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Killers: Construction of low social status

The differences between serious and popular papers are even more evident in reference to killers. Not surprisingly, tabloids openly evaluate the killers using nouns and adjectives negative in denotation (e.g. thug, yob) and often combine them for a stronger effect (e.g. lawless savages, barbaric killers, twisted thug) and further reinforce the negative reference by the mention of other negative facts (Examples 12-14).

  • (12) Schoolboy Damilola Taylor was killed by two lawless savages on bail for robbery ... (S10)
  • (13) The gangster brothers-who had a string of convictions, beat victims and robbed at knifepoint-had bragged they were ‘untouchable’. (DM10)
  • (14) Violent yob Fahri lived around the corner from the Mizens and was known as a local bully with a string of convictions including burglary and assault. (DM8)

Serious papers convey the negative status indirectly by choosing to include negative information about the killers that lowers the killer’s status and thus signals his/her affiliation to a lower social group, i.e. lower than the readers’ (Examples 15-18), and avoid direct evaluations by adjectives or nouns found typically in tabloids. Nevertheless, the result is the same- based on this negative information the serious papers’ readers are expected to arrive at the same views that are openly communicated to the tabloids’ readers, i.e. the killers have previously been in trouble with law, they have been known to the police and authorities, etc., and thus conform to an image of a loner, outsider, deviant person, etc.

(15) The boys, both of whom were supposedly under supervision at the time of Damilola’s killing, were remanded in custody ... (G10)

  • (16) Smith, who has a string of convictions stretching back 16 years ... (DT6)
  • (17) Fahri, who had a history of difficulties controlling his temper, ... (G8)
  • (18) Jake Fahri, a 19-year-old cannabis smoking school dropout, ... (DT8)

The killer’s social status can also be lowered by reference to something in his/her lifestyle that is generally considered unacceptable and still it can be viewed as factual information. Thus, the reference to the killer as a crack addict and her partner’s background which signals deviant behaviour, i.e. her child-rapist boyfriend, lowers the status of the killer-a mother who killed her own child (Example 19).

(19) Crack addict Claire Biggs-who blamed her child-rapist boyfriend for killing two-month-old Rhys-was sentenced ... (S2)

In the Daily Telegraph, the same person is described as a former crack addict (Example 20), whereas in the Sun (Example 19), the word former is deleted. Therefore, if we assume that the journalists used the same prior text provided by a news agency, as it seems to be the case due to the amount of identical information in both reports, the adjective might have been deleted in the Sun in order to enhance the negative view of the killer. The Sun readers are thus promoted to see the killer as currently addicted to drugs, whereas the Daily Telegraph readers’ attention is drawn to the fact that this was not the first child maltreated in this family, i.e. the killer clearly deviates from the expected and traditional norms of behaviour associated with a caring mother.

(20) Former crack addict Claire Biggs, 27, had already seen her first child taken into care when she repeatedly crushed Rhys’s chest, causing numerous rib fractures. (DT2)

The range of expression of negative status as employed by serious and popular papers is illustrated in Examples 21-24 below, taken from the four papers under investigation and referring to the same event, i.e. a murder of a seven-year-old girl killed by a drug dealer and member of a gang whose members are typically of Jamaican origin (i.e. a Yardie).

  • (21) A gunman who preyed on drug dealers was jailed ... (DT6)
  • (22) A former member of a notorious west London gang who murdered seven-year- old Toni-Ann ... (G6)
  • (23) An evil gunman who murdered a girl of seven ... (DM6)
  • (24) An evil Yardie gangster who executed a girl of seven ... (S6)

Whereas the serious papers (Examples 21 and 22) focus on the killer’s background, the tabloids (Examples 23 and 24) openly evaluate him as evil. Out of the two tabloids, the Sun is more radical than the Daily Mirror-the effect of the heavily negatively loaded noun phrase (i.e. an evil Yardie gangster) is enhanced by the use of the verb execute. The Sun also chooses to make a reference to the killer’s origin by the word Yardie, i.e. a violent drug dealer of non-British origin. Such a reference may be also viewed as capable of promoting xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants and the stereotypical view that the evil comes from “the outside”. It corresponds with the thesis proposed by van Dijk (1988) that important cultural issues in which responsibility for the evil is assigned to outsiders or enemies may be presented via the dichotomy of “Us” and “Them”.

Another strategy that can be found in both types of papers is the use of direct quotes by judges, lawyers or policeman, who represent authority and can be taken for the voice of the public when commenting on the appalling character of the crime or the criminals (Examples 25-28).

  • (25) Det Ch Ins Cliff Lyons, who led the investigation, described Fahri as an extremely violent and aggressive yob. (DT8)
  • (26) Det Chief Ins Cliff Lyons said: “Jake Fahri is an aggressive young man who throughout his life demonstrated an inability to restrain his temper.” (G8)
  • (27) Jake Fahri is something totally different, a yob from that part of society that we all abhor.” (DM8)
  • (28) A policeman called them “the scum of the earth.” (DM10)

Although used in both types of papers, this strategy is particularly important for serious papers-it enables them to express a certain stance without having to “sacrifice objectivity”, since such mediated evaluations are clearly attributed to a different source. When used in tabloids, they add to the authenticity of the event and further enhance the notion of “evil”.

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