newspaper ‘Take the axe to the bloated public sector’. More recently, in March 2011 an analysis piece for the Irish Independent written by Eamon Delaney claimed ‘[a] bloated and pampered public sector is bleeding the nation dry’. However, according to various reports from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in comparison to other OECD countries Ireland’s public sector is relatively small and among OECD countries Ireland ‘ranked third to bottom in terms of public expenditure’ (OECD) (OECD) (Finfacts).

These preferences for certain discourses might be manifested in news interviews in numerous different ways. Failures to attend to characteristics of formal neutrality are potentially as varied as conversation itself. The interviewer may be observed to favour one interviewee over another, whether in the formulation of questions or the time allocated for answers. The interviewer may be found to align with particular panellists in disputes, or to display an apparent preference for certain sources or voices in their questioning, or to deviate from the question-answer organisation, making ‘unvarnished assertions’ in favour of some of the (related) themes discussed here, or their distribution of response tokens (usually withheld in news interviews) may be found to denote approval or disapproval in line with the predictions derived from the Propaganda Model.

Take for example the following exchanges between Donagh and Claire. Claire is first introduced to the conversation with the comment “you don’t agree with any of this do you?”, “this” referring to an extended discussion between various interviewees and the interviewer in the previous minutes on a range of issues relating to the central question of “equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome”. On the surface this poses a literal binary choice for Claire, restricting her options for response to “yes” or “no”, without that is, diverging from the prescribed interactional frame set by the interviewer in the question. The interactional frame being the organisation of turn taking, broadly characterised as ‘interviewer asks the questions and interviewee answers them’. Interviewees for their part are complicit in their own positioning, implicitly acquiescing to this and other unspoken rules. In effect Claire is forced to reject the premise of the question and risk being perceived as interactionally hostile or accept the premise and appear ideologically intransigent.

It’s worth noting that the question is negatively formulated, as opposed the possible “do you agree with this?”. Also the summation “any of this stuff” is in contrast to much of the economic jargon that had preceded the question, suggesting the interviewee is reflexively opposed to the topic under discussion. Claire is positioned immediately as a hostile witness, an uncooperative partner in the interaction.

We can also see the interviewer diverging from the normal policy of avoiding subjective questioning. The questions are ‘interactionally hostile’, strongly ‘project[ing] preferred or expected responses that run counter to [interviewee] positions’ – as reflected in Claire’s responses. The significance of this exchange in terms of bias is also revealed in Claire’s responses. Claire is one of the few members of the panel that express strong preference for economic stimulus and strong opposition to reducing taxes and increasing financial assistance to stressed banking institutions. Claire is a politically marginal interviewee in terms of economic policy.

Clayman and Heritage refer to the ‘prospective import’ of a question, noting that ‘some questions are relatively open-ended and allow the interviewee maximum leeway to respond, whereas others narrow the parameters of an acceptable response and exert pressure on the interviewee to answer in a particular way’. This is an observation that can be applied to questioning of interviewees in this panel discussion. As shown above, the import of the question posed to Claire certainly narrows her options for response. In the first place she is forced to defend herself against a charge before even addressing the question itself.

If we compare this to the manner in which other interviewee’s are questioned a pattern of interviewee partiality might be observed. For instance:

In all these instances interviewees are directed relatively open-ended questions, with no particular answer preferred in the question. In the case of the question directed at Moore the question itself is prefaced by a contextual statement, formulated as a debate between two opposing sides, of which the interviewer does not express an explicit preference for. However, it could be argued that here too that the interviewer has manufactured a limited number of choices, restricting the interviewee’s options for response.

Again though in the following question we can see again a preference for a particular answer, with Donagh invoking an expert source, adopting the voice of “economists” in order to undermine proposals for a “job creation strategy”:

The significance of this quote is that it is directed at a particular theme or ideology, not a particular interviewee. Donagh does not charge politicians, but “the state”. The issue of job creation is one supported (to different degrees) by almost all the panellists, with the notable exception of Moore (an economist). The concept of a “job creation strategy” is tied up in the discourse of economic stimulus, both suggesting a degree of intervention on the part of the government. By adopting this voice over other potential voices Donagh makes a choice about which discourses are valued. Further, by referring to “economists” he alludes to the presence of economists on the panel, thus embedding the question with an implicit threat – that Brian’s answer is potentially open to direct challenge by experts.

