Media Coverage of Sociology

by Annaliza Gaber
Brunel University

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 14 Jun 2005     Accepted: 20 Jun 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005

Introduction by Linda McKie

This article provides an overview and analysis of coverage of sociological work and issues in print media. As part of that survey it also considered coverage of the BSA. The Executive Committee of the BSA commissioned the survey in the autumn of 2004 and were delighted that Annaliza Gaber, Ph.D. student at the University of Brunel, was able to develop her work on media and sociology while assisting the Association.

This survey represents a key component of work to underpin the development of a media strategy for the BSA. While we appreciate that there are myriads ways of engaging with potential audiences for sociological work, and many forms of media, print media continue to be widely read and cited in the UK and abroad. Print media also interconnects with radio and television with each form of media constantly reviewing items in each other's format allowing for issues or stories to develop across various forms of media. Further, print media records are collated and kept up to date, thus aiding survey work.

Why a BSA media strategy? The media strategy is part of an over-arching communication strategy. This aims to develop the many ways in which the BSA interacts with members, the public, organisations and the media. For example, the web site is under constant review, as are print and other forms of communication such as the Annual Report, guidelines and information leaflets. Developing work with the media is prioritised, as relations with the media are crucial to the reputation of the Association and sociology more generally. All too often reporting of sociology and the work of the Association has focused upon the salacious or unusual.

Last year the Executive Committee of the BSA decided that we should aim to take active control of this aspect of our work; to be proactive. We need to continue to respond to requests for information and general enquiries, especially at the time of the Annual and study group conferences. However, we are keen to promote sociological work and place stories and items in the media. For example, recently completed research work and publications, especially when these resonate with issues high on agendas for policy, politics and research.

The survey reported below has aided the development of this work in a range of ways. For example, we have circulated a brief questionnaire to aid compilation of a list of members willing to discuss relevant issues with the media. We have promoted media training, albeit that in the first instance this should be provided by funding bodies and academic institutions and employing organisations. However, we have run short seminars at the Annual and Medical Sociology Conferences in 2004 and in 2006 we will run a training day in conjunction with the Political Studies Association. In all of this work we have been assisted by the work of an experienced media consultant and Emeritus Professor of Broadcasting Journalism, Ivor Gaber.

Each year the Executive Committee of the BSA undertakes a review of risks to the Association. That activity also allows us to evaluate work such as that on communication. If you have any ideas or comments please contact the BSA media liaison representative, Linda McKie:

Linda McKie
July 2005

Media Coverage of Sociology by Annaliza Gaber

1.1 Last year the British Sociological Association commissioned a brief research project into the media coverage of sociology in the UK. Completed towards the end of 2004, the project was designed to investigate the way in which the national press reported sociology and was intended to inform the BSA's own activities aimed at increasing both the quality and quantity of media coverage of sociology itself and of the BSA. Using a range of sampling techniques based on the web-based newspaper archive Lexis-Nexis while aware of the database's limitations, the methodology was designed to produce an overview of the general nature of the media's interest in sociological topics between 2000 and 2004, rather than seeking to provide definitive statistical data.

1.2 In the four-year sample of newspaper coverage the majority of quotes from, or references to, particular sociologists (excluding obituaries, profiles or reviews) appeared unsurprisingly in the broadsheets or 'serious papers' as we now have to call them (given that both The Times and Independent are now tabloid and are about to be joined by the Guardian).

1.3 The key finding from the research was press interest in using the findings of sociological research as raw material for articles while at the same time there was rather less interest in expanding upon sociological issues or perspectives themselves. In other words sociological debate, and/ or sociologists were less frequently referenced by the print media as the main subject of articles even when their research findings were being reported. There were however, a number of examples of articles that entered into sociological issues at some depth. One such example from the Financial Times - 'Majority needs matter, too' [1] - contained a lengthy consideration of the contribution of Eric Kaufman's work to the debate around assimilation.

1.4 There was also a trend towards using sociological elements to enhance an existing report or to provide a commentary which should be highlighted for its potential to increase the dissemination of sociological perspectives to a wider audience. Indeed, the research reveals this already to be the primary means through which sociologists, sociological references, or research are used to enhance articles not initially written with, or from, a sociological perspective. Such a method has, for the author, the advantage of developing context while adding the weight of further authoritative and professional voices to the report, and the 'technique' was employed across all papers - broadsheets and tabloids alike [2]. Bethan Marshall's report for the Independent on the difficulties of finding an appropriate secondary school for her child [3] is typical of such an approach, in which a two line reference to Fred Hirsch and his theory of positional goods was added to a lengthy report (844 words) which was otherwise unconcerned with sociological framing but nonetheless gained a more substantive tone.

1.5 The link between sociology and the news item was on occasion fairly tenuous. This may well be indicative of a lack of what the media or individual journalists judge to be suitable alternative authoritative discourses, although it is just as likely to be the result of a combination of sloppy journalism and strict column lengths. Two such cases based on the same sports popularity opinion poll were found in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. Following brief pieces recounting who were regarded as the most popular sportsmen and women the reports both quoted sociologist Tim Crabbe on celebrity culture. Given the context of the article neither quote was particularly appropriate and the utilisation of Crabbe was the sole attempt at providing a sociological context. [4] The Daily Express's choice in particular was especially ill conceived, quoting him on celebrity culture and necessarily scandalous nature of soap operas, although it perhaps indicated a heartening confidence in the discipline.

