As a local newspaper reporter I remember my concern when a report I had written on the complex case of a sex offender appeared on the front page with the headline "Monster Jailed". I therefore read with interest the Glasgow Media Group's detailed analysis of how such media messages are received by the public.
Message Received comprises the independent research group's work between 1993 and 1998 with contributions from 12 writers, media studies academics as well as journalists, including the diplomatic editor of Channel Four News , Lindsey Hilsum. The research is diverse, ranging from the effects on public opinion of coverage of the miners' strike to crisis reporting in Africa. Work on the latter contributed to a study by the Overseas Development Institute on the role of non-governmental organisations, while other studies informed areas of social policy in Britain.
GMG's aim was to "examine the process through which media messages were either accepted, and believed, or rejected" through empirical studies, without resorting to generalisations. In this I think they succeed.
A key tool in the group's work is the use of focus groups in which subjects are commonly shown photo stills of news reports/TV or film drama scenes and asked to reconstruct dialogue from them. People's startling memory recall months after the event indicated intense interest in what they saw. A study into the effect of violence in the film Pulp Fiction on a group of Glasgow school children, just weeks after the Dunblane massacre, found that even one cherubic little girl could recreate such choice dialogue as "you mother-****er". The children's admiration of the cool, funny but violent characters clouded their recognition that killing was wrong. Rather than leaping to the conclusion that watching violent films causes violent behaviour in children, researchers suggested that such media contribute to a transfer of values and they strongly recommended that anti-violence classes be adopted in schools.
A study of the coverage of the collapse of the Berlin Wall aimed to show how ideological frameworks govern the reporting of events by recording the incidence of key words describing the mass migration from east to west Germany. A "flood" of humanity escaping the old communist tyrannies (good news) soon became an "invasion" of refugees (bad news) as the West perceived the threat to political and economic stability. Scrutiny of news reports on the 1994 Rwanda genocide coupled with interviews with aid agency staff shockingly showed the influence of the media on the policies of non-governmental organisations and governments. Western powers slow to act to prevent the crisis fell over themselves in public displays of humanitarian aid - most memorably in a US airdrop to camera of parcels found to contain ski mittens. NGOs, desperate for fund-raising publicity, concentrated their efforts on causes such as looking after orphans, rather than less "newsworthy" projects such as digging latrines to prevent cholera.
Some of GMG's research conclusions may state little more than the obvious; but often proof of the obvious was all they sought so that appropriate action could be taken in the community. Message Received potentially has the widest of audiences, from politicians and public policy-makers to media students. It is a thought-provoking read with informed and wise views on society and the media. Unfortunately, few journalists are likely to read it.
Mike North is on the staff of The THES .
Editor - Greg Philo
ISBN - 0 582 29800 8
Publisher - Longman
Price - £18.99
Pages - 382