woensdag 12 mei 1999

Distorting or Creating Reality?

Distorting or Creating Reality?

Paper presented at the Horizon 1999 Congress

May 12

Utrecht, The Netherlands

Peter Vasterman. School of Journalism, Utrecht.

Distorting or Creating Reality?


Debates about the 'distortion of reality' by the media tend to overlook the fact that the media not only give a specific construction of reality, but at the same time have an immense influence on reality itself. Because the media shape our reality, it is very problematic to study presumed 'distortions' and perform a sort of 'reality check' on media coverage.
This problem becomes very clear in cases where 'key events' trigger a media storm which the media become the main player in the field. Such a 'mediahype' about for example sexual abuse cases in schools not only brings every (past and present) incidents to the surface, but at the same time changes society's definitions of sexual abuse and intimidation. The consequence of these changing definitions will be the discovery of even more presumed cases of abuse. This accumulation can create even more outrage or concern. During an intensive mediahype the media temporarily change their news selection criteria, but when the hype is over, collective definitions of these social problems might be changed for good. In that case it is very difficult for the media researcher to compare media coverage with 'reality'. When the media create the impression that a 'wave' of comparable incidents occur in a short period, this might be wrong according to the 'old' definitions of the problem, but the researcher has to deal with the fact that the media storm created new definitions of our 'problematic' reality.

Table: media coverage of sexual abuse cases in schools

Introduction: a wave of abuse cases in schools.

Almost everyday during the spring of 1996, the newspapers brought headlines about sexual abuse cases in schools. Everyday we read headlines like: 'Again, another teacher is arrested for sexual abuse.' 'Teacher fired after sexual abuse accusation.' 'Teacher suspended after kissing girl. 'And almost everyday new cases came to the surface. Within a few months we had a record of over 20 abuse cases in schools. And if that wasn't enough, new abuse cases were discovered in other areas like (amateur and professional) sports with coaches being accused of sexual intimidation.

In the years before 1996 only a very few cases of sexual abuse were reported to the police and covered by the press, but in 1996 sexual abuse in schools seemed to be a growing social problem, with a lot of victims, interestingly enough mainly boys.

By the end of 1996 the number of cases declined, but in the years after that still more cases are reported than in the period before 1996.

What happened in the spring of 1996? Was there a growing problem? Did the amount of cases increase? Did parents have to worry? Was it getting dangerous in the schools? Or was it just another hype, a short period of media focus on sexual abuse? Did the media exaggerate the whole problem, by giving an excessive amount of coverage to minor incidents, that normally would never have attracted this huge attention? Did the media in other words, create a problem? Causing concern of even panic among parents? A problem that seems to disappear, once the media withdraw their attention?

problems with reality check

This case leads us to some very interesting problems, related to the core question of this afternoon: that is the question of distortions of reality by the media.

In order to investigate the assumption that the media create the false impression that the amount of abuse cases has grown, the researcher would have to compare the amount of reported cases in the media with the 'real' amount of cases. In other words the researcher would like to perform a sort of reality check on media coverage. If the media report new cases everyday, creating the impression that the incidents of abuse accumulate, then they give a distorted picture of reality. If there are more cases than before, than the media perform their role of watchdog: they have to point out social problems.

But this approach creates a lot of problems, not only with this subject: sexual abuse in schools, but also with comparable issues like street violence or racist attacks.

Sexual abuse is a criminal act, so it will be difficult to get the truth about the actual size of the problem. A lot of incidents will be kept secret and will not be reported to the authorities in the school or to the police. So their might be serious under reporting in the figures on abuse in schools.

An interesting detail in this matter is that the Dutch Inspectorate for education started to gather figures about sexual abuse in 1994, there are no figures available from the years before. This is a clear signal that this problem has recently been (re-)discovered.

