What is the image of the father in the news media? Is it relevant and, if so, from which point of view is fatherhood framed?
Is it only present in crime news or is it also there in general news? What aspects are emphasized? Those moral aspects that demonstrate virtues? Or are cultural aspects highlighted -- for example, subjects of current interest like divorce or the recognition of homosexual rights?
These are the questions addressed by the doctoral thesis of Piotr Studnicki, a young researcher at the Pontifical University of The Holy Cross in Rome who, in his work titled The Image of the Father in the Press, has sought to shed light on such a subject, of great current interest yet so little studied in sociological media research.
The portrayal of the father in television series and film
This is unquestionably a very timely subject. It is enough to bear in mind that fatherhood forms the basis of many of the current television series which have come to dominate television programming the world over. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, In Treatment and Downton Abbey are just a few of the series that have fathers at the center of their storylines (for a closer look at this subject, we recommend taking a look at our article The figure of the Father in Tv fiction series ). Not to mention the films of the past, especially dramas, that emphasized in powerful social role played by the father in both positive and negative ways.
Once again we may say that art goes ahead of social changes and it is looking for lost fatherhood.
The focus of the study
Piotr Studnicki’s study looks not at fiction but at journalism. Through a qualitative approach, that draws a line between what is said and what is left unsaid by the press, between the shadows of the implicit and the light of the explicit, the study clears ground that has yet to be built upon and reveals two distinct and apposed tendencies. On one hand, there are signs of an authentic search for and discovery of the true meaning of fatherhood, similar to what we see in the series mentioned above; on the other, there is evidence of a profound crisis in the concept of paternity. It is not only a matter of the absence of a father or the loss of his identity. It is also a reduction of his role in the family or lack of consideration for his role in society. It is a bipolar outlook, then, which presents several cultural challenges. How can the figure of the father and the mother be communicated in a society in which identity itself and the anthropological differences between men and women are being called into question? How can one promote the family in a society in which marriage is reduced to a mere affective gratification between heterosexuals or persons of the same sex?
The study’s conclusions: natural and cultural topoi and social virtues
Did you expect to find a trace of common sense news articles in relation to fatherhood? The investigation underlines five frequent natural “common places” (natural topoi) relative to the image of the father in the international press. Affirmations that might be considered obvious, but not in a society where the pressure of gender ideology is so strong in mass media and. Yet these taken for granted principles, these natural common places, do in fact exist in the day-to-day reality of the journalistic narrative. Here are some examples:
- Married people and families are considered happy only to the extent that they are united; lack of unity creates unhappiness.
- Parents are responsible for caring for their children, protecting them, feeding them, educating them, etc.
- Parents are the first and primary educators of their children.
- The family is a community based on forgiveness, compassion and shared suffering.
- The family is a community of honor: the moral attitude of one member of the family influences the reputation of the entire family and is a source of pride or shame for the other relatives.
However, the analysis shows that there are also cultural topoi, “nowadays common places” according to which the father-figure is mostly represented in an ideologized way, specially when the news is associated with current themes, such as feminism and homosexuality. In the first case, militant feminism describes relations between men and women as if they were a battle between the sexes and consequently offers a representation of the father as an aggressor who puts the lives of his wife and children in jeopardy. In the second case, that of homosexuality, the battle for the “the rights of homosexuals” speaks out of a very powerful social lobby tryin to set the agenda of the mass media in this issues.
Finally, the most common social virtues that have emerged in the research show that, in the journalistic narrative, compassion is in first place (present in 30% of the articles), followed by affability (30%), acceptance (15%), and honor (10%).
Studnicki’s study is a timely research and helpful one to contribute seriously to the public debate in Western countries. It is also rigorous and highly qualitative; yet, in spite of this, it doesn’t neglect qualitative aspects (there are 927 articles analyzed with standard rhetorical tools and framework, and coming from a wide variety of newspapers: from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wyborcza Gazette and the Rzeczpospolita—two Polish papers—and Il Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica –Italian newspapers-). It is an investigation that has the merit of touching on a hotly debated and particularly sensitive topic of the international media’s current agenda, and that offers a careful reflection on the rediscovery of fatherhood in contemporary societies.