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Jul 13 2009

A convenient case study in media spin

Category: Bad News Author:

It might not be fair to pick on the Daily Mail for this sort of thing; it’s unsurprising to the point of being expected at this point for the emotionally-charged paper to lay objectivity and rational analysis aside in favour of support for the current populist opinion. But the fact remains that the paper has a circulation of 2.4 million, and there is at least a chance that some of the people reading it, believe it. As an exercise in critical thinking, then, consider these two articles written by the paper on the same subject, separated by only two years:

RSPCA find toddler living with 30 rottweilers (26/04/2007)

A five-year-old girl was taken into care after police found her living in a bungalow with more than 30 rottweilers and boxer dogs.

Sussex Police said the animals were being fed dead rabbits and floors in the bungalow were filthy.

As dogs were being seized, three police officers, including one WPC, were punched and slapped, causing minor injuries.

A woman, thought to be the girl’s mother, was arrested on suspicion of assaulting the police. The 42-year-old was also arrested with her husband, 30, on suspicion of cruelty to animals.

Aside from the enormous picture of a Rottweiler staring the reader down, it isn’t such a bad article overall. It sticks to the facts and is to the point, aside from needless quotes from the neighbours remarking that, wouldn’t you know it, the dogs were noisy.

I want to come home mummy… (10/07/2009)

The recording begins with the sound of a child’s voice. It belongs to a little girl and she is clearly bewildered and distressed.

The recording – and dozens of others just like it – was made during a supervised meeting between the youngster and her parents after their daughter was taken away from them by social workers.

In contrast to the earlier article, this one is headed with a (more reasonably-sized) image of a little girl with her face obscured. And similarly, every other feature has been flipped 180° to align with the current working assumption; that the social services in the UK are so fundamentally broken that after 74 court hearings justice has failed, and a little girl and her loving parents are to be torn apart against their wishes.

After a lead-in of seven emotionally charged, informationally barren paragraphs we get our first of several rhetorical questions pasted in to cover the illogical leaps the article takes: “But what if social workers have got it wrong? In the light of Baby P and so many other scandals, it’s hardly impossible is it?”

I won’t trawl through the entire piece pointing out the logical flaws, and where emotion is used to patch over the gaps – that can be an exercise for the reader – but instead just point out how interchangeable the actors in the tabloid narrative can be. Take one ‘Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?’ piece, swap the goodie and the baddie, and instead of a forgettable slamming of some irresponsible parent, you have an apprently hard-hitting insight into the current problems in social welfare. Instead, what you really have is an unexplored problem, and an interesting example of how the current public opinion can entirely change the shape of a reported story.

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