Another problem is connected to the definition of sexual abuse and the change of moral concepts in society. If the definition of what is unacceptable between a teacher and his pupil, is changing then it is even more difficult to get a reliable picture of the scale of the problem. And we have seen considerable changes over the past decades. Completely new words and concepts like sexual violence, sexual harassment, intimidation, or date rape illustrate this process. In the figures of the authorities you'll find severe rape cases but at the same time also verbal sexual intimidation or relationships between high school pupils ands teachers. So the figures contain everything that has been the subject of a complaint. And in the media even very small incidents (kissing after graduation) can become front page news during the abuse wave. And to add even more problems: what if the media play a key role in this process of changing social definitions by highlighting a series of cases in a concentrated way, emphasizing the scope of the problem? The researcher is confronted with a mixture of causes and effects. In these areas we have to deal with a reality that has been contaminated by the media itself. Moral concepts, definitions of social problems change due to media coverage.

'senseless violence'

Let's taken another example. In the Netherlands, a new kind of crime emerged over the past few years, the problem of the 'senseless violence', a very broad concept used to describe situations in which people are killed in the street or in disco's with no reason whatsoever. In two cases, massive protest marches were organized, covered live by two national television channels. One in 1997 after a man was kicked to death during a fight, and once in Gorinchem in 1999 after two girls were killed by gunshots fired through the door of a disco.

In both cases the media not only concentrated on these two cases, but also focused on other incidents of senseless violence for weeks, creating again the impression that this kind of crime was getting worse everyday. And again we are confronted by the same problems: there a no reliable figures on this kind of crime, and even worse: there is no clear definition of senseless violence. At first it seemed to refer to a situation in which an innocent bystander tried to interfere and to help someone who was being harassed by some violent drunks. But later, almost every fight, also the 'regular' fights in cafes were reported by the media as senseless violence cases. Is this senseless violence a sort of media created social problem? How big is the role the media play in these processes?

not distorting, but creating reality.

In both cases the media were criticized for exaggerating the scale of the problem, for sensationalizing the whole issue for the benefit of higher ratings or selling more newspapers. The media were 'hyping up' the problem and by doing this distorting reality. According to critics. I think it is not that simple: it is not a matter of distorting reality but of creating reality. As a researcher, you can try to unravel this whole process, but you cannot simply compare it to reality. In these cases there is no measure for exaggeration. Nevertheless, many researchers have tried to prove that the presumed dangers or problems exposed by news coverage have far less statistical significance than the quantity or the quality of the coverage would suggest.

amplification process

In both cases the media show a special process in which the media amplify a problematic reality. News alerts us to the existence of all kinds of problems, thereby generating public anxiety and a response from the government. The media are not only a proactive force but also a catalyst for social action. (McNair 1998). And this process has a sort of regular pattern, a process that I refer to as the mediahype. Hype not in the sense of exaggerating or give disproportionate media coverage to in fact minor problems, but in the definition of a process in which the media concentrate on an issue, develop it, and change our reality.


In cases like the Kosovo war, where there are new developments, new bombings and other events everyday it is very clear what causes the huge amount of media coverage. This is a publicity wave or a news storm that no one will question as a 'hype'.

But there are also news waves which do not have a very clear and 'linear' connection between independent events and news coverage. In the cases of the sexual abuse and senseless violence incidents it is clear that something else is going on. The media are not watching the game from the position of the audience, but they become important player in the field. Under normal circumstances an abuse case of a victim during a street fight at night would never have gained national coverage, or even live TV-coverage at different channels. These cases would have been short articles on page three or even seven in regional newspapers. But in both cases things went differently: they became part of that special media-process that 'develops' subjects like this into outrages on the front pages.

key event

As Brosius and Eps (1995), and Kepplinger and Habermeier (1995) have stated in their articles on the impact of key events: certain shocking events cause a sudden change in news selection criteria for a short time. After a few weeks everything turns to normal again.

