Honey, ISIS took the kids…

Go to any news website right now and you will see at least one article on terrorism against the west – in particular, ISIS and the religious war that is raging in the Middle East. The new current trend, however, is the moral panic over young people who are allegedly being ‘seduced’ by ISIS and becoming active participants in this war.

Charles Krinsky gives us a succint definition of moral panic, describing it as “an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.” So, essentially, any controversial or awe-inspiring news story can be picked up and help whip the masses into a frenzy. Titles such as “Fresh-faced westerners are being lulled into terrorism by ISIS propaganda” (here) are perfect examples of how a controversial topic and snappy title can create a moral panic.

“Rousing public fears” (Krinsky 2013) means big business for media outlets and combining the already heightened fear the mass audience has with terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (Baran 2008) with the vulnerability of children, children who are deemed ‘ours’ with such tags as ‘western’, will definitely rouse that public fear. This anxiety becomes misdirected when the media manipulates the story in a way that exaggerates the facts of the story to create interest in a story that, if just the facts were displayed, may not be as interesting.

I am not in any way trying to downplay or discredit these news stories, I believe it is in the public’s interest that such reports are accessible, it is the language and imagery used that draw the red flags. The blatant appeal to the audience’s emotions and very protective nature we have regarding children (Beder 1998) will, if the stories continue at a high volume, create a form of moral panic. Take, for example, this image –

Published on major news websites, including The Daily Mail UK and The New York Daily News, this photograph – taken as a screenshot from an Al Qaeda Training video – was meant to shock audiences into a response. Scholars have argued, however, that this large-scale response can actually work in favor of the large terrorist organizations who actively want to incite fear in the western media. “for terrorists, the media functions as a tool to shrink the power asymmetry between them and the entity they fight against in an actual and ideological warfare, create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, legitimize their acts, and reach greater audiences.” (Bilgen 2012).

Moral panic is not just a cultural phenomena, it is a powerful tool that can help sell newspapers, spread false information and give massive amounts of attention to causes and events that may not deserve such magnification.


Baran J 2008, ‘Terrorism and the Mass Media after Al Qaeda: A Change of Course?’, Review, <http://www.review.upeace.org/index.cfm?opcion=0&ejemplar=7&entrada=63>, Accessed: 19/04/15.

Bilgen A, ‘Terrorism and the Media: A Dangerous Symbiosis‘, E-International Relations Students, July 22 2012, <http://www.e-ir.info/2012/07/22/terrorism-and-the-media-a-dangerous-symbiosis/> Accessed: 19/04/15

Beder S, ‘A Community View’, Caring for Children in the Media Age, Papers from a national conference, edited by John Squires and Tracy Newlands, New College Institute for Values Research, Sydney, 1998, pp. 101-111.

Krinsky, C 2013, ‘The Moral Panic Concept’, Introduction, pp.1. Available from: <https://www.ashgate.com/pdf/SamplePages/Ashgate-Research-Companion-to-Moral-Panics-Intro.pdf&gt; > Accessed: 19/0415.

Author Unknown 2015, Fresh-faced westerners are being lulled into terrorism by ISIS propaganda, News.com.au, March 13 2015, <http://www.news.com.au/national/fresh-faced-westerners-are-being-lulled-into-terrorism-by-isis-propaganda/story-fncynjr2-1227261538227> Accessed: 19/04/15

Dear Dolly Doctor…

When we consider the Public Sphere as a metaphor “for thinking about how individual human beings come together to exchange ideas and information and feelings about what matters to them” (McKee 2005) there was one publication that stuck out to me above all else, something a little left of field, but made a massive impact on myself and millions of teenage girls across Australia and New Zealand in our formative years.


Dolly Doctor is (and has been for over 40 years) a section in Australian magazine Dolly, which is targeted at teen females of all socioeconomic backgrounds across the country. The concept is pretty simple – girls write in, under a pseudonym, asking questions they were too embarrassed/scared/shy to ask their regular GP and the Dolly Doctor, revealed to be the formally qualified Melissa Kang, would answer kindly and informatively.

Dolly Doctor gave a public forum for girls every month to relate to each other and realise that whatever was happening to themselves or their bodies was, for the most part, normal. Popular before such forums were easy to access online, Dolly Doctor gave a voice and recognized the concerns of thousands of teens.

“Perhaps the person sending a question off to a magazine has a need to express that concern or curiosity to something outside of themselves to feel legitimate and real. After so many years of seeing the same questions being asked over and over again, I think the real worry is about being normal.” The Dolly Doctor

The concept is a pretty basic advice column format and it’s nothing new and inventive – in fact this form of publication has been around in some way or another for centuries because, essentially, it’s important. Consumers need to feel needed and a part of a collective and these types of columns, whether it be in a newspaper or online, gives them that feeling of belonging. It also, obviously, gives the people that write in and those with the same issues some much needed advice from (hopefully!) reputable sources.

