The Image of the Father in Italian Press

The Image of the Father in Italian Press

According to statistics provided by the gynecology clinic Mangiagalli of Milan, before Christmas 2010, a new mother out of five chose not to declare the name of her father’s baby. This number had tripled in three years: from 474 cases in 2008 to 1,298 cases in 2010. To comment on this phenomenon of “a real boom in single mothers”, the Italian paper, La Repubblica (December, 22, 2010), published a brief interview of Eva Cantarella, writer and professor of Roman and Greek Law at the University of Milan.

The topic of the interview is summed up in the short and striking words of the title, which are repeated in the first line of the text: “It’s the victory of feminine independence”. The mother without a father by her side is presented as a “positive” fact, a sign of “victory”, and a symbol of “feminine independence”. From this point of view, the single mothers are no longer labeled as victims of men scared off by the responsibility of parenting, but as conquerors in the battle against masculinity. At the same time, the father is reduced to a mere “instrument to reach maternity”. In this way, the male presence in the family then becomes unnecessary. The father role is “superfluous”. His absence is no longer a problem nor a damage. To argue and justify this position, Eva Cantarella affirms that “sometimes, in some families, fathers are there, but only on paper. They virtually do not exist”.

The argumentation of this article is strongly anchored in a cultural commonplace (tòpos), the feminist mold that identifies with a social virtue that opposes injustice, or said otherwise, vindication ( vindicatio). In this case, women take revenge on the traditional male dominance. Women are considered victims, and therefore must fight for their own rights, above all, the feminine independence from the male universe. That fight “automatically” translates into a fight against the paternal figure, and as a consequence, the absence of the father is considered a social conquest. A counter-value therefore becomes projected as a value.

This is just the starting point of the analysis on paternity carried out in a study titled The Image of the Father in the Italian Press, a master’s thesis at the University of the Holy Cross in Rome. The author analyzed the way in which two top Italian papers, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, deal with the theme of paternity.

The father reduced to a news story, but not as bad as in fiction

The study, already in its descriptive part, brings to light some interesting data. The topic of fatherhood is omnipresent in the aforementioned daily newspapers. There were 153 articles analyzed and selected (72 from Corriere della Sera and 81 from La Repubblica). Over the period in which the analysis was conducted, only three issues of the papers lacked material on this subject. On average, the father figure appeared in more than 2.5 texts per day. Furthermore, it is interesting to note how this topic emerges in the different news sections: from Foreign news to Local, fromEconomy to Literature, from Culture to Sport. This fact is of particular importance as it reveals that paternity is a natural theme, inseparable from the human being, embracing his life and his history.

In about half of the articles analyzed, the father of the family is the protagonist of the news stories. True, more often than not, he is quite a dramatic protagonist. However, it does mean that he appears in a negative light. On the contrary, the paternal figure takes on very moving, almost melodramatic elements, so much so that the most common and superficial emotional aspects are exalted, and the real analysis of the individual is neglected. Unlike news stories, the portrayal of paternity in news about films and novels is always negative. If on one hand, the quantity of the texts analyzed in the cultural sections (about 20% of the total) indicates the importance and relevance of the topic of paternity in the wide-ranging field of contemporary culture (in movies, books, musical and theatrical performances); then on the other hand, the current crisis of paternity emerges in an evident way from the negative tone continuously attributed to the father through the diverse artistic products. Then art is not just a “mirror of reality”. Writers and directors do indeed focus their attention on particularly dramatic and problematic themes, in order to more easily attract the reader or viewer. However in this way, they also make up a new reality.

The two Italian daily newspapers show the father figure in relatively similar ways. In both papers, the topic is confronted by a wide range of diverse journalists (151 articles signed by 114 different authors). Therefore, there is no one on the editorial staff that almost exclusively covers family issues. Some of the similarities among these two newspapers deal with other aspects: the number of articles, the kind of genres of texts, the percentage of positive and negative frames, and the presence of the “anthropological roots of society”- the social virtues that lay at the foundation of all possible frames.

More interesting and significant is the analysis of the “unspoken”. News on the father of the family is often connoted by a negative frame. While a negative framing was found in 53% of the texts, 44% had a positive frame, and only 3% had a neutral frame, attesting to the fact that the father is someone to whom, by nature, we cannot be neutral..

The theme of paternity is the main frame of the text in 51% of the cases analyzed, and the secondary frame in 49% of the cases. In the first case, fatherhood is often presented with a negative connotation (60%) while, in the articles in which paternity was the secondary frame, 57% of the texts held had a positive connotation. This data speaks of the well known fact that news values fit with negativity and conflict and that secondary frames are less subjected to ideologization. The role of the father is often explicitly diminished or even despised when the story deals with two hot issues: feminism and homosexuality.

It is not by chance, therefore, that the father figure is constantly present in the pages of these leading Italian newspaper. We are dealing with a figure who has strong anthropological roots. The theme of paternity, as it emerges from the daily press, is linked to all nine anthropological virtues of sociality, even if in quantively different ways.

The most frequent social root is piety, that is, the inclination towards fundamental relationships (i.e. founding relationships) for every human being: the relationship with God, with parents, and with one’s country. This dimension of piety was found in 45% of the texts analyzed (mostly regarding family). There is an evident affirmation of the natural father-son bond, with positive connotations; because in about every two out of three cases, piety is presented in its authentic form, that is, as a virtue. On the contrary, in the case of affability- present in 24 texts- vice prevails over virtue: then the inclination to give oneself (kindness or afabilitas) is portrayed in a warped way in every three out of four cases. In the 20 cases in which liberality emerges (i.e. the tendency to give what one has, to which afabilitas is associated) the genuine form prevails: every two out of three cases portrays it as a virtue. In this way, the analysis of the “unspoken” regarding the father of the family in the Italian press reveals a dominant tendency toward a consumerist matrix: it is easier to give what you have than to give who you are.

Something similar happens with the other social virtues, which are included in the global analysis but are not presented here. In total, the quantity of the social roots presented as vices (52%) prevails over those presented as virtues (48%). This corresponds to the proportion of negative frames prevailing over the positive ones.

The study has not only argued the “permanent omnipresence” of paternity, even if it was more often linked to crime news stories. It has also attested to the validity of the methodology proposed by the research group Family and Media in the case of news regarding the topic of paternity. It would then be certainly necessary to verify the presence of the father figure in a more extended sampling of journalistic texts. But this first analysis already points to the strong anthropological and social rooting of paternity, despite the ideological attempts to diminish its role.

Method of Analysis

In the first step of the research, the stories from the two Italian newspapers in the December period were chosen according with wording criteria: articles including “father”, “dad”, “parent”, “son” or “daughter” within the text were selected. Then a later selection was done according to the relevant topic under analysis: fatherhood. Those selected articles, 153 overall, were studied following the analytical method proposed by Family and Media. First the frame in which the information was presented was examined, and then the tòpos, the natural or cultural common place where the author of the text seeks to meet his readers. Finally, under examination were the social virtues- the nine anthropological roots of sociality presented in either their authentic or manipulated form. The aim was to discover not only what was said, but above all, what was unsaid- the unspoken- about the father in the Italian press.

At least two issues were left open that will require further research: over a longer period of time or with a broader sampling, would the image of the family father be the same? Are the conclusions valid also for the international press or do they only reflect the characteristics of Italian press?