How The Media Influences Social Policy


Social policy is in place to enable the state to determine and manage the needs of society as a whole. Social policy deals with the distribution of practical and financial resources and the range of

responses to social need. The public’s general understanding of social policy is usually that the government decides which policies need to be changed, implemented and abolished. In this essay I will show that social policy is not just a straightforward matter of government and I will look at the effects and implications of media and pressure groups on social policy.

Political parties influence how welfare is approached and therefore how policies are formed. They develop policies which voters expect implemented if they are elected into office. Those political parties do not operate in isolation and in a pluralist society where power is distributed throughout different groups [Bochel et al, 2005 p18], if a person is unable to vote through a political party for issues they are concerned about, they can join a pressure group to influence policy making. Pressure groups generally aim to achieve influence over particular policies rather than to achieve control of government. Bill Coxall et al. defines pressure groups as, ‘Any organisation which normally working through lobbying rather than standing for office, seeks to influence public policy…’, so making the point that pressure groups are wanting to influence and possibly change a particular social policy (in Czerniawski, 2005 p22)
Some Sociologists, however do not support the existence of pressure groups. Marxists make the points that often they are just sounding boards for political parties and their influence depends on their connections [Czerniawski, 2005 p22]. However pressure groups are now usually involved in campaigning around one issue, for example, homelessness and they need the participation of the general public to make their views heard.

Pressure groups fall into two categories, either ‘protecting’ or ‘promoting’. The promoting groups such as Shelter aim to promote their values and beliefs and the protecting groups such as Northern Ireland Social Care Council aim to protect the rights and interests of all the Social Care Workers in Northern Ireland. These would both be ‘insider pressure groups’, able to sit alongside the government and have direct involvement in policy making. ‘Outsider pressure groups’ cannot sit directly with the government, either because they do not have, or do not wish to have a close relationship with officials. An example of this is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Group (CNDuk.org) in the 1980’s. Despite having 250,000 members and staging protest marches through London with much media attention, the Conservative government at the time did not agree with their aims and concerns. CND were concerned due to the Conservative Government’s close links with the US and the new threats of more nuclear weapons in Europe. This led to CND being excluded from any arms decisions made by the government [Trueman, 2000, history learning site : CNDuk.org], but still they staged marches to rally public support to indirectly put pressure on the government and change social policy.

Amnesty international is an extremely powerful promotional pressure group, [Foley, Society and Culture Association] with 1.8 million members in over 150 countries. Amnesty International is non-political, but involves itself in asking for donations, staging peaceful protests, campaigning relentlessly and emailing foreign ministers regarding arms supplies. Amnesty International has so much power now that countries cited by them as there being human rights concerns such as China and the United States have received extremely negative publicity due to this. Between 1990 and 2005, Amnesty International recorded 19 executions in the United States for crime committed by a juvenile [Amnesty.org]. An Amnesty International recent campaign for justice resulted in a change in policy disallowing the execution of juvenile offenders in certain US states [Wikipedia.org]. A former torturer from El Salvador said, ‘...if there's lots of pressure – like from Amnesty International or some foreign countries – we might pass them on to a judge. But if there's no pressure, then they're dead’ [Amnesty.org]. This example therefore shows that this particular pressure group is effective in getting their message across. Amnesty do have a strong support group, but there are many counties such as China who although not directly opposing Amnesty International, will criticise reports by Amnesty regarding China’s state of human rights [bbc.co.uk, 2000]. When compared to the government pressure groups resources are minimal but when many small groups come together around an issue, the resources grow tremendously and can have considerable impact, thereby enabling changes in social policy.

Any confrontations will multiply any impact a pressure group can have on an issue. Since public opinion is the ultimate source of the group's social power, the media plays an important role by focusing public attention on their actions. The media is all around us, providing us with news stories in many different mediums. Bochel et el make the point that ‘the public also make distinctions, with the evidence suggesting that they are generally much more ready to say that they believe that TV News reporting is truthful than newspaper coverage’, but they also say that the perceptive that the public will believe whatever they are told by the media is not true [Bochel et el, 2005, p21]. Broadsheets such as the Times and the Guardian often contrast widely with tabloid reporting such as the News of the World and the Sun Newspapers. In the Times Newspaper on 7 November 2006 the main story on the front page was ‘forty years for bomb plotter’ and on the same date on the front page of the Sun Newspaper, their main story was “I’ll blow up Thames…’plan to kill hundreds… if not thousands’” [Fresco, 2006 : The Sun online, 2006]. Both reporting the same story, but the Sun Newspaper framed it and interpreted it differently so it becomes more personal to the reader. Bochel et al. support this by discussing reinforcing pre-existing opinions amongst the public and how the mass media can frame a story focusing on bad news, violence and conflict as this sells newspapers [Bochel et al, 2005, p22].

The media appeared to be particularly successful in highlighting cases such as the policy of community care for people with mental illnesses, influencing public opinion and inspiring policy responses. For example the policy of community care for people with mental illness came under intense scrutiny after the 1992 incident when Christopher Clunis, who had a diagnosis of Schizophrenia and had been discharged from hospital, killed a stranger at a London tube station [Court, 1994. Emotive, headline-catching language was used to describe the predicament of Christopher Clunis creating a moral panic amongst readers by linking this to other community care stories with a similar outcome. Mental Health organization ‘Mind’ did a survey of 500 people within their network who voted the Sun Newspaper as being the newspaper with the worst coverage of mental health issues [Ferriman, bmj journals, 2000]. This moral panic not only relates to who is released onto the streets but also the state of Social Services and specifically the Mental Health Service [Swale, 2004, p15]. Measures put in place after this incident and the resulting media coverage have arguably served to impose additional constraints on people with mental health problems including a national supervision register, supervised discharge order, specialist housing, thereby also putting responsibility and pressure on the already stretched Mental Health Services. Steve Hewlett, director of programmes at Carlton Television, explained that newspapers often made substantial mileage out of mental health incidents, such as the Christopher Clunis case because they knew it awakened fear in their readers.

He explained "It is always easier to reinforce your readers' views than challenge them" [Ferriman, bmj journals, 2000]. Durkheim (1895) observed that a limited amount of crime is beneficial and Jill Swale (2004) uses this theory to illustrate that people unite in horror when very shocking and horrific crimes are committed [in Swale, 2004, p16]. A group called Media Forum on Mental Health has been set up by mental health organizations such as Mind in order to influence the media to report on mental health more responsibly. This is because they are so concerned that the public are being led to believe by the media that people with mental health issues are a threat to society.

I think the media has a substantial influence over how they report a crime and therefore how the public sees this crime and chooses to react. The Media run a money orientated business and want to sell as many copies or get as many people to watch their broadcast as possible and the tabloids especially are often sensationalist and will report the stories their public want to hear about. Regarding Durkheim’s (1895) theory of boundary setting, Jill Swale (2004) remarks that people will demand a change in legislation when a crime receives media attention and the punishment is inadequate, but if people see the crime as shocking, they can often push for changes in the law [in Swale, 2004, p16]. This is very dangerous as we have seen by the community care issue, it can result in the public getting an unfair picture of mental health patients, and thereby has effects on social policy which could have been better thought out and planned rather that hysteria becoming an integral part of ensuring the public are protected. I do however think that a positive tool for the government is that they can use pressure groups to their advantage as for each group holding a position on an issue there is generally another group holding the opposite position. This illustrates that we live in a pluralist society which therefore means the government can gage from the media and public reaction where the public stand according to issues that pressure groups are lobbying for and therefore the government can react accordingly.

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