Media Discourse During the Financial Crisis: An Inquiry into the Nature of the Contemporary "Fourth Estate"

By Shaun Docherty
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 2/5 |

Theoretical Framework and Analytical tools

Norms, Normative Hegemony, and the Mobilisation of Bias

Internalised Norms

Our analysis of Media discourse during the financial crisis is concerned with how norms can affect, or suppress political change.41 Norms regulate human behaviour and offer justifications for our actions. They reflect deeply engrained and universally accepted values in society.42 When norms become deeply entrenched within communities, they become internalised. Finnemore and Sikkink tell us internalised norms are “extremely powerful” as they are so ubiquitous they assume a “taken for granted quality” affecting automatic acceptance and conformity.43 They are hidden in plain sight. Sociologists have identified the most prominent internalised norms in the western world, so widely accepted they assume a “taken for granted status,” they are: market exchange, individualism and .44 Although vague and inconclusive to say the least, these studies have suggested that, “norms and issues congruent with and liberalism will be particularly powerful.”45

This theoretical framework will therefore interpret as a powerful internalised norm which has become so deeply embedded in political and economic thought it has achieved an unquestioned status. Our norm asserted itself in the UK and USA throughout the 1980s and is now so deeply entrenched in the political landscape it is accepted and embraced by all mainstream political parties, viewed as the only viable ideological path. This phenomenon is evidenced in the UK by New Labour’s adoption of the neoliberal “third way,” marking a significant historical juncture where our norm has become so deeply embedded into British society it is even embraced by the traditional socialist party. So deeply internalised, this norm has become “the only way.” Indeed, Stephanie Mudge posits one of the defining characteristics of neoliberalism is the doctrine being, “underpinned by an unquestionable common sense.”46 Our theoretical framework aims to rationalise how this internalised norm, neoliberalism, has managed to survive and maintain its ideological dominance, its hegemony, throughout a period in history where the norm’s inherent flaws and contradictions were laid bare to societies across the globe.

Normative Hegemony

Normative Hegemony is exercised when one group in society begins enforcing norms that promote their interests at the expense of others.47 It is maintained through punishing norm violators and public sanctioning: where issues and incidents which maintain the salience of norms beneficial to the dominant group are promoted.48 This phenomenon can only occur when one strata of society possess substantially more than others, giving it the ability impose its preferred norms over others in society.49 A good example is the Indian caste system, where Brahmins exercised normative hegemony, imposing and publically sanctioning norms beneficial to them at the expense of the Harijans.50

Normative Hegemony is a theory concerned with the application of power by one section of society over another. This study will adopt this theoretical approach to interpret the commercialised media as exercising normative hegemony over the rest of society. Through this analytical perspective we can see the media enforcing specific norms that are beneficial to its own commercial interests at the expense of other groups in society. Neoliberalism will be viewed as the internalised norm which is constantly promoted and enforced by the media. Our analysis will assess public discourse to evaluate the extent to which this norm is being publicly sanctioned by the media. It is argued because a small section of society concerned with commerce, like media proprietors, have a vested interest in the survival and perpetuation of this norm, it exercises its normative hegemony and actively promotes issues and values that support this doctrine whilst suppressing any criticism of it. This theoretical approach will be applied to our discourse to rationalise how neoliberalism not only survived what seemed to be a terminal arrest but emerged even stronger from the financial crisis. Such an analytical approach will also assist our understanding of why alternative norms, which emerged in elite discourse during our period of analysis, were unsuccessful in asserting themselves into mainstream discourse and not internalised by society, eventually fading away.

The application of Normative Hegemony to media discourse during the financial crisis also provides us with a tentative link between public sanctioning and the media’s commercial interests. The theory effectively describes the application of power, through promotion of norms, of one section of society the other. This theory can therefore also be employed to demonstrate a link, however tenuous, between the vested interests of the commercialised media, imposing through their output norms like neoliberalism that are particularly beneficial to their business interests. If Normative Hegemony offers us a theoretical vantage point to rationalise why certain norms dominate over others, there exists a complimentary theory explaining why issues or norms that are not discussed can be just as important as those being promoted.