Advice Columns, generally, are great examples of popular texts that serve and contribute to the Public Sphere (Jacobs and Townsley 2011, pp28) and they are, of course, mediated because they are carefully edited and structured before they are viewed by the general public. I wanted to focus on Dolly Doctor in particular because it gives a voice to a minority that has been largely ignored by many public spheres – teenage girls.

Western feminism has been highly critical of the public sphere because, historically, it has quite aggressively omitted women from participating. Landes, in Fraser (1990) argues that public spheres rest upon and are constituted by a number of significant exclusions. The key axis of exclusion? Gender (p60). The importance of Dolly Doctor, no matter how trivial the column may come across, can therefore not be discredited because it is giving the power back and providing a platform to young women who have been and may, in the future, not be allowed to be apart of the public conversation elsewhere.
Fraser, N, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, Duke University Press, 1990, Accessed at <http://my.ilstu.edu/~jkshapi/Fraser_Rethinking%20the%20Public%20Sphere.pdf> Viewed: 18/04/15
Jacobs, R N and Townsley, E, The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere, Oxford University Press, 2011.
McKee, A, The Public Sphere: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Syfret, W 2012, Dear Dolly Doctor, Vice, November 26, <http://www.vice.com/read/dear-dolly-doctor> Accessed: 17/04/15

“For better or for worse, our company is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values.”

Title quote from Mr. Rupert Murdoch.

Did you know that Australia has one of the highest concentration of media ownership in the world? Historically, our nation’s media landscape has been dominated by the media dynasties of Packer, Murdoch and Fairfax and these outlets continue to dominate our airwaves, newspapers, webpages and televisions everyday. Even the relatively new technology of streaming services (see: Stan) are not safe from the gaze of these dinosaur dynasties.

So…why the flip should we care? See, we really, really should, because it’s been proven that highly concentrated media ownership can reduce the diversity of opinions published and have, in extreme cases, made it difficult for public news interest stories to be published if they are not in line with the media outlet’s ethos. This reduction of competition in the market can stifle the emergence or success of smaller media outlets, reduce the opportunity for innovation and, in a very monopolized market, lead to higher prices for consumers.

We need to keep in mind that the media has the ability to influence us and our opinions every single day. When was the last time you went a whole day without listening to the radio, watching TV or reading a news website? Even Facebook now has the alarmingly strong opportunity to tell us what they think we should know. This power, to give information to millions of people in an instant, means that what is being supplied has the power to sway the public’s opinions and ideologies. The political sphere, in particular, has hosted this phenomenon time and time again. This is a nice little segue into talking about my post’s titular character – The Kingmaker.

The Kingmaker – Rupert Murdoch (note – photo not actually him. Just in case you didn’t realise).

Rupert Murdoch, owner and managing director of News Limited, is known throughout the world- particularly in Australian and British politics – as the Kingmaker, due to his ability to make and break the political careers of those in his sights. It has been widely suggested (here, here, here [The New Yorker!] and here) that Murdoch has frequently wielded his influence to garner support for whomever he was supporting politically.

With papers like these, who needs campaign posters?

Rupert called (the whole world)…he wants you out.

This is not a new trend, however, with Rupert’s daddy, original media mogul Sir Keith Murdoch, being publicly acknowledged as “a great supporter” (1935) of and thanked by former Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons for his “great help” (1939) in the 1932 federal elections.

In 1991, appearing before a parliamentary inquiry into print media, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser admitted that the high levels of media concentration made it very difficult for politicians to resist temptation and give in the pressure asserted by these media gods. As Julianne Schultz has wisely concluded, Australian Media laws and policies have been undoubtedly influenced by “the power of the owners of the news media who were prepared to trade uncritical coverage for favorable policy decisions” (Schultz in Harding-Smith, 2011).

When reading anything in the media landscape – particularly content created by traditional media news outlets – it is important to keep your thinking caps on because the people who own these outlets and control the way the information is delivered will almost certainly have their own agendas to push. Thankfully, 70 percent of us already know and are wary of this influence, so we should be alright. Right?!

Oh, and for bonus points, an amazing quote I stumbled across by Rupert Murdoch after his purchase of News of the World in 1968;

“I think the important thing is that there be plenty of newspapers, with plenty of different people controlling them, so that there are a variety of viewpoints, so there is a choice for the public. This is the freedom of the press that is needed.”

Harding-Smith R 2011, CENTRE FOR POLICY DEVELOPMENT ISSUE BRIEF: Media Ownership and Regulation in Australia, Centre for Policy Development, August 2011. <https://cpd.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Centre_for_Policy_Development_Issue_Brief.pdf&gt; Accessed: 12/04/15
Richardson N 2006, Sir Keith Murdoch’s relationship with Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, National Archives of Australia, May 2006. <http://www.naa.gov.au/Images/Richardson_tcm16-35865.pdf&gt; Accessed: 12/04/15
Timm T 2013, The most concerning element of Facebook’s potential new power, <http://www.cjr.org/criticism/facebook_news_censorship.php&gt; Accessed: 12/04/155
Tucker B 2013, Oz news media bias exposed, <https://thesnipertakesaim.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/oz-news-media-bias-explained/&gt; Accessed: 12/04/15

Smiling Happy People.

