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The Social Construction of News and Media's Role in Shaping Public Problems

Chapter Summary

Read: Lawrence, Regina G. (2000). Mediating realities: The social construction of problems in the media arena. In Media and the construction of police brutality. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 1-10 

The Lawrence text sets out the theme of social construction of news. As Lawrence observes, " understanding the shifting representations of groups, events, and issues in the news requires thinking of the news as a socially constructed representation of reality and as an arena of problem construction in which struggles to designate and define public problems are waged” (p.3). The essence of this quote is that what becomes known as issues requiring government or social action are the result of discursive contestations in the media. As Lawrence adds, "The social constructionist approach assumes that "problems” may not exist objectively as they may exist in perception” (p.4). 

For example last summer, 18-year old Sammy Yatim was shot by a police officer in a Toronto streetcar, after Yatim had threatened other passengers with a knife. The incident was caught on tape by bystanders, and the video went viral, finding its way into the mainstream news. The uproar over the event has provoked a public inquiry which just wrapped up, making sweeping recommendations to police use of force in Toronto. This however was not the first case of its kind, and the public outrage was by no means collective. Police spokespersons and sympathisers pushed back in the media with alternative or even oppositional views. Each side in this discursive contest attempted to provide a "dominant narrative” for understanding the issue.For those outraged by the case, it was an "issue” or "problem” that called for governmental action through a public inquiry to prevent such incidents in the future. For the police and their sympathisers, the incident did not merit an inquiry as there existed mechanisms for investigating such cases. The media stories therefore reflected the different constructions of reality regarding the case. Yet still, others will say that there are other pressing "problems” that require state action rather than this incident, because police shooting of knife-wielding youth is not an everyday occurrence. 

The dominant narratives or interpretations to which the media subscribe are then related in how news stories are "framed.” The media cannot capture the all the dimensions of a given case and often focus on an area that relates to the dominant narrative. 

This Chapter gives you more insight into news and the social construction of reality, focusing on how the case of police brutality has been framed in the United States.

The Critical Function of News in the Social Construction of Problems

1. Chapter Summary

2.Why does the author say that news organisations play a critical function in the social construction of public problems?

3.How is power conferred to political authorities by the social construction of an issue as an problem, or by warding off an issue as a non-problem?

4 Explain the "official dominance” model of news

5.1. Using Canadian examples, briefly explain the following concepts: Routine events Accidental events
52. How do journalists control accidental events?

6.Why do accidental or dramatic events allow for more equal opportunities to shape news narrative?

7Briefly explain your understanding of the event driven versus institutionally driven news construction models for problematising political issues

8.Briefly explain marginalisation and agenda-setting



Odartey-Wellington, F. (2009). Racial profiling and moral panic: Operation thread and the Al-Qaeda sleeper cell that never was. Global Media Journal - Canadian Edition, 2(2), 25-40.

By now, you will be familiar with the concept of news and the social construction of reality.

In critical theory, the social construction of reality refers to the notion that how we make sense of phenomena is often shaped by our biases, socialization, ideologies, etc. Hence, it is not guaranteed that one event will be seen in the same way by everyone else.

As we read in Week 2, the media do not simply report events as they occur. Each event is too complicated to be captured in its totality. Therefore, based on a media institution's philosophies, operating procedures, etc., it will highlight the part of the event that it finds significant. It will use terminologies that are consistent with its writing or communication style (also called a "house style”). For example, Al Jazeera and other media situated in the Middle East will describe Palestinian militants as "resistance fighters.” Western media will describe them as "terrorists.”

As we read in Week 3, the way news media operate can be leveraged by dominant interests in the establishment. Journalists are super busy, working on tight budgets and tighter deadlines. They also adhere to a quality control system that aims to ensure that their audiences always regard them as being credible. They are therefore partial to institutional sources such as the police, government officials, NGO leaders etc. This excludes, to a large extent, the voices of non-institutional sources. Hence, when news media construct stories, there is a big possibility that some voices will be excluded, and others given prominence.

The foregoing is informed by my research into media coverage of the Operation Thread case, which is also assigned for your reading pleasure this week.


2.What do you understand by the concept "moral panic” as defined in the text?

3.How do the media contribute to moral panics?

4.List the moments that constitute the discourse of a moral panic?

5.What did the National Post and The Globe and Mail rely on in their initial reportage of Operation Thread and why?

6.Did the Globe and Mail and National Post cover the story the same way? What were points of convergence and divergence?

7.What influenced any differences in coverage between the two newspapers?

8.Was any of the coverage offered by the newspapers false? Inaccurate?

9.Who are "authorized knowers” and why do media rely on them?

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