Media Framing: When Journalists Keep It Real and What It Means for Advocates

Is it a fallacy to think that the media could ever really be objective?

This is a question posed by Jay Rosen from the PressThink blog. Rosen writes that the media’s endeavors to appear “fair and balanced” hide the framing decisions every journalist must make when presenting information.

Instead of hiding under this objectivity pretense, the press should, in effect, keep it real. Rosen proposes that journalists should be upfront about their biases towards the issue, “show their work,” verify their sources, and stay away from “false balance” in the name of “professional journalism” (since such a thing never really existed anyway).

As more journalists adopt this new form of “authentic self” reporting, what does this mean for advocates? Let’s dig a little deeper into the notion of media framing.

Gamson and Mogdigliani (1987) define a media frame as “a central organizing idea or storyline that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events…The frame suggests what the controversy is about, the essence of the issue.”

A media frame, then, is a critical part of every new story. It shapes how the public thinks about the issue, whether they should care, and/or how they should act (e.g. as a citizen or a consumer).

For example, consider James Fallow’s observations in The Atlantic (“Framing a Story: Journalism 101.“). Fallow poses a question to readers to see if they can guess how a recent WSJ story was framed.

It begins this way:

“Americans are using more gadgets, televisions and air conditioners than ever before. But, oddly, their electricity use is barely growing, …”
Possible choices for the rest of the paragraph are:
(a) “… reflecting hard-won efficiencies in electric-power use by industries and utilities.”
(b) “… raising hopes that economic growth can coexist with reduced resource-use and greenhouse-gas emissions.”
(c) “… which together with increased shale-gas production may hasten the era of ‘energy independence’ for the United States.”
(d)”… posing a daunting challenge for the nation’s utilities.”

OK, you peeked, and know that the real answer is (d).

Fallow’s point is that this was a missed opportunity to frame the story in terms of environmental or energy security benefits for the country (which would have activated a civic identity). Instead, the journalist used an economic frame to focus attention on utility industry losses (which activated a consumer identity). Granted, the article appeared in a business section of the newspaper, so it is to be expected that an economic frame would be used. However, the journalist could have focused on national economic gains made from energy efficiency or other ways in which utilities economically benefit (e.g. not having to construct more power plants).

Journalists have a myriad of frames to choose from to tell their story. The frames they choose make all the difference in how information is understood.

Because journalists frame all the time, advocates need to be able to recognize those frames and respond appropriately to build public adoption for their issues. In our research, we rigorously test several frame elements (values and metaphors) with 1000s of Americans in interviews, surveys, and peer discourse sessions to determine which frames will (and will not) lead to support of social issues.

When we work with advocates in our workshops and Study Circles, we help them identify media frames and understand the framing effects in triggering either productive or unproductive ways of thinking about the issue. We also help them deploy tested reframes in their communications so that they can tell a new story in the media that gets the public to think like citizens again.

This is the essence of strategic framing – (1) identify the unproductive frames promoted in the media and public discourse, (2) understand the cognitive and cultural effects of those unproductive frames in public thinking on the issue, and (3) deftly use tested reframes to redirect public thinking on the issue.

When journalists are explicit about their framing choices, it is paramount for advocates to understand the value of empirically-tested framing recommendations. In a more value-laden media discourse, master framers know how to use every public communications opportunity skillfully to deploy frames that have been tested to gain public support.






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