What is Framing?
Journalists have to construct a clear narrative that will make sense to the audience so they will draw our attention to certain facts while ignoring other aspects of the story. They might filter their report through a political point of view or find an angle that reinforces their own bias. The audience’s understanding of a story could be anchored by placing it in a wider cultural context. Of course, how the message is encoded will also be determined by the technical infrastructure available to produce the story and the news organisation’s own values and ideologies.
In communication studies, framing is the way news stories are constructed to evoke a particular interpretation or reaction from the audience.
For instance, a news report might position the audience to view a politician as the hero in the narrative because of their economic policy to cut business taxes. By contrast, another news report might represent the same politician as the villain because they want to argue there might be less money for social reforms.
We already know from the agenda-setting theory that news organisations prioritise certain issues at the expense of other stories. This guide will explore the second level of agenda-setting: how news stories are constructed, or framed, to influence our thoughts and feelings towards the issues.
Erving Goffman (1974) coined the phrase “frame analysis” when he was studying the “organisation of experience” in everyday life. All ordinary interactions, such as saying hello to a neighbour or taking part in the school’s debating society, follow firmly established cultural standards and routines. We are fully aware of the roles we are expected to perform in each situation, or frame.
In the same way our communication with other people is often choreographed, broadcasts follow certain codes and conventions when they are presenting the news to the audience. They are framed within a particular format.
Media Form and Framing
News organisations can emphasise an issue by labelling the story a “special report” or an “in-depth investigation”. This will give the impression it is worth reading. We are more likely to pay attention to an issue if the reporter is well-known. Or an interview with an expert might heighten the sense of urgency.
In our guide to the agenda-setting function of mass media, we looked at McCombs and Maxwell’s “major” and “minor” division of reports. This is a good way to measure the coverage an issue receives because splashing a story on the front page will certainly have more presence compared to a three-column article hidden away on page eleven. The audience will also attach importance to a topic according to the frequency it appears in the press.
Put simply, editors have to decide how to frame the issue and this representation will then determine how the audience processes and interprets the information.
Walter Lippmann (1922) described how the public “hears reports, not objective as the facts are, but already stereotyped to a certain pattern of behavior”. In other words, the broadcast media reduces important issues to soundbites and slogans which makes it difficult for the audience to engage in a meaningful way with the topic.
Journalists and editors have to use stereotypes because they only have so many pages and columns they can devote to a particular issue. Evening news broadcasts are usually less than thirty minutes long, so they also need to take shortcuts to communicate their ideas to the audience.
Lippmann called stereotypes an “economy of effort” because the representations are an easy and efficient method to encode meaning. The audience are also familiar with stereotypes so they are more likely to decode the message according to the preferred reading.
The news industry is incredibly competitive. Journalists and editors have to grab the audience’s attention if they want to maintain their ratings and, importantly, advertising revenue. That is why they focus on negative content, such as human conflict and natural disasters. Their reports will contain exciting headlines and shocking images. The more sensationalist news broadcasters like to use dramatic sound effects and quick cuts between camera shots. Inevitably, the facts are exaggerated, and insignificant events are made to seem significant.
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”Lois Lane
This strategy is known as sensationalism. Expect the news report to be biased and presented in a way that reinforces the values and ideologies of the organisation.
News organisations and most other institutions use social media to distribute their content and engage with the audience. They hope their stories are liked, shared and retweeted until they go viral. Our social media channels are full of information campaigns, but many critics are concerned there is also a rise in misinformation which is engineered to manipulate the audience. In fact, the World Health Organisation called this spread of false and misinformation an “infodemic”.
Agencies deliberately manipulate the facts and misrepresent the truth, so we need to critically assess the stories that appear on our social media feeds. We need to more aware of the misleading clickbait titles, propaganda disguised as news, the stories designed to obfuscate the truth and agitate the viewer, and the filters used to enhance the images on our screens.
Framing a Story Task
A great way to develop your understanding of framing is to present your own story on the front page of a newspaper. Consider this scenario: the police report there was an “incident” at a celebrities’ home. From what you can gather in your investigation, there was some sort of altercation between the famous couple. One of them needed treatment in a local hospital for minor injuries. You managed to buy a photograph of their bruised face from a freelance photographer. It’s an exclusive!
Celebrity gossip is always newsworthy, but the editor of the newspaper decides this story needs to be splashed on the front page. Your job is to represent the “incident” in a way that will have an immediate and direct impact on the audience.
Create a headline and kicker that will shock the reader. Appeal to their emotions by using emotive language to describe the events. If you have access to image editing software, manipulate the photograph to emphasise the injury.
The truth is messy so journalists have to sort through their notes and begin to create a narrative. They have to make conscious choices about the language they will use to describe the events in the report. The story might be filtered through a particular critical perspective to anchor the audience’s interpretation.
Photographers decide where to point their camera and then edit the footage in post-production before it is ready for print or broadcast. Editors will follow their policies and guidelines.
Put simply, the news has to be organised into an appropriate form. However, the version of the story will inevitably be framed by the institution’s values and ideology. That is why the audience should always critically assess the news they read in the papers or watch on television.