Peter Steward's Web Site
The Media Explosion
2:1 Research Approach
My intention in this chapter is to briefly research the power of the Press
and through the use of literature and interviews try and show that without
a doubt as we approach the 21st century there is a Media explosion
unprecedented in the past. We are all living as part of and accepting this
bombardment of information.
This area of my research is divided into three sections. The first section on the Power of the Media is based upon personal interviews with journalists and victims, comments from literature on the subject, a close look at a Victim Support document and personal comments from my own experiences.
The second section features outside documentation of relevance and comments from interviews with victims of serious crime.
The third section looks closely at a particular book “Fiona’s Story” by Irene Ivison.
I have used discourse analysis to take a look at the emotive language used in a short four page section of the book which I have found very relevant to my research.
2:2 The Power of the Media
As we approach the 21st Century, the Media is having a greater bearing on our lives than ever before.
Newspapers, television, radio and electronic Media are all combining to colour our view of not only the world but also our own neighbourhood. The Media can build or destroy reputations, shape entire continents and affect our lifestyles as never before. A number of commentators on Media affairs have highlighted this in their work:
Sarup (1996) states:
I would argue even further that the Mass Media constructs and destroys its own images through the power that it wields.
One of the great Media visionaries Marshall McLuhan writing in 1964 coined the phrase the Medium is the Message.
Sarup (1996) backs this up:
Toffler (1970) states:
My own experiences as Press and Public Relations Officer bear these feelings out. In the 10 years of employment I have noticed a huge proliferation in Media outlets. This has gone hand in hand with a huge and voracious quest for instant news prompted by the introduction of new forms of communication such as cable and satellite.
Journalists themselves accept this situation. One senior reporter told me:
A reporter with a national news agency backed this up from his/her own experiences:
Peak and Fisher (1996) state:
Peak and Fisher add that in 1996 there were 1,500 paid for and free newspapers in this country and in addition:
The same source (1995) states the following
Peak and Fisher (1996) further state that research shows that in 1995 the average British citizen watches 2.84 hours of television per day.
As the number of Media outlets proliferate their thirst for news increases as does the competition between them. Each journalist is looking for that exclusive story or those extra finer details that have eluded their competitors.
In the past exclusivity could take the form of an entire story. Today it is virtually impossible for an individual journalist to keep sole ownership of a story. They fight therefore for that unusual angle, that unusual quote.
This is underlined by Victim Support in their document Media Coverage of Murder and Manslaughter (1998a):
This document is rich in information regarding the power of the Media. It also suggests that this power stems from what might be called the voyeurism of the public:
The document is in no doubt about the amount of pressure that victims of major crime will be put under and the number of outlets that will be involved.
Victim Support also covers the way that the Media determine the importance of news and how this can affect victims:
I had first hand experience of the above with a murder that I will refer to throughout this work. This particular crime gained huge amounts of publicity in its first week. The second week it gained virtually nothing due to what could be argued to be the biggest international story of the past 20 years - the death of Princess Diana.
On the second week, when we were trying to keep the profile up on our murder, we struggled to gain a few column inches. Virtually nobody was interested, as one senior officer confirmed.
By the third and fourth week we were once again able to grab back some publicity. This was certainly one occasion where we had to work extremely hard to achieve what normally would have been given to us as a matter of course. This is a prime example of the Media using its power in deciding news values irrespective of outside influences.
Ironically the behaviour of the Media during this particular and what turned out to be protracted enquiry was exemplary as one senior officer pointed out:
I believe that this was partly due to the open way with which Norfolk Constabulary dealt with the Media throughout the investigation. Senior officers co- operated fully at all times, helping the Media with all the enquiries.
On the anniversary of the murder we launched a second Media campaign and it led to the following comments from the Senior Investigating Officer.
Likewise the close relatives of the victim were very much against taking part in Media interviews, but accepted that they needed to do so to help with the police investigation. They took part in an anniversary press conference and were asked how they felt the situation had been dealt with by the Media. Their reply, which appeared in local and some national press was.