Mobilisation of Bias

If Normative Hegemony concerns itself with the power of promotion, the mobilisation of bias concerns itself with the power of suppression; it is the more discreet, yet incredibly important manifestation of power.51 It fits nicely into our theoretical framework and helps us rationalise how some norms gain acceptance at the expense of others. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz demonstrate how there exists two faces of power, the ostentatious raw application, and a less visible yet highly effective face, a mobilisation of bias. The mobilisation of bias is applied by those in power by limiting the scope of discussion, decision making or choices to issues or ideas which are “comparatively innocuous” to them.52

The mobilisation of bias can also be applied to Labour’s adoption of the “third way”: where all political parties have now embraced our internalised norm neoliberalism, the scope of choice available to the electorate has been severely restricted. This form of “veiled censorship,”53 alluded to by Orwell, is an incredibly effective and rarely acknowledged way through which power can be exercised. As discreet as norms themselves, it is hidden in plain sight. So discreet, Bachrach and Baratz concede the mobilisation of bias is not objectively measurable. However they contend although something may not be objectively measurable this does not mean it does not exist.54

The mobilisation of bias will offer an alternative theoretical perspective to analyse our media discourse through, offering a different yet complimentary ontological approach to that of Normative Hegemony; where the focus of power is on the suppression of ideas instead of promotion. When applied to our analysis, the mobilisation of bias will help us rationalise how discourse which challenges or contradicts internalised norms, like neoliberalism, are given very little publicity and are eventually drowned out by the normative hegemony exercised by media outlets who promote, and publically sanction specific norms beneficial to their interests.

Bachrach and Baratz also designed a research method to analyse how power is distributed within organisations to discern the source of this bias. They posit that when researchers search for the source of power they should approach the problem by inquiring into who benefits most from the censorship and that is where they will find the source of power. This method, effectively an examination into the source of bias, can be applied in the final part of this research to ascertain who would have the most to gain from a media that actively supresses criticism of neoliberalism.

A Constructivist Approach

This study will approach our problem from an agent centred constructivist perspective, where the financial crisis of 2008 will be interpreted as a critical juncture in history, a “reconstitutive event” like the Great Depression or World Wars, which can precipitate major societal change.55 The degree of effect that these crises have on society depends on how they are endogenously interpreted, these exogenous shocks spark a process of persuasion in society, where competing interpretations of events attempt to rationalise what has happened and how to react.56 Constructivists view these “persuasive struggles” as the causal mechanism of change in society.57 The Great Depression is often cited as such a “reconstitutive event” as it was a crisis which affected many nations across the globe in similar ways, yet precipitated radically different societal interpretations and reactions, with some societies choosing fascism and others social .58

Our period under investigation will assume this agent centred constructivist approach, a year in newspaper discourse during the 2008 financial crisis where the deeply internalised societal norm, neoliberalism, seemed in terminal decline. The period under study will therefore be interpreted as another epochal moment in history, opening up a brief window of change, where established, internalised norms are challenged by new ideas. Our discourse will be interpreted as a persuasive struggle between elites where competing interpretations of what has happened are offered and remedies proposed, a chaotic discursive period where society re-evaluates its purpose, where new norms emerge and challenge the orthodoxy of the day.

Our newspaper columnists and editors under scrutiny, our purveyors of elite opinion who influence wider public opinion,59 will be interpreted as what Finnemore and Sikkink call “Norm Entrepreneurs,” attempting to make sense of the economic collapse, engaging the public in a process of persuasion where they articulate new norms or defend internalised ones.60 The legal theorist Lessig calls these entrepreneurs “meaning managers” and “meaning architects” while Ethan Nadelmann describes their societal role as “moral proselytism.”61 Our discourse throughout the year will be interpreted as a battle between new and established norms which will either suppress or affect change in society.

