chapter  6
17 Pages

Literacy in the News

This chapter brings together the discussions from Part I to focus on the ways in which literacy is constructed in the news media. The news media are key sites for exploring representations of literacy and the deployment of semiotic resources in this process. We can wake any morning to narratives about literacy being told in the news media, embedded in stories about education, financial crises, disasters, politicians’ escapades, protests, wars and achievements. These stories affect what we think we know about literacy in contemporary society, how we should feel about it, the values we should place on different aspects of literacy and the ways in which literacy is connected to other aspects of life and social issues that concern us. The discussion presented in this chapter draws on data collected over nearly

20 years of British news coverage of literacy, including several systematic corpora of images and texts collected at specific points during this time.1 As I will explain below, the inclusion of visual images, particularly, in the research led to new insights about the functions and imaginaries of literacy (see Hamilton, 2000). When I first started collecting items in the early 1990s, the landscape of news

was very different, both in terms of the specific issues that were being discussed and how the news was presented, stored and circulated. President George W. Bush had not yet been elected. The peace process in Northern Ireland was ongoing, and the war in Kosovo was brewing. Princess Diana was still alive and the Twin Towers still standing. Monica Lewinski’s secret diary was yet to thrill readers of

the Sun newspaper. The internet was new, and the ideas of online news and citizen journalism were only just starting to develop. The data I have gathered comes from the different sections of the press that

characterise public life and debate in the UK. Firstly, the ‘serious’ national broadsheet papers that are read by a minority of the population, mainly more educated, wealthy opinion formers. Secondly, the national tabloid press that is widely popular with a daily readership in the millions and which uses a formula of news presentation that foregrounds entertainment, celebrity, scoops, scandals, campaigns and free offers in order to sell the papers. Finally the local press that has historically been a significant source of information about peoples’ immediate neighborhoods. This carries narratives of literacy in personalised stories of local happenings which reflect national and international events, such as stories about migrant workers, soldiers returning from war or local fundraising events for disasters happening elsewhere. The functions of these papers increasingly overlap (see Biressi and Nunn,

2007). Broadsheet newspapers use many of the tabloid strategies tailored to their particular readership, with lifestyle topics and visual images, while the tabloids have become increasingly important battlegrounds in which political parties fight over key policy issues of the day. In line with a literacy studies approach, I have taken an example of ‘literacy in

the news’ to be any story in which texts are involved with the events, participants presented in the story, or where reading and writing are explicitly referred to in the narrative. I begin with a brief discussion about the nature of contemporary news media, their role in political and cultural life and the production processes behind them. When I started researching literacy in the press, I looked at text stories of

educational stories about literacy and the statistics that were often involved. I became interested in the photographic images in newspapers as separate carriers of meaning and these made me realise that I needed to look more broadly at literacy narratives in domains other than education. Over time, I have moved away from the artificial focus on just one mode of meaning-making, since numbers, images and textual stories are often combined in a single news item and take their meaning from one another, as well as from the layout of the paper and the juxtaposition of different news items within it. In the next section I will show some detailed examples of how these semiotic resources are skillfully used by media professionals who are also operating across the domains of news, entertainment and politics. This is followed by a thematic analysis of how literacy has been presented in the news media which draws on my overall database. I present these examples, and the thematic analysis, to make the case for a

striking finding: the narratives of literacy that are carried explicitly as a main topic of stories associated with education or so-called ‘literary culture’ are very different in terms of their subject matter and values from those carried ‘incidentally’ as an unremarked aspect of other news stories and images about the

daily goings on of business, warfare, government and the entertainment industry. These incidental narratives are ubiquitous in the news media – woven in and around the tales that are told about a whole range of social domains such as a scientific discovery, an account of a crime or a legal wrangle about the conduct of banks. As I have been writing this book, the UK news-reading public has been rive-

ted by one such story of criminal complicity between journalists in Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire, the police and the political elite (see Hamilton, 2011b). The news stories related to this topic are full of extracts from transcripts of conversations; discussions about written notes, signatures and cheques that have passed hands. There are witness statements, letters from solicitors, emails and voicemails. Pages of newsprint and blogs detail the web of relationships and habits of working that make up what participants are calling a ‘culture’ of phone hacking and deception, fear and hubris. Since this is a story about the mass media and especially the life and death of England’s bestselling tabloid newspaper, the News of the World, literacy is the very stuff under scrutiny. This is not literacy as it is often presented and discussed on front-page news stories – as skills and standards, as a badge of failure or success – but literacy as part of social practice. That is, literacy as integral to the ways that people and institutions produce, circulate, read, display, argue over and generally make things happen through their actions with the written word. In this narrative, the issues of hidden, deleted and unread literacy artefacts

are as prominent and powerful as the public revelation and creation of others. The investigative reporting that tracked down evidence over a period of years is one face of literacy. The plastic sacks of email printouts lying apparently unopened and unexamined in police storage, the laptop tossed into the garbage and the file of damning evidence secreted in the solicitor’s office are another. I build here on the argument made in earlier chapters that it is important to

examine such incidental representations of literacy in the popular media since these offer new insights into the discourses that currently inform our understandings of and reactions to literacy and give some clues about the directions in which these understandings are moving and why.