After a key event, which is defined as an event that triggers a news wave, the media first report more about the event and the connected issue, but when this reservoir of news runs dry, the media will look for similar events in other areas (are there also incidents of senseless violence in other parts of Holland?), and after that: similar events in the past.

In most cases these incidents were at the time hardly reported or even completely neglected by the media. But during this 'media frenzy' they get a whole new meaning. And during the next step the media will focus on reactions from politicians or interest groups. It is no coincidence that Kepplinger and Habermeier have chosen three subjects for their research (earthquake, road accidents en aids victims) for which they have reliable statistics (number of casualties). So they can compare the coverage with the factual amount of incidents. And of course the media create the impression that events accumulate, although nothing much has changed. Except that a key event triggered a news wave about the subject.

This becomes a different story if we were to repeat this study with the two issues mentioned above, the sexual abuse in schools and the senseless violence. It is difficult, if not say impossible to compare coverage with the actual frequency of events. Reliable statistics are not available and social definitions are changing over time, also as a result of extensive media coverage.

key construction

Another problem is the question why an event becomes a key event. There is only a very 'loose' connection between the character of the happenings and their becoming a key event. (As Kepplinger and Habermeier write) And that's true, what you see in the news is that sometimes very shocking events do not trigger a mediahype, while others, less shocking do. That brings me to the conclusion that although the event itself is very important, the second important step is the construction of the event by a news source. That is to say: to place the event into a broader context and to give it a social meaning. I would like to call this the key construction. If an event lacks a key construction, it will not trigger a mediahype, unless it is very shocking by itself (in terms of number of casualaties).

In the Netherlands during the past months we had three cases of 'senseless violence' killing altogether four people, but only one of them triggered a huge news wave and led to national outrage. In two other cases the media only brought the regular one column news items about a stabbing and a fight. In the first case in Amsterdam where a motorist was stabbed by a cyclist, the incident was labeled as a 'traffic fight'. In the second case in the Hague three Turkish men were stabbed, killing one of them. It was labeled as one of those new years eve riots. In both cases family and friends held a protest march, with torches and pictures of the victims, but surprisingly no media coverage. The incidents were not labeled as senseless violence by reliable and authoritative sources. In Gorinchem this became the main angle of the whole coverage.

The news wave about abuses cases started with news about a school in Rijssen: the labeling here was also very important: what made it a special case was the fact that it happened at a very orthodox Protestant school, the offender being the religion teacher, and the victims all boys (and large numbers). This case was the main reason for a journalist to investigate an old rumor about an abuse case at his own former high school. He revealed an abuse case that gained even more publicity than Rijssen. This confirms the pattern that journalists are going to look for similar events, even if they happened many years ago. They get a fresh angle because the principal and the board of the school are still in charge and can be confronted with their former policy. For weeks we heard updates about the position of the principal. These two cases taken together triggered a huge news wave in March of 1996. In the months after that the media still are focused on abuse at schools and one case after the other is brought in the open. And indeed in most cases the stories were about similar events from the past. There were almost no new cases.

changing definitions

After an intensive coverage like this, about sexual abuse or about senseless violence, things seem to return to normal, but that remains the question. Statistics will go up, more cases will be reported to the police, victims will file charges much more often, school board will interfere the moment they get the impression something is wrong. The government demands that every school has a specific protocol for abuse cases, leading to more complaints. So statistics will rise and the media will report that again as a growing problem raising concern. At the same time definitions have changed, the category sexual harassment has become much broader and the same goes for the category senseless violence.

I think it is important to do more research into the way the media change our social reality during a news wave, triggered by a shocking key event, in which they focus on one specific subject or problem. There seems to be a relation between the expansion of the definition of a social problem and the way the media work during a mediahype. We should look more into the role of the key construction during the process and the way it is linked to the expansion of the definitions.


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Sexual abuse in schools: number of words per month in NRC Handelsblad, Trouw and Het Parool. January 1990 until September 1998.