1.6 The above example also illustrates how sociological research can offer the press some novelty value. There appeared to be no particular preference for either market or academic research - either would do if the 'story' was good enough, this being true of broadsheets and tabloids alike. But whilst the newspapers did reveal an interest in reporting phenomena that fell within the broadly defined category of 'sociological' and, as in the above example, would use a sociologists as a counterpoint, they had comparably little interest in exploring the reasons behind such events, or their longer-term implications. Explanations were often alluded to, but not usually explored - a lacuna which represents a prime site for potential sociological intervention into the mass media arena. Reports which concentrated more fully upon sociological concepts, research, or sociologists themselves could be found mostly in the broadsheets, which were also more receptive to making explicit references to individual sociologists, quoting them directly, or referencing their work. A sample search spreading over four years on 'sociology' and 'sociologists' found book reviews as solely the property of the broadsheets - namely, The Times (Richard Sennett, Arlie Russel Hochschild, Catherine Hakim, and Frank Furedi), Sunday Times (Judith M. Heiman's book on Tom Harrison), the Independent (Zygmunt Bauman and Simon Winlow), Sunday Telegraph (Christie Davies), Guardian (Bauman and Sennett again) and The Observer (Stephen Whitehead's foray into a less sociological and more humorous take on the minds of males). The sample also revealed a considerable interest in the obituaries of noted sociologists, The Times identifying 14 in the sample period, Independent 12, Telegraph 5, and the Guardian 16. The living were of less interest and only seven profiles of sociologists were identified in this sample - 2 in The Times and 5 in the Guardian (one of which being only a paragraph long).

1.7 The research underlined the observation by former LSE Director Tony Giddens, who decried the lack of articles authored by social scientists that can be found in the national media [5]. One major exception to this rule is Professor Frank Furedi of Kent University who emerges as the most prolific of UK sociologists, in terms of the national press. A data base search for 2003-4 revealed that he had authored 21 articles and had been quoted or referenced no fewer than 61 times.

1.8 The research also looked at media coverage of some of the BSA's specialist areas. An observable trend in recent years has been the huge growth in media interest in medical stories, but there has been no concomitant growth in the media's use of medical sociologists. (Our sample used the key words 'medicine' and 'research' - coverage of which was overwhelming concentrated upon scientific developments and issues.) The relationship between sociology and medicine is admittedly weak in popular conception, but considering the rapid growth of the field of medical sociology it is significant that not one sociologist was quoted in the newspapers that were sampled. In other areas of sociological specialisation mixed results were found. There was little media interest in the sociological relationship between culture and the environment, but there did appear to be a trend to see stories about 'work' as having a definite sociological perspective although these still accounted for a minority of the articles in this area. Reports about the 'family' and 'education' also identified an interest in sociological themes although at a fairly superficial level. Very loosely structured anthropological and sociological concepts did, for example, make their way into reports on the rape trials of in Pitcairn Island and the argument for 'cultural defence' used by the defendants. Again it is interesting to note that these reports drew more on the individual reporters' foray into the discipline than calling upon professional experts to analyse the cultural implications of the Pitcairn rape trials.

Implications for the BSA

2.1 The research has already led to a re-thinking of the Association's media relations and in the wake of the project the BSA is developing a database of sociologists willing and able to respond to media enquiries. It is encouraging that, so far, more sociologists have volunteered than was originally anticipated. The Association's website is also being reorganised, addressing some of the criticisms which emerged from the research.

2.2 This year's annual conference at York saw the first fruits of the Association's new media strategy. The conference succeeded in attracting far wider media coverage than in the past, with 26 articles about the conference (focussing on particular research topics due to be presented) being published by a wide range of outlets including The Times, Observer, Independent on Sunday, Sunday Times, Independent, Daily Mail, Economist, Times Higher Education Supplement and a range of BBC programmes (including two separate editions of Radio 4's 'Thinking Aloud'). The Association is keen to develop its media profile and is looking to its members for ideas to make this happen. The Executive's media activities are being led by Professor Linda McKie based at Glasgow Caledonian University, to whom ideas and proposals should be directed.


1 Caldwell, Christopher. 'Majority Needs Matter, Too', 9 October. 2004. Financial Times.

2The term 'broadsheet' is taken to refer to the serious dailies - Financial Times, The Times, Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph - whilst 'Tabloids' refers to the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Star and The Sun.

3 Marshall, Bethan. 'Choosing Schools Made Me Miserable'. 10 July, 2004. The Independent.

4Chapman, John. 'Poll Names Football Legend as Sport's Biggest Bad Boy, Best is Worst' June 12, 2004.. Daily Express. Dolan, Sally. 'George is the Best at Being Bad Frank'. 12 June 2004 Daily Mirror.

5Giddens was speaking at a British Journal of Sociology forum at the London School of Economics on the 26 October 2004.