What does the media (& the government) tell us about poverty?

What does ‘welfare’ mean to you? Or ‘benefits’? Do you associate these words with phrases like ‘welfare queens’ or ‘benefit cheats’? Does the image of a ‘bogan’ (Australia) or a ‘chav’ (UK) smoking a cigarette out the front of a government flat spring to mind?

Our thoughts on poverty (and people in poverty) are influenced not only by the language we read or hear, but through a variety of other cues. Semiotics is the study of such meaning-making, and helps us understand how we can be influenced by a range of different signs.

Manufacturing Consent

It is 30 years since the publication of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. I first saw the documentary based on this book many years ago. It remains one of the most influential I have ever watched. (Here’s an excellent summary:)

In essence, Herman and Chomsky argue there are five filters of editorial bias:

  1. Size, Ownership & Profit Orientation. Because mass-media outlets tend to be large corporations operated for profit, they must cater to the interests of the controlling investors.
  2. The Advertising License to Do Business: Since major media outlets cannot survive without advertising revenue, they must cater to the biases of their advertisers.
  3. Sourcing Mass Media News. Those who help subsidize the mass media not only influence its content, but often become sources for news, at the expense of other opinions.
  4. Flak and the Enforcers. The media cops ‘flak’ when it receives negative responses, often from a think tank, to a statement or program, which can be expensive (loss of ad revenue, costs of legal defense, etc.) The prospect of copping flak is a powerful deterrent to reporting certain opinions and facts.
  5. Anti-Communism. Used as a major social control mechanism during the Cold War, later replaced by the ‘War on Terror’.

The Language of Money in Advertising

Most of us recognise advertising is cleverly designed to influence us to buy things, and commercial apps are one example of this. We’ve already looked at the money messages present in children’s apps here on Enrichmentality, but in the extremely interesting new book The Language of Money and Debt, Brookes and Harvey consider apps targeted at adults produced by the ‘fringe economy’. The ‘fringe economy’ is represented by aggressive financial services that charge very high interest rates. Through advertising – and more recently, apps – companies utilise a variety of discursive techniques to encourage customers to borrow potentially more than they can afford.

Apps such as the ‘Cash Converters’ app, Brooks and Harvey report, refer to debt in euphemistic terms. They describe loans as ‘cash solutions’. Highly important terms like ‘annual percentage rate‘ are given as acronyms (APR) and not explained.

And it’s not just the language. The images, too, can manipulate users’ perceptions. Rather than depicting the types of sentimental and low-value items usually pawned (46% of which customers do not get back), ads show relatively expensive luxury items.

Colour, also, is manipulated by both banks and fringe operators alike. Blue stands for trustworthiness and security, utilised by banks. Meanwhile, pawnbrokers use warmer colors to convey invitation and warmth.

Government Messages

Of course, it’s not only commercial interests that send the public messages about money and poverty. As Herman and Chomsky point out, the government does this too. According to Roberts, in his examination of the language of ‘welfare dependency’ and benefit cheats’ and ‘scroungers’, these are examples of state-sanctioned language.

Unsurprisingly, how the media describes welfare or benefit recipients appears to differ based on the government of the country you’re in. (Just as Herman and Chomsky would predict) Research by Larsen and Dejgaard found public discourse about ‘poor and welfare clients’ is ‘harsher’ in liberal regimes, and ‘softer’ in social democratic ones.

But why?

Just like products, policies are marketed to the public, ‘sold’ to us through the media. This includes economic policy. Roberts points to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis as an example of an event used to market a particular type of economic policy.

Governments used the 9/11 attacks in the US and the ‘War on Terror’ to push through legislative changes threatening privacy and freedom in not only the States but Australia, the UK and elsewhere. Likewise, Roberts describes the GFC as ‘the perfect cover for a number of actions’. Currently, these actions include the roll-back of the welfare state and a variety of ‘austerity’ measures. This is our modern-day ‘Cold War’ as Chomsky highlighted.

Roberts’ analysis is based on the Department of Work and Pensions campaign ‘Benefit Thieves, We’re Closing In‘:

But, as Paterson, Peplow and Grainger’s chapter on the television genre of ‘poverty porn’ illustrates, popular television shows draw upon similar stereotypes. Is this symptomatic of the extent to which government and media biases overlap?

In the next post, we’ll look at the ethics of some popular shows and their depictions of poverty (and wealth).

But next time you hear a term like ‘dole bludger’ or ‘welfare cheat’, think about what message the user is trying to send. How are they trying to manipulate your thinking and future reactions? And don’t stop at money messages. When the government calls asylum seekers who arrive by boat ‘illegal’ or ‘queue jumpers’, question that too. Ask what biases are at play.

Language matters.

What do ‘welfare’ and ‘benefits’ mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.

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