Brian’s response is an objective confirmation of this interpretation. He immediately seeks to position himself in agreement with the identified expert on the panel and with the interviewer’s question, saying “well I agree with Moore”. Of course this is a generous reading of Moore’s remarks. The closest Moore came to endorsing this position was in his opening comment “the state can do things which help jobs to be created”, however he tempered this assertion with the statement “but in the long term the state doesn’t create jobs”. Having positioned himself as a cooperative witness Brian changes tack, after a slight pause and a hesitant “eh but” he goes on to describe how government can create jobs through infrastructure development.

With this exchange in mind it might be interesting to look at interactions between denoted “experts” and the interviewer and fellow interviewees. Sinead Pentony (Head of Policy at TASC, an independent think tank) is first introduced with the comment “I presume you would disagree with any reduction in the minimum wage”, a loaded question similar to that directed towards Claire in an earlier example. It identifies a preferred response, restricting Sinead’s options for answering, without, again, diverging from the interviewer prescribed interaction. It presupposes that Sinead’s contribution is predictable, indicating to the overhearing audience a diminished value of her as yet unstated opinion. It also undermines her position as an expert, positioning her as a reactionary as opposed a rational deliberator of facts. Sinead is, as with Claire, positioned as a hostile witness, an uncooperative partner in the interaction:

Sinead responds to this by reformulating the interviewer’s question. She repairs the premise, noting that the minimum wage is not €8.60, but €7.65. Ordinarily this response would be unnecessary, the accuracy of the wage level is superficial to the fundamental question. However, in responding in this way (including the use of the opening “well”) Sinead indicates that she irritated by the formulation and also reaffirms her position as an expert, displaying precise knowledge of economic intricacies. Donagh responds by admitting his error and apologises in order to repair the relationship. Sinead acknowledges this apology by anticipating his response and beginning her answer to his original question before Donagh has completed his turn.

This interaction becomes more interesting when juxtaposed with interactions between the interviewer and other panel experts, those with ideological views that resonate more closely with the institution hosting the debate. Economists are called upon on various occasions by the interviewer in order to evaluate other interviewee comments. In the following example Donagh summarises the previous turn’s interviewee comments and asks Cormac to evaluate them, asking whether Richard’s proposals are “possible”:

Here Donagh provides a prejudiced summary of Richard’s comments, taking what was a purely ideological discussion (to use Donagh’s words, his “idea of society”) out of context and reframing it as a realistic proposal. Given the condition of Ireland’s government finances, the cost of borrowing and the absence of international investment, plans to “level everybody up” are far fetched at best. This summary positions Richard as a fantasist, and not as a serious political candidate. Cormac inevitably disagrees with the premise and corroborates the interviewer’s tacit proposition.

Moore McDowell, an economics lecturer in University College Dublin, is also identified as an expert. Donagh refers to his credentials several times in the course of the programme. In this next example we can see that Donagh seeks confirmation of his views from Moore, saying “that’s a real problem isn’t it”. In the first instance Donagh introduces an article from the current affairs magazine the Economist, satisfying professional requirements for formal neutrality by invoking an argument using the voice of someone else. However he then validates the argument in his question to Moore commenting “that’s a real problem”. He then goes on to modify the statement by adding the words “isn’t it”:

Just as Sinead’s contributions were seen to be predicted, Moore’s contributions are similarly anticipated. However, in contrast to his behaviour towards Sinead, Donagh looks to Moore to validate +his+ views. Donagh addresses Sinead with predictions embedded in the questions. Sinead therefore is not permitted to offer original opinions, she is given the opportunity to validate the interviewer’s position as a knowing overseer. Whereas questions directed at Moore are inflected with hesitance (e.g. “isn’t it”), positioning Moore as an evaluator, a lecturer, to Donagh’s student. Almost an inversion of the turn-granting authority displayed in interactions where interviewees are seen to apply for permission to enter the conversation (e.g. by interrupting with the phrase “Donagh Donagh Donagh”).

Again it is important to recognise that Moore’s views are ideologically congruent with those of the media institution as described by the Propaganda Model. He argues for less government interference in business, a weakening of the trade unions and a broadening of the tax base (which essentially means increasing taxation on the lower income earners as opposed wealthier ones).