Our “meaning architects” create norms through focusing on new issues and re-examining old ones. They convey their new ontology through the process of framing, where new cognitive frames are established which resonate with the public and in the new climate precipitated by the crisis, begin to alter peoples’ perceptions and understanding of issues.62 The process of framing can therefore be seen not only as the genesis of emerging norms but as the conduit by which norms are communicated to the public sphere. These new perspectives challenge established frames, as Finnemore and Sikkink note, “new norms never enter a normative vacuum but instead emerge in a highly contested normative space where they must compete with other norms and perceptions of interest.”63

Finnemore and Sikkink have identified a norm life cycle which charts the ascendency and demise of norms in society. They identify three stages: Norm Emergence, Norm Cascade and Internalisation.64 As already noted, norm emergence occurs through the persuasive process of norm entrepreneurs who use cognitive frames to convey new ideas; between emergence and cascade there occurs what Finnemore and Sikkink call a “tipping point” at which juncture a “critical mass” of actors embrace the new norm.65 After this point there is a dramatic change as the norm cascades and people seek conformity; the final stage of internalisation occurs “at the extreme of norm cascade” where, as already noted, like neoliberalism, they become so deeply rooted that conformance becomes automatic and they achieve a “taken for granted” status. This life cycle will be applied to our year of persuasive discourse to help us understand how our new ideas attempted to establish themselves within the public sphere and precipitate change at a moment where society was re-evaluating itself.

The Power of the Media Frame

“The character, causes and consequences of any phenomenon become radically different as changes are made in what is prominently displayed, what is repressed and especially in how observations are classified…The social world is…a kaleidoscope of potential realities, any of which can be readily evoked by altering the ways in which observations are framed and categorised”66 - Murray Endelman

Frame analysis will be used as our conceptual tool to chart the competing interpretations of the financial crisis as they are constructed by our norm entrepreneurs. Frames are constantly deployed by journalists to structure their reporting and assist our understanding of the world. They use frames because as Murray Endelman suggests, our social world is so complex, diffuse and open to interpretation, frames are required to structure reality into digestible stories. Russel Neuman refers to them as “cognitive frames” deployed as “conceptual tools” by all humans to simplify the confusing, complex and often contradictory information that we must process every day.67 Robert Entman calls them “schemata,” or belief systems. Offering a framework for understanding reality, this framework guides both journalists’ interpretation of events and the recipients processing of information. Our schemata can be so strong, new frames which challenge old orthodoxies can cause cognitive dissonance and rejected by individuals.68

Frames are therefore incredibly important to how we understand and interpret the world. As they exist as a type of cognitive heuristics helping us to rationalise vast amounts of information it is in their very nature to be selective. Robert Entman describes the journalistic process perfectly, “framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in communicating a text,”69 from this process of selection journalists develop their arguments: defining problems and causes, whilst offering moral judgements and solutions.70

The framing process therefore involves elements of our main theories Normative Hegemony and its counterpart the mobilisation of bias. As framing, by individuals and journalists, involves selection, there exists an inherent mobilisation of bias. As our frames select some aspects of reality at the expense of others, they direct our attention toward specific issues, therefore at the same time are also directing our attention away from other issues and aspects of reality.71 Entman tells us, “most frames are defined by what they omit as well as include, and the omissions…may be as critical as inclusions in guiding the audience.”72 Furthermore, in the process of making information more salient, some aspects of a story are promoted at the expense of others making the information more memorable and meaningful to audiences.73 In increasing the salience of some information we can see an element of public sanctioning at play, where some norms are promoted and discussed at the expense of others.

