Ideological Subtext – Part 1

One of the things I want to do in this blog is to share my analysis of ideological subtext in the news media. Ideological subtext consists of the messages that a journalist and media outlet make in developing story details, e.g., who or what to feature as the case history example, what comments are selected or simply the unstated point-of-view narrating the news story. The ongoing pattern of decisions creates the media outlet’s ideological subtext. For example, peruse the non-business pages of any newspaper specifically looking for examples of the writer taking for granted that free markets are preferable to regulated ones. I’m sure you’ll find many.

The photos in a story that began on the front page of the August 4, 2009 New York Times titled “Years After Layoffs, Many Still Struggle to Match Old Salaries” betray a Times ideological subtext that I believe is relatively new: support of an overtly Christian lifestyle. The story reflects the headline and focuses on a few people in a networking group laid off by Pratt & Whitney in 2000. The captions to two of the three photos on the page A12 continuation say it all: “Chuck Dettman arriving at his Christian counseling service, Today’s Promise, in Jupiter, Fla.” and “Jim Clark, with his wife, Jeanne, outside St. Paul of the Cross Church in North Palm Beach, Fla.”

Now the writer, Micheal Luo, chose to ask the photographer to take photos in a religious setting and the editor chose to use them. The decision to let religious environments dominate a story about jobs and economics was consciously or unconsciously ideological. Even if the subjects of the case histories all wore their religions on their sleeves, the photographs still could have avoided interjecting religion into the context, for example, photos in front of their homes or at their current lower-paying jobs. Or, the writer could have selected a more diverse group of subjects, which is what we have come to expect from the Times in any case.

(In fact, years ago I used to exploit the Times’ desire to use a diverse set of case history subjects to get stories placed about Pennsylvania economic development programs. I would send information about a Pennsylvania case history to reporters stationed in Detroit and Washington, D.C., who would use the information to round out stories they were doing on economic development that focused on case histories in their regions.)

I wish I had started a blog in 2000 because that’s when I started to notice the Times using religious contexts to depict stories on a wide range of economic topics, social issues and even foreign policy beliefs. I can’t prove it, though, unless I could somehow go back and analyze every Times article over the past 40 years. Let’s call it an impression I have.

Organizational Uncommon Sense

Two recent news stories in Pennsylvania demonstrate how very difficult it is for an organization to impose its version of reality on the public and the news media if it runs against the common sense reality of the situation. 

As reported in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mylan Inc., a generic drug maker, and its chief executive officer, Robert Coury, have said repeatedly that a Federal Drug Administration (FDA) investigation into manufacturing procedures has been completed, even as the FDA has repeatedly said that the investigation is not over yet.  (I should disclose that Jampole Communications worked on a project for Mr. Coury more than 10 years ago when he was a financial planner.) The investigation follows a July 26 Post-Gazette report that Mylan employees had overridden automated quality control mechanisms and falsified reports.

Based on my experience helping companies communicate about investigations by the FDA, OSHA, EPA, state consumer bureaus and other government agencies in a large number of states, I believe that I can construct a scenario in which Coury and Mylan may have inadvertently come to believe that the investigation was over.  For example, perhaps an on-site inspector made some comments to company officials or maybe they saw a preliminary report or recommendation. 

But once the FDA said the first time that the investigation was not over (see July 28 story in the Post-Gazette), Mylan should have backtracked, and said that Coury misspoke or that had meant that the FDA had completed the inspection part of the process.  By digging in its corporate heels, Mylan has lost a great deal of credibility with anyone who has read or heard the continuing news stories on this issue.  And Mylan has kept the story in the media: The coverage of most inspection and inspection violations typically make one or at the most two 24-hour news cycles. By repeatedly contradicting the FDA, Mylan has kept what is basically a bad news story for the company in the news.

The other recent Pennsylvania example of an organization trying but failing to run against the grain of common sense is a bit subtler.  In a news release on July 17, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department (PID) said it was launching an investigation of the state Blues.  As many people know, there is less competition for health care insurance in Pennsylvania than virtually anywhere else in the U.S.  The investigation is part of PID’s recent efforts to bring more competition to health care insurance in the state.

Only the commission didn’t call it an “investigation,” but used the term “examination.”  In fact it repeated “examination” twelve times!  It’s as if the commission was going out of its way to say it was not conducting an investigation, which always has negative connotations.  The problem is that to most people, the use of examination in this context is just a squeamish way of saying “investigation.”  And that’s how the major media saw it as well.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune Review all called it an investigation.

Anytime an organization goes against the common sense definition of a word, it risks losing credibility or losing control of the information it gives the public.  For the PID, the way around this challenge would have been to define your terms right up front, for example, “examination is a standard insurance term that describes…..” If the PID had explicitly told us why they were calling it an examination instead of an investigation in the second paragraph of the news release, then all stories would have called it an examination, many also including the definition.