On other occasions Donagh can be seen to reuse Moore’s metaphorical queues. Moore refers to the Metro North metaphorically as a “red rag”, indicating that it is project that angers him. Several turns later Donagh assumes this metaphor applying it to another large scale infrastructural project, Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2:

Not only does Donagh adopt Moore’s strong scepticism of using government funds to finance infrastructure development, he also invokes the same metaphor to accentuate the position:

This alignment is reflected by some of the panellists, who, while not agreeing entirely with Moore’s thesis, recognises the appeal of being seen to be walking the same line. However we can see that these alignments can be rejected. For example in the following extract Dominic attempts to align himself with Moore by saying “we’re asking people like Moore”, indicating to the audience that as a non-expert he seeks out the views of experts. However, Moore rejects the alignment in the following turn, interrupting Dominic (and contravening the interviewer-interviewee interactional dynamic) to say “I’m not a business person”. When Dominic does not amend or clarify his statement Moore again interrupts saying “the last person to ask is an economist” to which Dominic responds “we’re looking for ideas from across the business sector”. Donagh attempts to regain control of the discussion, while Brian, who had performed the a similar manoeuvre only moments before without reproach, joins the the interaction laughing at Dominic’s expense:

We can see a similar repetition of interviewee language (i.e. Moore’s “red rag”) in interactions between other panellists and the interviewer. If the following extracts Donagh repeats the interviewee’s phrases in his response to their answers, saying “speaking of madness” and “we’ll get into the staggering and obscene”:

What’s interesting in these repetitions, in contrast to the one related to Moore, is that Donagh appears to change (or invert) it’s discursive application. While Claire uses the the concept of “madness” to  describe “the idea of reducing wages”, Donagh invokes it to describe the idea of negotiated wage agreements. Again Donagh is careful to employ the professional technique of voicing topics as those of others, in this case IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation).

Donagh’s use of voices is interesting too: the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the OECD, IBEC, John Fitzgerald (a researcher at the The Economic and Social Research Institute), the Economist, all strongly business oriented sources. In each instance where these sources are used, Donagh introduces strongly pro-business ideological discourses, such as “cutting the minimum wage” and increasing “[government] expenditure cuts”. While there is substantial conflicting evidence of the effectiveness of these measures Donagh does not attempt to introduce sources or voices that counter this narrative.

Responses tokens (such as “yeah” and “mm”), a common feature of normal conversation, are rarely offered in news interview situations. As Greatbatch notes, the ‘withholding of response tokens’ (in order to avoid signalling approval or disapproval) is a method employed by which interviewers in order to give the appearance of interactional neutrality (Greatbatch in Bell and Garrett, 1998:169). Where they are observed to be offered maybe provide clues as to which views and which panellists the interviewer favours or disfavours.

In both these programmes Donagh is found to strictly adhere to this formal neutralism, withholding verbal response tokens almost entirely, with only several “yeah” tokens used as interviewee turns are closing. A study of body language may reveal inaudible tokens or gestures (such as nodding of the head) that could be construed as signalling agreement / disagreement with prior turns, however this analysis does not attempt to examine this.

In the above extract we can an interviewee, Brian, display how response tokens might be distributed in conversation, even in a heated debate such as this. Donagh on the other hand makes only one interjection during Moore’s lengthy turn. He responds to Moore’s comment regarding government intervention in the business market by saying “which it does all the time”. This is interesting in that it comes at a natural turn-relinquishing point, however it does not provide a further question, it does not indicate to Moore that his turn is closing. It functions instead as an acknowledgement of Moore’s contribution and acts as continuer, indicating to Moore that the floor is still his. It can be thought of therefore as a ‘non-minimal response token’ providing positive ‘feedback’ in assessment of Moore’s prior turn.

The Propaganda Model suggests that business friendly discourses of minimal state interference, low tax rates and competitive wages would be disproportionately valued by the interviewer in these interactions. It also suggests that alternative discourses of high taxation for the wealthy, increases in the minimum wage, proposals for economic stimulus and negotiated write-down on individual and sovereign debt on the other hand would likely be more negatively valued. This analysis has attempted to determine whether this preference for institutionally motivated discursive patterns and the individuals that represent them were manifested in the organisation of the interaction. While not claiming to present a definitive description it has certainly identified some compelling evidence to suggest it’s the case.

Donagh’s interactional relationships with the interviewees are notably different, with Moore continually positioned as the expert and Claire and Richard consistently marginalised. Donagh also shows an identifiable preference for certain sources or voices in his questioning, sources that align with the pro-business predictions made by the Propaganda Model. The analysis has also provided some evidence to suggest the interviewer showed partiality to certain discourses, such as minimum wage cuts and reductions to state expenditure on infrastructure, which again align with the expectations derived from the Propaganda Model.

While Donagh does attend quite rigidly to certain aspects of formal neutrality (e.g. withholding of response tokens) and Prime Time does follows institutional and regulatory guidelines designed to ensure impartiality in news reporting and interviewing there are many opportunities for interviewers to impart their own views or those internalised through the institutional structure.

This observation relates back to ongoing discussions we’ve hosted (Kieran Allen and Robert Jensen) about the practicality of striving for neutral journalism and whether comprehensive guidelines simply mask advocacy with (not so) carefully managed language.

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