Framing is indeed an incredibly powerful cognitive tool. Empirical studies have also found news frames to have a self- perpetuating quality, where any views or norms that do not conform with established news frames are deemed un-newsworthy and will not be published. This phenomenon makes it incredibly difficult for new frames to establish themselves in discourse or any views that deviate even slightly from established norms to be published.74 This phenomenon has been evidenced in the framing of the U.S invasion of Iraq where no frame proposed an alternative to war; any policy opinions which deviated from an eventual ground invasion, however popular, where not published as they did not conform to the established frames. This process was found to have a distortive effect on public opinion. By suppressing anti-war sentiment a false consensus for war was created, making support for a ground invasion appear far more popular than it actually was.75

Andrew Rojecki’s study into the framing of the U.S invasion of Iraq demonstrates how crucial frames are in shaping public opinion and influencing how people and society will react to events.76 As researchers focus on the power these cognitive tools wield over society, academics like Carragee & Roefs have instead looked at frame sponsorship asking what social and political power frames represent.77 In an incredibly neglected field of study, given the implications for wider society, research has found the propensity for cultural and economic capital to define the sponsorship of frames, with the success of frames dictated by the amount of resources its sponsorship can mobilise.78 Given the importance of frames, the connection between frame sponsorship and media ownership requires far more research, posing questions like: what would media ownership have to gain from the dominance of particular frames over others?

Carragee and Roefs demonstrate how a connection between theories of ideological hegemony and frame sponsorship have been largely ignored by contemporary academics.79 Ideological Hegemony is a notion first posited by Antonio Gramsci a Marxist theorist, who argued that dominant sections of society legitimise their position through disseminating meanings and values through cultural institutions like the media, schools and churches.80 These ideas have been developed by communications scholars into a “media hegemony thesis” focusing on the media’s role in enforcing this hegemony. Although relevant to this study, the media hegemony thesis appears to be an ambiguous concept requiring further development, with no research program or solid theoretical framework, it cannot be applied by this research.81 Carragee and Roefs do believe hegemonic ideology does explain why particular frames dominate others, their self- perpetuation and “taken as common sense” status.82 My theoretical framework, designed to interpret the application of power by the media, is effectively an attempt to describe this phenomenon disparately alluded to as media hegemony.

Framing Method

Frame analysis is an inherently problematic method of extrapolating data. As many scholars point out there is no homogeneous framing theory, making it an inconsistent methodological approach where researchers’ frames can reflect their own bias and objectives.83 I have attempted to be as scientific and objective as possible in constructing my framing method, yet we must appreciate this is a post positivist study and a researcher with different values and objectives may well have identified a different set of frames.

Due to such a casual definition of frames my method has clung tightly to Robert Entman’s proposed “framing paradigm” articulated to assist communications studies such as this.84 My analytical method first looks to identify selection and salience within newspaper articles:85 what issues have been selected as topics of discussion and what specific aspects have been focused upon. Following Entman’s paradigm, a frame typically identifies problems, defines a cause, offers a moral judgement and prescribes a remedy;86 therefore for each article I identified and logged a: problem; cause; moral judgement and remedy. As Entman warns these four components may occasionally fail to appear together in an entire text.

However sometimes they were so obvious they could be identified in a single sentence or phrase.87 Through this method clear themes began to emerge which were offering competing interpretations and solutions to the financial crisis. As Andrew Rojecki articulates from his frame analysis of media discourse preceding the invasion of Iraq, these themes identified the presence of our cognitive frames which were ultimately guiding analysis and public understanding of the crisis.88 As Rojecki found, themes did not always fit perfectly into a frame, however given the nature of our research, this was to be expected. I identified a total of 10 themes indicating the presence of three frames which were clearly present in the discourse.

As Entman illuminates, commonly invoked frames form a .89 Our three frames represented two conflicting cultures legitimising and de-legitimising neoliberal ideology. Other frames were present and ignored as not relevant to this study, for example a parliamentary expenses scandal had been exposed during the same period producing a set of frames irrelevant to this research. However, given the severity of the financial crisis our three frames dominated most of the discourse.

As already noted, this is a post positivist study, and although conducted in as a scientific manner as possible, my own values and research objectives will have had an influence on the analysis. Furthermore, given the amount of articles studied and coded, human error is another unavoidable reality. Ideally, given unlimited time and resources, another researcher could have conducted an identical study and compared findings. I am however confident that my analysis and findings are legitimate and a control study would corroborate with my results.

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