I believe that this short comment is very significant for my research. In speaking personally to the relatives I was left in no doubt that their only reason for co-operating at any level with the Media was to help catch the killer. Without this incentive they would have refused to talk to any journalists. Having made the decision, however, they were pleasantly surprised by the professional ways in which the reporters behaved.
The comments suggest that they were very much aware of how badly others in their situation had been treated by the Media. I would argue that they were treated sympathetically and supportively because firstly they made themselves available, albeit for a limited time and secondly because of the help and support the Media received from the police who, in being open with the Press turned themselves into the main source of information and allowed the family to shield themselves from unwanted attention.
Officers involved with this case were constantly aware of the Media attention.
The intense pressure put on us by the Media illustrated the fact that often Media demand outstrips supply. We only had a certain amount of information for them, but they were still hungry for anything we could supply. In this case I believe that media demand out-stripped the supply.
This kind of situation can lead to a quest for the unusual angle or unsavoury tactics from some section of the Media and fear on the part of others as one reporter explained:
Another went even further:
Another factor in this “setting of standards” is the readers, viewers or listeners who have come to expect a staple diet of sensationalism in their news. It is no coincidence that the biggest selling daily British newspaper is the Sun which in 1996 had a circulation of 4,048,815 (source Peak and Fisher: 1997). This is followed by the Daily Mirror. The biggest selling Sunday is the News of the World which in 1996 had a weekly circulation of 4,607,799 It was followed by the Sunday Mirror. All four of these papers are firmly entrenched in what has become described as the “Tabloid” end of the market.
The original definition of the word Tabloid simply indicated the size of the paper. Today it has been adopted as a description of a particularly strong and aggressive style of journalism as well as newspapers specialising in sensational style stories.
Today’s Media are a melting pot of styles, but do they all suffer from the excesses of the worst as the reporter above states. Another reporter said.
This comment suggests that those accessing the news units i.e the public are at times voyeuristic in their news tastes.
This suggests two things to me:
1/ The number of Media outlets is without doubt proliferating and will continue to increase in the future as more and more advanced technology is introduced.
2/ Certain areas of the
public demand a tabloid-style journalism which provokes reporters to act
in an aggressive way both towards each other and towards the source of
their news which often can be victims of crimes. Reporters will respond to
what appears to be the public demand for certain tabloid styles of
journalism which provokes them to act in an aggressive way. The members of
the Press perceive their duty as having to produce a certain style of
reportage and if the public continue to support this by continuing to buy
the material the journalists will feel that their style and stance is
Together these factors combine to make the Media even more powerful.
My own professional experiences seem to back these points up as I would like to illustrate at this point.
In my role as Press and Public Relations Officer for Norfolk Constabulary I am used to fronting Media interviews of all kinds - both live and recorded.
Ten years ago Norfolk Constabulary rarely organised press conferences and rarely came across national Media outlets at incidents. Today it has become the norm for both to happen.
In the recent murder in a rural part of the county which I have already mentioned, a press conference was attended by over 100 members of the Media. Many of these stayed in or around the area for over a week, living in hotels or guest houses.
At one point the police decided to stage a reconstruction of the period leading up to the murder. This was scheduled to take place from a car park on the Norfolk coast. As lead Press Officer in the case I drove to the venue and got out of my car to be immediately swamped by camera crews, photographers and journalists wanting interviews and information. Although we wanted the Media there (after all that was the reason for the reconstruction) I felt threatened.
A short while after, a colleague arrived in his car and the Media posse left me and swamped him. We both remember the incident well. He told me afterwards:
Personally I felt they had used me to grab as much information as they could and then moved on to somebody else they felt could give them information. This prevented myself and my colleague from talking to each other. Throughout the reconstruction our conversation was listened into by journalists.
I was left with a feeling of having been used and discarded. Owing to a torrential downpour we delayed the reconstruction in the best interests of those taking part. This angered the Media who continually pointed out their deadlines and inquired why the delays were happening.
I use this incident because
here was a situation where we were welcoming and even “courting” the
Media. We wanted them there and we wanted coverage of the reconstruction.
It left me pondering the pressures that would have been put on us if the
Media interest was not welcome. If people used to dealing with the Media
daily could feel threatened how can people thrust into the Media limelight
through no choice of their own ever hope to cope?
