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How do media tell us whom to blame for social problems?

Jing Guo's picture

Let’s consider these questions…
Should the poor be blamed for their poverty?
Should the government or citizens be responsible for the cost of health care?
Shall we expect only developed countries to deal with climate change?
Before you start searching for your own answers, the media, believe it or not, have already planted theirs in your mind.
News media set the public agenda every day by telling us what is important to know and how to think about it. When it comes to global challenges such as poverty, climate change, and the refugee crisis, the media often play a decisive role in defining both the problem and responsibility. Attribution of responsibility in media reporting should not be underestimated, as it suggests the source of problems and who should fix them, shapes the public discourse and opinions about issues, and subsequently influences local and global policy approaches to public concerns.

Talking about poverty
In Talking about Poverty, University of South Carolina professor Sei-Hill Kim and his colleagues discuss how printed and broadcast media presented both causes of and solutions to poverty in America. They analyzed news stories from newspapers in the four wealthiest and poorest states in the U.S., as well as TV news stories from ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN between 1993 and 2007. They found that the news media tend to attribute poverty to social causes (e.g., bad economy, ineffective government, lack of support for education, etc.) more than personal factors (e.g., lack of education, broken families, high risk personal choices, etc.). To reduce poverty, the media also more frequently prioritizes societal-level solutions over personal-level solutions. 
Overall, the American media blame poverty on social forces more than personal factors. However, as compared to more politically conservative news media, liberal media outlets were even more likely to attribute poverty to social factors such as the current economic policies, minimum wage, and government aid than the poor themselves.
This suggests that the American media generally tend toward framing poverty as a problem that requires social interventions, most likely leading the public to demand action from the government and social institutions. The type of media one consumes also determines his/her level of expectation regarding systematic, institutional efforts to tackle poverty.
If the media in the U.S. frame poverty in a relatively consistent way, how does attribution of responsibility play out in international news regarding a global issue that involves the interest of multiple players?
Who’s responsible for climate change?
On a global scale, researchers believe that mass media shape a public arena where global problems such as climate change are constructed and debated. The news media may play a significant role in determining people’s understanding of who is responsible for both causing climate change and mitigating its impacts.
A research team at the University of Wisconsin studied differences in attribution of responsibility in American, Chinese, and Canadian TV news coverage of the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference. They found that Chinese and American media tend to attribute climate change to countries other than their home countries, whereas a majority of Canadian news stories blamed climate change on Canada itself.
Looking forward, Canadian news media also indicate that their government should be responsible for addressing climate change impacts. American media suggest that both the U.S. and other developed countries need to play an equal role in combatting climate change. However, a majority of news stories in China assigns the responsibility only to developed countries, especially western countries.
These differences in attribution are consequential, as the media coverage affects the public’s perceptions of climate change in their respective countries. The media’s attribution of responsibility can either dampen or strengthen the public’s support for government initiatives and even international collaboration to fight climate change.
Public policy and attribution of responsibility
The link between public support for a policy decision and attribution of responsibility is real and significant. To test the link, researchers at the University of Amsterdam designed an experiment using the media coverage of the Dutch government’s efforts to reform health care.
They found that when the media use exemplars of ordinary citizens to illustrate broader public health care issues (i.e. human interest framing), the public is more likely to blame the Dutch government for providing inadequate health care support to its citizens. As a result, their opposition to the government’s health care reform grows, especially with regards to budget cuts for children’s attention deficit disorder medication.
The mass media serve as a gatekeeper of information about social issues in most societies. For instance, the heartbreaking news image of a drowned Syrian boy triggered a worldwide discussion on who should be responsible for sponsoring Syrian refugees. The public still relies heavily on the media’s presentation and interpretation of current events to form their attitudes and develop their own policy preferences.
While the media are expected to discuss issues in a neutral manner, it is almost inevitable that they package a complex topic by highlighting some aspects of it over others and suggesting attribution of responsibility to various degrees. Now, as we are more aware of the media’s “blame game,” it is up to us to decide whether we want accept their suggestions or engage critically on our own.
Or, you may ask: is it possible to render our own evaluative judgments without media influence in today’s world? Is attribution of responsibility avoidable in media reporting? If not, is attribution of responsibility always false and misleading? Is adherence to a norm of neutral, attribution-free reporting on issues like climate change conducive to problem solving? These, indeed, are all crucial questions worth exploring.

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Photograph of homeless man and his dogs by Fran Urbano
 Photograph of Big Bend Power Station and Manatee Viewing Center by Walter

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