Whose Dreams Are Alive? Thinking about News Media as Stories

Published 11 September 2012 / By William Allen

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In my current work with the Migration Observatory, I broadly look at

(1) how migrants are portrayed in British print media, and
(2) how these portrayals contribute to public attitudes towards migrants.

Laying the groundwork for answering these questions involves analysis at the article level: for instance, to determine which media outlets publish more content about migration, we might compare the number of articles featuring certain words like ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, or ‘asylum’. This method sheds important comparative light on different kinds of print media over time which will in turn direct our future efforts. Indeed, this project has a decidedly quantitative emphasis which is an important way of getting a big-picture view of British media and migration. Yet, there’s another way of looking at these questions—not from the perspective of formal-sounding ‘articles’, but in the everyday sense of ‘stories’ in the news.

What do stories do?

The idea of a ‘story’ may sound quaint, but in actuality we interpret, explain, and express ourselves through stories all the time. Stories involve much more than a retelling of how we got from Point A to B. They include plot—how events relate to each other within a text—and subjective elements like emotion that hold our attention.

In the context of what we might read in a paper, journalists and editors select and (re)order information into configurations that drive home certain points which, they think, will appeal to readers. Moving quotes, poignant images, and shocking headlines all have impact at different levels. In the context of longer time periods, these configurations contribute to a range of enduring patterns of stories about migrants—as criminals, as helpless, as job-stealers, as entrepreneurs.

But viewing the news through the lens of story-telling and story-making raises other questions of values, rights, and ability. Who gets to tell these stories? Why do some characters (perhaps in both literary and comical senses) appear more often than others? What kinds of story elements are allowed to appear on the page? What else is going on inside and outside of the immediate situation that impacts the story’s content?

The Olympic story

One story in British media that touches on some of my own interests in migration and citizenship (as well as sport in general) centres on the Paralympics and Olympics. These mega-events provided important opportunities to talk about what it means to ‘be British’, as well as what values motivate societies. For instance, the think-tank British Future, in a recently published report Team GB: How 2012 Should Boost Britain, argued that as “27 million of us watched Danny Boyle retell the British story, [it showed] how a modern patriotism can be rooted in our history of change and dissonance, and the shared national experiences which make us British” (page 6). Furthermore, as Team GB’s athletics captain Stephen Miller expressed in a moving poem broadcasted with yesterday’s Paralympics closing ceremony, “the dream is real—and it is alive.”

Whose dream are we reading?

The notion of stories helps us to think more critically about exactly what we’re reading-slash-consuming. Especially in news media, migrants and refugees have been associated with insecurity, difference, and terrorism. Yet, in the wake of Paralympic and Olympic success in Britain, there has been more emphasis on unity, multiculturalism, belonging: again, quoting Miller, “London was a backdrop, but the Earth took centre stage.”

As we peruse headlines, click through video galleries, or retweet our favourite articles (perhaps analogous to a book recommendation), I hope we become aware of the fact that the media coverage surrounding all events—but particularly emotionally charged ones—is still part of a constructed story with many contributors who sometimes hold divergent and contradictory interests.

It is vital to ask ourselves a key question: to what ends are these images, voices, and characters being employed? Or, more simply, whose dreams are being realised? Yes, a big-picture view reveals important trends and topics. However, we should also be alert to the subtle problems of plot, surprise endings, and character development that present challenges for researchers and readers alike.

Follow the Migration Observatory on Twitter @MigObs, and Will @williamlallen.