2:3 Victims and the Media Explosion
The above question formed the basis of previous research where I looked at victims of serious crime (murder and violent assault) to try to establish how they felt about Media intrusion in their lives.
In this research I used the term “victim” in both its direct and indirect meaning. I focused on direct victims who had been assaulted and “indirect victims” who had lost relatives and loved ones to murder and/or manslaughter.
My research came up with very mixed views. Some victims accepted the limelight as a necessary part of their tragedy, some even welcomed it and embraced the chance to use the Media as a cathartic experience. Those who co-operated fully with the Media gave a number of reasons for doing so. These included the following:
1/ As a memorial to a loved one
2/ To avoid the perpetrator of the crime gaining notoriety, publicity and any justification for his/her crime.
4/ Safeguarding others from falling into a trap
5/ Keeping control of the situation
6/ Previous positive feelings about the Media.
Victim Support in their document “Media coverage of Murder and Manslaughter” have come up with a very similar list. These include.
1/ To help with the investigative process
2/ As a result of the shock they feel
3/ To pay tribute to their loved ones and to ensure that what is printed is a true record of the victim’s life.
5/ To increase general understanding of the suffering of families of murder and manslaughter victims and offer comfort to others facing similar tragedies.
Victim Support (n.d) also accepts, and this is borne out by my previous research, that different people react in different ways to the Media interest:
The document goes on to explain how Media attention can also produce splits within a family.
My focus in that part of my research was on people I knew had agreed to co-operate with the Media. I had worked closely alongside many of them, helping them with Press conferences and interviews.
I also interviewed people, however, who fought against any involvement with the Media. To date they have not featured in any part of my research and I would like to use some of their comments now to illustrate that there are two sides to this particular coin.
One couple told me:
Here there is the suggestion of the Media taking control of lives. And the resentment this has brought. It does once again, however, illustrate the vast power that the Media wields.
Another interviewee put it even more strongly:
Another summed up the power of the Media in the following way.
Victim Support (n.d) sums up the whole situation admirably.
Victim Support (n.d) believes that this can turn into harassment.
Peter Whent (1998) suggests that the only way to deal with the Press is to co-operate to some degree with them and this is a thread that I find running through my research. In this case the author is suggesting that not co-operating with the Media can in itself be stressful.
The same author goes on to take this idea a step further.
This article is written specifically about Family Liaison Officers. I agree with the sentiments wholeheartedly although I believe that Press Officers and not FLOs should undertake this role. The important thing, however, is that somebody from the police does so.
I have given all the above illustrations in an attempt to convey the power of the Media both for those happy to deal with them and for those who are not. There is no doubt that their work is an intrusion into the lives of victims. The only difference, from the victim’s point of view is that sometimes this intrusion is welcome and sometimes it is not.
This Media explosion has been commented on more and more. There is now a great awareness on the part of many organisations working with victims of crime of the power of the Media.
Many organisations such as police forces throughout the country now employ specialists such as myself in Press and Public Relations. These people are experienced in dealing with the Media and many are former journalists who still have the ability to look at things from a journalist’s point of view.
As far as victims are
concerned, many organisations are realising that they cannot work with
them in isolation. It is no longer a one to one situation of helping them
to grieve and reclaim their lives. The carers have to be aware of the
power and intrusive nature of the Media. In other words it is no longer
possible to ignore the Media in the hope that they will go away - they
It is my intention at this point to have a close look at a passage from the book “Fiona’s Story - A Tragedy of Our Times” by Irene Ivison. The text I am using is rich in dialogue and aptly sums up the power of the Media by somebody who was suddenly thrust into the limelight through no wish of her own. I believe an analysis of this text once again illustrates the power of the Media and the huge effect they can have on the life of a family and an individual.
Irene’s teenage daughter Fiona was found strangled in a Doncaster car park. Fiona had fallen foul of drug users and pimps in her home city of Sheffield. Her ultimate downward spiral is catalogued in honest and heart-wrenching detail in the book.
There are great parallels between Fiona and a murder enquiry that I have been professionally involved in and I know that the mother of the murdered Norfolk girl has had close contact with Irene Ivison.