Before I dive into today’s post I want to give a brief rundown on what the heck I’m talking about – semiotics. Semiotics is the analysis of symbols and signs and their use or how they’re interpreted. Initially, it’s a hard topic to get your head around, particularly when you throw in words like denotation and connotation. Put simply, it’s looking at the relationship between what you are seeing and the meaning you take from it. The denotation is the definitive, literal meaning of the image/sign and the connotation is the meaning our context, ideologies and personal experiences enable us to gather (Chandler, 2014).

That’s all a little bit heady for me so how about we grab some images and pull them apart.

Let’s pretend you don’t know anything about this photograph or the people in it. On the most basic level, we can denote that this is just an old photograph – of a smiling couple in a convertible. Nice, right? If we look at this image completely literally, ignoring everything else we may or may not know about the subjects of this image, that’s all we can gather from this photograph. If we ignore the connotations we can’t even accurately put a date on this image – it’s black and white, but what does that mean? See, it is impossible to make a strict division between connotations and denotations (Voloshinov, 1973) because, well, we know what we know and that can’t easily be ignored. The connotations we can make regarding this photograph, drawn from our education and context in the world, is that this is former US President John F Kennedy and his wife. Keen JFK history buffs would also easily connote, from the model of car and Jacqueline Kennedy’s outfit, that this photo was taken on the day the he was shot and killed in 1963.

What astounds me about semiotics is that a simple, seemingly harmless image can be completely reinterpreted once we are armed with some context or background information. The meaning of an image will also change depending on who is viewing it and what their ideologies and knowledge of the world entails. There are people in the world who would have no idea who John F Kennedy is or what he looks like and would not recognize the magnitude of this image.

Now, take this image. It’s grainy and poor quality and you can’t denote much from it, but after just reading my post you can draw some pretty hefty connotations as to what is, can’t you?


Voloshinov V N 1973, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/voloshinov/1929/marxism-language.htm&gt; Accessed: 28/03/15

Chandler D 2015, Semiotics for Beginners: Denotation, Connotation and Myth, <http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/&gt; Accessed: 28/03/15

Violence in the Media; A Current Anxiety that’s Always Been Around.

It seems that whenever a new form of media enters the market, somebody has to blame if for the world’s violence and discontent. Gothic novels of the 18th century created anxieties over the effect media has over it’s audience. Gustave Le Bon, in his 1896 book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind gave credit to but ultimately sensationalized this anxiety, depicting audiences as a feminized, childish collective who can be thrown into hysteria and led astray by the mass media and cinema  (Turnbull, 2015). Le Bon states that, to this mass audience “The unreal has about as much influence on them as the real…” (1896).

In 1828, coupled with increasing literacy rates and wider availability of mass print news media, the coverage of the Red Barn Murder famously whipped the public into a frenzy. In the 1950’s Comic books came under fire (in Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent) for producing violent images for children and even Rock and Roll music was criticized for corrupting innocent, easily malleable young people. This concern, that seeing violent and disruptive images will create violent and disruptive people, is based in the Social Learning (Bobo Doll Experiment) and Cultivation theories that insist that, if somebody is exposed to it enough, they will learn and then carry out that behaviour.

In more recent times, video games, MTV and special effects in Blockbuster films have been criticized for effecting the audience negatively. It is clear that with every new form of media, no matter the circumstances, concerns about it’s effect on the masses will arise. The internet is, obviously, not immune, but what makes this discussion so dynamic is the fact that the internet has created a participatory culture. In the past, audiences were seen as passive – they were simply receiving the messages given and watching the images shown. Now, with the internet, they can create the images and respond to, and alter, the information given. Cyber-bullying, filming and posting violent acts, trolling websites and other anti-social activities are not only detrimental to the person creating the content, they can be damaging to the audiences who can readily access and view it.

That has (hopefully!) drawn me to my main point, the point that I think the Media Effects Model and other types of studies can lose sight of – No matter the medium or the time period, it is the people that are creating and interacting with the media that make the difference. Watching six hours of violent footage would not make me go out and commit violence, in fact it may have the opposite effect and make me shy away from violence in any form. Additionally, people that do commit acts of violence, regardless of the media they are exposed to, almost always have other contributing factors in their environment and upbringing that insights anti-social behavior and violence. The killers of James Bulger, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both had tumultuous upbringings and were exposed to violence in the home, family dysfunction, substance abuse and neglect but it was the violent video games and movies they were interested in that were made the focus.

Really, I cannot say it better than Sue Turnbull (2015) did:

“Obviously the media does make a difference
to our lives…But these may be neither good nor bad…
It depends on us”
Coville, J 2000, Seduction of the Innocent and the Attack on Comic Books, <http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk4cca.html&gt;, Accessed: 16/3/2015.
Turnbull, S 2015, Media Mythbusting: Television Makes you Fat, Lecture notes created 10/03/15, at The University of Wollongong.