Understanding bullying: the impact of media reporting

Dr Sheryl Ramsay

Although the sensationalist elements of a news story deliver benefits to the media outlet distributing it, public assumptions that the same reports are always objective and true has a follow on effect as social institutions subsequently respond to the story at hand.

A team of researchers from Griffith’s Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing and Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance are asking whether reporting around the holistic concept of ‘bullying’ suffers the same fate.

Following a preliminary analysis of some 225 print-based Australian newspaper articles which included the word ‘bullying’ or its derivativesfrom the 2010/ 2011 financial year, the team has found great disparities between civic understandings and use of the term to that within the academic vernacular.

Dr Sara Branch
Dr Sara Branch

KCELJAG Research Fellow,Dr Sara Branch (pictured left)clarifies that the academic definition for ‘bullying’ asks after the presence of inappropriate behaviour in the first instance; whether the same behaviour is repeated and if so, over a what period of time; and finally, whether the ‘bullying’ target feels unable to defend themselves from those who are administering the negative behaviour.

The frequency of use of the term in these articles took initial demand of the researchers’ attention. Whilst 165 articles of the 225 analysed did not fulfill the academic definition of ‘bullying’, 120 used the term only once. Furthermore, the topical nature of the articles tended to focus upon business, politics and inappropriate behaviour; the latter of which says WOW member,Dr Sheryl Ramsay,seems to be the key to ‘bullying’ in reports on the matter.

Offering valuable journalistic insight, Associate Professor Jacqui Ewart highlights the import of the structural placement of the term in an article. “Whilst 36 [articles] used it in the headlines”, when benchmarked against the academic definition “…only 20 were bullying related…”, adds Sara. From the outset though, only “eight of the 225 articles fulfilled the ‘bullying’ definition”.

Whilst the team contend at this early stage that the ‘singular-term’ reference to bullying may be somewhat unjustifiable and indicative of an overuse of incidental terms in the media’s reporting, they are eager to further their research to capture an understanding how journalists’ initial perceptions and definitions of bullying – given the absence of quotes, and the prevalence of journalist paraphrasing, in the 225 articles analysed. Further analysis of online-based media is likewise a natural progression as the team look to consider the reporting of organisations, newspapers, advocacy agencies, industry, and public opinion websites around the concept.

jacqui-ewartDr Sheryl Ramsay is a Senior Lecturer in the Department Employment Relations and Human Resources at Griffith University, and a member of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing. Dr Sara Branch is a Research Fellow in the Key Centre for Ethics, Law Justice and Governance where Associate Professor Jacqui Ewart(pictured right) is also a member.