Irene paints a dramatic picture of the pitfalls of life for teenagers in our major cities. She holds back on very little and believes that society must take much of the blame for drug abuse and prostitution.
The power of the Press comes out in the book despite only occupying about five of the 260 pages. To me it is one of the most powerful sections of the book and one of the strongest descriptions of the power of the Media I have come across.
Indeed the prologue starts with the fact that Irene’s initial information about her daughter’s death comes from the Media:
At that point the Media had no idea of the identity of the body.
The book then details Fiona’s life and problems before returning to the point begun in the prologue. Over 230 pages later Irene states that after the body has been identified her life began to ‘take on an unreal quality.’
And with Irene and her family at their lowest ebb, the Media power begins to show.
This is a complete invasion of Irene’s privacy and even territory. At her lowest ebb even the sanctity of her home has been invaded. She uses the word “horde” which not only suggests great numbers but a degree of unruliness and almost a melee with reporters and camera crews jostling for vantage points.
Irene’s only thought is that these people are not there to help in any way. They are there to “get a picture of the grief.” And this process wasn’t just a one off as Irene goes on to explain:
Again Irene’s chances of grieving on her own have been destroyed by the power of the press. She obviously felt threatened. One must assume that the Media spent the night in the garden awaiting any chance of snapping a photograph.
Irene’s account suggests that there was no way that they were going to leave without something. In the depth of grief Irene and her family were being invaded. Not only could they not face the world because of their tragedy, they were now trapped in their own house and realised that the curtains would have to stay closed.
At this point Irene sought advice from the Police:
Again this is passage rich in powerful language and imagery. Graham is the police officer assigned to family liaison duties and obviously his past experience of such situations has given him the chance to assess that the best way of dealing with the situation is to facilitate the Media and to do this for them as a group rather than as individuals - something I have long come to accept and believe.
In the above passages Irene refers to the Media firstly as “hordes” and secondly as “them.” This would be rather dismissive and possibly comments of no particular importance. We know of Irene’s situation and her anger, however, and this makes these comments sound aggressive and angry and aimed directly at the Media. It also has to be remembered that Irene would be writing these passages long after her daughter's death and interesting to note that she was still dismissive of the Media.
The decision to take part in a press conference follows a long held police belief that the only was to effectively manage and deal with the Media is to "Feed the Beast."
The passage then goes on to describe the "unreal feeling" of the Press conference. This was of particular interest to me because as a Police Press Officer and former journalist, press conferences would be accepted as a matter of course and really in modern parlance "no big deal."
This is an interesting passage that suggests the "unreal" nature of Irene's predicament. Into this situation then comes the unreality and the power of the Media. Most people go through their entire lives without being interviewed by the Media. Here Irene, like so many other victims both before and after, is being subjected to the attention of hundreds of journalists.
It is also interesting to see her feelings for subsequent people placed in a similar situation. This is identified by Victim Support:
Although there is no suggestion that Irene has become obsessive about subsequent situations, she is certainly aware of Media coverage of other's plight - and I would suggest this is something she would not have thought about prior to her daughter's death. In other words she has learnt about the power of the media.
She then goes on to describe how she made vain attempts to control the press conference.
So many victims I have talked to have, in the depths of despair, thought about how their actions would affect others. At this point Irene does seem in control of the situation and decides to speak directly to Fiona's killer and in quite powerful language.
These are strong, emotive words. Irene is in control of the situation, but this is soon taken from her.
This perfectly illustrates the pain that Irene was feeling. To me the journalist's questions were expected and not unreasonable, but they obviously hit a raw nerve. It says much for Irene that she did not say exactly what she was thinking. As she says in the next passage she succeeds in restraining herself.
Here the Senior Investigating Officer (Superintendent John Hope) realises that Irene has taken enough and stope the press conference. I would have done exactly the same. Indeed in our Force we have an agreement whereby a victim can stop a press conference at any time by a simple signal to either myself or another colleague. I must say at this point that we have never had to use this device.
Irene goes on to praise her treatment from the Police for ‘their caring attitude over and above the course of duty.’
In stark contrast, however, are her words for the Media and for them she has the following to say: