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Media Agenda-Setting and Antisemitism in Britain

Media is the 'gatekeeper' of information in the 21st century. Its influence on antisemitism in Britain's discourse has profound social and political consequences.
Artwork by Archie Willis.

Archie Willis

Archie Willis is the founding editor of FUTBOLISTA Magazine, and has written several cover features for the magazine. He is currently studying a BA Honours degree in Journalism, Media & Communication and Spanish at the University of Strathclyde. Archie has also written for The Herald and FTBL Cult. @_archiewillis

Introduction

The ‘public sphere’, as theorized by Jürgen Habermas, denotes the free discussion of societal matters formed upon reasoned argumentation in a democratic setting (1989). This notion, which is the product of media agenda-setting, outlines an elitist formation of public discussion in which the precedence of distributed factual information is disregarded. If the public sphere is dependent upon ‘both quality of discourse and quantity of participation’ (Calhoun, 1992: 2), the selection of rational debate in journalism, media and communication can be considered as a precondition to an educated public capable of performing Habermas’ ideals. The transmission of factual information between sender and receiver can thus be defined as ‘agenda-setting’, a term used by McCombs to convey the ‘transfer of salience from the news media to the public’ (2005: 544). In the study of communications, media agenda-setting determines our reality of events rather than causing an individual action. The unknown and unidentifiable ‘messenger’ of mass media communicates the prominence of events to an assembled audience (de Certeau, 1984: 185), without stated emphasis on the direction of public thought. In this way, the cultivation of belief and reality prompts further study of the (often unintentionally transmitted) responsibility of media for the content of public debate. It is argued that the emergence of the digital realm has expanded this concept, as Schroeder considers a ‘transmission belt’ between media and public which outlines agenda (2018: 29). With reference to social media, this paper addresses the practice of agenda-setting in relation to antisemitism and its prevalence in messaged communication. In order to evaluate the significance of this theory to industry critique, contemporary examples and academic commentaries are discussed throughout, with particular attention to the formation of identity politics in media and the role of media ‘gatekeepers’. The status of antisemitism in the UK and beyond is examined objectively with the aim of presenting the correlation between agenda-setting and the study of journalism, media and communication.

The formation of identity politics in media

In their study of electorate behaviour, McCombs and Shaw introduce agenda-setting as a primary function of media distribution, describing the transmission of factual information via the mass media as the ‘only contact’ between the public and political arena (1972: 176). Media is thus an educative influence over public discourse: ‘While the media may have little influence on the direction or intensity of attitudes, it is hypothesized that the mass media set the agenda for each political campaign, influencing the salience of attitudes toward the political issues’ (McCombs and Shaw, 1972: 177). If media agenda-setting transforms ‘the great silence of things into its opposite’ by dictating what is perceived as ‘reality’ (de Certeau, 1984: 185), this approach can also be applied to analysis of the salience of discrimination communicated through media. The characteristics of social media, in the production, distribution and consumption of an ‘information infrastructure’ (Howard and Parks, 2012: 362), have expanded agenda-setting without exclusivity to conventional broadcasting media elites. Moreover, the prominence enjoyed by select media topics is central to the formation of ‘identity politics’ amongst social groups (Bernstein, 2005: 47). In order to assess the often unintentionally highly selective nature of media agenda-setting which instigates identity politics, it is helpful to consider the ranking of antisemitism against other forms of discrimination within the UK’s distribution of media.

Michel de Certeau (1925 – 1986) was a French philosopher and scholar, widely recognised for his theory on everyday life. Artwork by Archie Willis.

Amidst a barrage of cultural reassessment driven by social media users, the news agenda is increasingly dominated by reports, incidences and opinion of discrimination against minority groups. This ‘camouflaged’ presentation of factual information establishes public discussion of ‘real’ events, in a transmission of information which ‘no longer bear[s] the arms of any offensive or defensive idea’ (de Certeau, 1984: 185). As media shapes public agenda with increased awareness of the treatment of minority groups, it is argued that the gravity of antisemitism is devalued as ‘second-class racism’ in spite of an intense culture of identity politics (Baddiel, 2021: 11). Campaigns launched with the objective of diversifying media unknowingly set a tiered agenda of identity politics, pitting one form of racism against the other in constant competition for media prominence. Whilst without success or intent to tell people what to think of contemporary issues (McCombs and Shaw, 1972: 177), media influences public understanding of the composition of these issues, such as racism, which are then discussed in Habermas’ idealized public sphere. The proposed ‘rationality’ of debate (Calhoun, 1992: 2) is therefore undermined, as is exemplified by BBC coverage of a recent antisemitic attack in central London during Hanukkah. Prior to online amendment and TV clarification following complaints, their report had inaccurately suggested that the attack was carried out following an ‘anti-Muslim slur’ from the victims which would communicate an entirely different message to its audience (Blackall, 2022). Although the presence of antisemitism was also significantly noted, this deflection of public attention in agenda-setting allows Baddiel to draw the conclusion that Jewish people ‘don’t count’ in the mass media’s supposedly ‘progressive’ neutrality of event coverage (2021: 5). This points to the foregrounding of identity politics via media agenda-setting – a notion which mobilizes the topics of public discourse with inadvertent controversy of information selection.

In addition, as society endeavours to stand ‘on the right side of history’ (Baddiel, 2021: 16), further thought to the conveyed seriousness of antisemitism in media is required. The reality-defining nature of agenda-setting, which cultivates public opinion over a prolonged time period, is reflective of the disputed authenticity of forms of discrimination. As such, the receiver of transmitted messages may recognise the existence of antisemitism, yet the prominence of these messages in media causes public valuation of topics such as racism. Baddiel makes reference to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, which in its founding function sets public agenda with topical discussion, as a notable case of presenting factual information without a direct message to its audience. Baddiel’s chosen example, in which the interviewer suggested that antisemitism could be presented as ‘not as important’ as other forms of racism by the Democratic Party, underlines the highly politicised nature of agenda-setting in media in its quest for a false neutrality influenced by identity politics:

‘It was a strange moment. It felt less like a question and more like a helpful suggestion. Maybe this would be a way forward for the Democrats? was the tone. Webb [the interviewer] did not qualify or contextualise it. He did not preface it or add ‘Obviously this is offensive to say, but perhaps it’s what some people in the party think’. His tone was neutral.’ (Baddiel, 2021: 11)

Hence, to an extent the ‘helpful suggestive’ nature of agenda-setting, which neither impresses a fixed opinion upon the audience nor distributes media with efficient balance, is responsible for antisemitic ‘microaggressions’ (Smith and Schapiro, 2018: 132). This phrase is defined by Nadal et al. as ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate, hostile, derogatory, or negative…slights toward members of oppressed groups’ (2010), which casts doubt over the study of agenda-setting as an inactive influence in society. If the mass media is a solely educative source of public agenda-setting (McCombs and Shaw, 1972: 176), the translation of learned reality of events into individual action is also inevitable. Antisemitic behaviour, deemed less offensive in comparison with other forms of racism as a consequence of agenda-setting, is thus commonplace in British society, from the stadium to the literary scene (Baddiel, 2021: 14).

The role of media gatekeepers

The digital age has accelerated a changing media landscape between the sender and receiver of communication. Within this ever-changing environment, Weimann and Brosius note the declining control of traditional media ‘gatekeepers’ as promotors of news agenda (2016: 37). Positions of media gatekeeping, previously occupied by journalists, editors and broadcasters, are now taken up by a ‘wider group of actors’ facilitated by social media platforms and Internet usage (Lewis, 2020: 77). For clarity, gatekeeping in media can be understood as selecting ‘from a wide range of sources’, a process which is ‘systematically biased, driven by a combination of organizational factors, news norms, and audience interests’ resulting in preferential coverage of news (Soroka, 2012: 514). The performance of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the 2019 UK General Election, in relation to cross-party controversies of racism, can be assessed as evidence of the agenda-setting tendencies of media gatekeepers.

The content of communication, as decided by its sender, creates a system of belief which is founded upon public trust of what media ‘signifies’ (de Certeau, 1984: 186). The true identity of agenda-setting is thus unknown to the masses, dictated by the chosen few ‘gatekeepers’ of media distribution. In its vague direction of public discourse, the impact of gatekeepers establishing belief in society is evident: ‘When they advance, the terrain itself seems to advance. But in fact they fabricate the terrain, simulate it, use it as a mask, accredit themselves by it, and thus create the scene of their law’ (de Certeau, 1984: 185-186). For instance, traditional gatekeepers in the field of journalism, media and communication are influential in public reception of the political arena, whereby the selection of factual information creates discussion over particular issues. The display of news during the 2019 UK General Election campaigns by gatekeeping institutions is regarded as a primary reason for the considerable defeat of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party to the Conservative Party, amidst a surge of debate regarding racism and discrimination between the parties. If agenda-setting is understood to influence voting intention (McCombs and Shaw, 1972: 176), it can be argued that the prominence of allegations of antisemitism against Mr Corbyn and Islamophobia against the Conservative Party in media dictated the terrain of public discourse prior to the election. Wainwright cited a flow of ‘toxic antagonism’ generated by gatekeeping qualities of the mass media as a key challenge to the leadership of Mr Corbyn (2018: 40), enabled by prominent coverage of his pro-Palestinian stance and failure to deal with accusations of antisemitism within the Labour Party. Indeed, the selection of this news topic by gatekeepers may be attributable to recent data which revealed that a primary cause of voting intention in the 2019 General Election was ‘contempt for, or hatred of, Jeremy Corbyn’ (Gough, 2020). This consequence of media gatekeeping is in direct contrast with public response to racist remarks made by Boris Johnson, leader of the Conservative Party, which remain without ‘popular attention’ (Gough, 2020). ‘Generous media coverage’ of the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism (Sedley, 2018), coupled with the evident negligible effect of alleged historic Islamophobia for the Conservative Party’s election results, is noted to have created a ‘massive imbalance between the parties in the media, the social media, and funding’ (Gough, 2020). Whilst agenda-setting originates from the coverage and headlines of traditional media, the transfer of salient news agenda to the ‘new gatekeepers’ of social media has eroded the boundary between the sender and receiver of communicated messages (Lewis, 2020: 77). This transformation sustains a varying online agenda which is amplified during elections. In summary, the notion of Habermas’ public sphere has been overridden by a new caste of online agenda-setters, led by conventional media gatekeepers in the distribution of news, to direct the selection of news topics from the sender to the arena of public discussion with undefined bias.

Conclusion

The study of agenda setting in journalism, media and communication allows us to identify the intricate link between the distribution of information in media and its consumption as ‘reality’ (de Certeau, 1984: 185). Similarly, the foundation of belief in real events for purposes of public discourse can be traced to the media’s apparent educative influence over the salience of topics. Online innovations have evolved definitions of terms such as agenda-setting, identity politics and media gatekeepers, although the evidence of political and societal impact implies contemporary accuracy of previous research conducted by McCombs and Shaw on the direction of public thought (1972: 176). Moreover, the variation of media agendas set by identity politics and gatekeepers, which politicizes and selects the content of public opinion, is a formative theme of communications study with influence in everyday life.

Reference list
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