In search of a Tawney Moment: income inequality, financial crisis and the mass media in the UK and the USA

McGovern, Patrick; Bauer, Martin and Obradovic, Sandra (2023). In search of a Tawney Moment: income inequality, financial crisis and the mass media in the UK and the USA. The Sociological Review, 71(5) pp. 1213–1233.



Has rising income inequality become a scandalous social problem as the English ethical socialist R. H. Tawney anticipated in an earlier era? We examine the salience and framing of income inequality within major UK and US newspapers over the period 1990-2015. Specifically, this includes the global banking crisis of 2008 which was the most significant financial crisis in capitalist economies since the Great Depression of 1929. Did this event trigger a public outcry? We divide the overall search into a full corpus for quantitative analysis of media salience and a smaller corpus for in-depth qualitative analysis of media frames. We find that media coverage of income inequality increased across the period in both countries and especially after 2008. With this increase, there is a shift in frame prevalence, with pre-2008 frames focusing on conceptualizing rising income inequality while post-2008 frames focus on managing rising inequality (through interventions, policies and identifying scale of solutions needed). This shift is accompanied by a more polarised sentiment on income inequality, an increase in moralizing language and a more balanced political slant. The proposed ‘solutions’ become absorbed within established repertoires offered by the political right and left, limiting the emergence of a Tawney Moment. Consequently, the rise in income inequality has not generated the kind of scandalizing public outcry that Tawney would expect. We conclude by examining the possible reasons for the lack of outrage in the mass media.

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