Researchers examine how ‘social murder’ is being reported in news

Woman writing in a notebook

A team of researchers at York University conducted a review of content that applies the “social murder” concept to health and well-being. Recently, the team published a paper that examines how this material is being reported to the public.

PhD candidates Piara Govender and Stella Medvedyuk, and Professor Dennis Raphael, published their findings in the paper “Mainstream News Media’s Engagement with Friedrich Engels’s Concept of Social Murder,” in which they examine news content for reporting that evokes the social murder concept.

Dennis Raphael
Dennis Raphael

Social murder is a term first used by philosopher Friedrich Engels in 1845 to describe how living and working conditions experienced by English workers caused premature death. Engels argued that those responsible for these conditions (ruling authorities, the bourgeoisie) were committing social murder.

Raphael explains there is a re-emergence of the concept in the academic literature in response to growing social and health inequalities, and this inquiry looks at how it is being reported to the public in relation to the Grenfell Tower Fire, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the imposition of austerity in Canada and the U.K.

“We consider these developments in relation to journalists’ roles and their reporting on health inequalities,” the paper states.

The researchers identified 134 print and online news articles from 1994 onwards in which the term “social murder” appeared in relation to health, illness or well-being. However, 41 of these were unrelated to Engels’s concept of social murder as either capitalist exploitation, problematic public policy, or some other structural aspect of society constituting social murder, leaving 93 articles as the focus of the research.

The analysis revealed three main findings: there are a few recent key stimuli for print and online news reporting employing the term social murder; reporting that employed the social murder concept profoundly increased during 2016–17 and this trend continues; and, news and online print reports differ to the extent they employ Engels’s full concept of social murder as capitalist exploitation versus problematic public policy or some other aspect of society.

Further examination led to the identification of five primary news hooks evoking the social murder concept, including:

  • Grenfell Tower Fire in London, England as social murder, including politicians citing the event as social murder;
  • conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, including governmental responses to the pandemic;
  • austerity and social security policy as social murder;
  • instances of social murder related to job precarity from the Republic of Korea; and
  • other public policies as social murder.

The paper’s authors conclude that news hooks – usually an event, a politician’s statement, or the publication of an article – act as stimuli to journalists presenting the social murder concept. Serious or catastrophic events appear to provide a window of opportunity for journalists – and those who wish to influence journalists – to present a potentially transformational concept such as social murder.

“There appears to be increasing willingness among journalists to engage with the concept of social murder as espoused by Engels to explain the causes and effects of growing social and health inequalities,” the paper concludes. “Such reporting runs up against entrenched barriers due to media logic, traditional journalist roles, and powerful economic and political interests that control the media.

“Despite these barriers, increasing interest in the social murder concept amongst academic researchers, greater willingness of prominent spokespersons to evoke the concept, and the adverse effects of neoliberal governance are spurring such reporting forward. Researchers and advocates must continue to engage with the news media to encourage reporting of these important health issues.”