Media framing can simply be described as the angle or perspective from which a news story is told. While news is often thought to be objective and value free this is rarely if ever the case. In fact most news stories are value laden in both their production and content. News is not an exact representation of reality but rather a reconstruction from various angles of a small section of reality. This is not to say journalists necessarily lie or consciously distort the truth, but that journalists by covering particular stories, using particular sources from a particular news angle are constructing reality through a selective process. Moreover they are constrained both by the work practices, constraints of resources and their relationship to shareholders and/or managers.
While agenda setting or gatekeeping decides what a newspaper or broadcaster covers or does not cover, the frame is the overarching angle of how the various stories are treated once they are covered. Framing, like agenda setting, is an inherently ideological act (whether consciously or not). The frame of a story (or group of stories) will have influence on how that story is investigated and reported, who the journalist chooses to speak to, what questions he or she asks and how information is interpreted and reported.
Various issues can influence how frames are created; not least overarching ideologies in societies or what is often considered ‘common sense’. Likewise issues such as the race, class and gender of journalists, editors, owners and audiences can influence framing. Finally the production of news or how news is constructed is of importance. News makers often depend on institutional sources such as police, courts and politicians to supply stories which can both influence agenda and how a story is defined.
One example of Framing is the drugs issue; there are numerous ways this issue can be framed.
1: The law and order frame – here the key issue is that drug addicts or junkies are criminals putting our communities and children at risk. Drug pushers must be stopped and petty crime or even crime waves are caused by junkies feeding their habit. Moreover addicts shooting up on streets is unsightly, immoral and bad for tourism. Local Politicians or the Minister of Justice may be questioned on why something isn’t done; victims of crime may be interviewed or businesses who are in areas frequented by addicts. Likewise police may be questioned on what they are doing to curb the criminal activities.
2: Drug misuse as a health issue: Here the key framing is the health of the drug user and issues of health in wider society. Here a Health Minister might be interviewed to discuss funding for treatment centres, various health professionals or experts may be interviewed on issues such as treatment or controversies about types of treatment.
3: Drug misuse as a social problem: Here drug misuse may be framed as a social issue connected with class, race and dysfunctional society. Here the question of which areas are worst affected by drug use and associated crimes might be discussed alongside issues such as unemployment and social deprivation.
4: Recreational Drugs should be legal: In this less common frame recreational drugs are seen as a normal part of society and issues such as addiction and social problems are downplayed or compared with already legal drugs such as alcohol or cigarettes. The cost of ‘the war and drugs’ and the issue of the criminalisation of dealers are often an issue here and policies of ‘harm reduction’ may be emphasised.
How do you deconstruct frames?
Deconstructing frames is important as it can help to challenge ideological and power structures in society. Deconstructing Frames is an inherently qualitative process that can be difficult to perform, but with structure and with other elements such as sourcing and content analysis it can be done in a systematic and useful fashion. Some questions to consider are:
- What assumptions are in the articles? Frames often have an overarching assumption or assumptions: For example in the current economic crisis there is often an overarching assumption of what is termed ‘Neo Liberal Economics’ one aspect of this frame assumes cuts are necessary in times of recession. This is at odds with other economic theories such as Keynesianism which favour counter cyclical government intervention. In the neo liberal frame the issue is not whether or not there should be cuts (that there should be cuts is a given), but rather where will the cuts fall, what is ‘fair’ etc. Organisations such as trade unions can often get caught up in the ‘fairness’ of cuts frame while missing the wider picture.
- Who are the sources? Who are the main source or ‘primary definers’ that sets the tone and agenda of the report? For example in most cases of violence in protest marches or political actions the police act as primary definer and it is assumed they were attacked even when this was clearly not the case. In most coverage of the housing crisis the sources have been heavily biased towards the property industry (see below for sourcing analysis on the 2008 Irish Bank Guarantee).
- What kind of language is used, adjectives such as ‘left’ or ‘hard left’ being used to describe Jeremy Cobryn is a good example. Likewise nouns such as ‘terrorist’ to describe one side of an armed conflict. For example in a recent RTE report on Israel/Palestine it was stated that Israelis were ‘brutally murdered’ while Palestinians were ‘killed’. Likewise Palestinian attacks on military targets are usually termed ‘terrorist attacks’ while Israeli attacks on civilian targets are not.
- Can any patterns or themes be found, for example in the coverage of Israel/Palestine? There is a pattern of language used to describe the sides.
- Is there a narrative that is being followed: For example in the case of Irish Water once Minister Leo Varadkar introduced the term ‘sinister fringe’ to describe elements of the movement the narrative was taken on by much of the press to describe what has arguably been one of the most peaceful movements in Irish political history. Metaphors can often be used in narratives.
- How are people or groups represented. A common device is the ‘othering’ of social groups, often minorities such as travellers, other ethnic minorities, refugees or migrants.Or even national or religious groups. The othering of such social groups can often be expressed as a problem, ie the ‘traveller problem’. Any social group can be scapegoated to suit a political situation such as single mothers in the nineties or public sector workers at the beginning of the economic crisis.
- Gender representation is important, for example the clothing of female politicians is more likely to be commented on in reports as compared to male.
- Class representation is also key here, for example in the current advertisement for EBS the working class are represented as both lazy and stupid while the middle class housewife is portrayed as put upon by ‘the help’. Working class people are often portrayed as both criminal and stupid in Irish advertising, probably reflecting the middle class nature of the profession.
- Frames can also be semiotic in nature that is based upon symbols in words or pictures.
Framing and Class
Semiotics and race: The Children of 9/11 vs the Children of Bin Laden (source exposing the media)
Example No. 1: How Housing is Framed
In the case of the current housing crisis the overarching frame remains that property is first and foremost a commodity that can only be supplied and funded by market forces. Therefore the only way to supply housing is by clearing the way for developers by cutting down on ‘red tape’ (regulation) . Likewise private developers should be incentivised to build (by lowering taxes). Moreover only private developers can build housing and only private banks can supply mortgages
Likewise only private landlords can ‘supply’ rental housing. Landlords don’t increase the rent, the market does, and therefore landlords don’t evict people, they are unfortunately ‘priced out’ of the market. Again landlords should be incentivised via tax cuts and the loosening of regulations to give people the ‘choice’ to live in substandard accommodation. Rent control will distort the market and therefore cannot be introduced; moreover it is an attack on the rights of landlords.
The property market crashed in 2007/2008 because people wanted to have expensive houses and mortgages that they couldn’t afford, nobody forced anyone to buy a house. People partied and became uncompetitive because salaries were too high. The banks were led by bad apples and the regulator was asleep. The system is not under question, because there is only one system and there was only ever one system. The system is reality.
This entire framing is entirely biased and based upon power structures in Irish society. Property and finance sources are most likely to be quoted as they have funding to employ public relations staff or companies. The connection between newspapers and advertisers (especially with the property sections) is also important. And journalist has long standing connections with sources in industry. Moreover the entire framing fits in with current orthodox neo-liberal economic thinking which maintains only self-regulating private markets can offer sustainable solutions
Example: Sourcing Analysis on Banking Guarantee
The above is the sourcing on news stories on the bank guarantee from from the 21st of September 2008 to the 5th of October 2008 (the week leading up to and following the bank guarantee) in the Irish Times and Irish Independent. As can be seen the sourcing is heavily biased towards politics and finance (NB there are multiple sources per news story).
Moreover the party political sourcing is biased again towards government and pro-guarantee parties
Example No.2 How Privatisation is Framed
Having examined the media treatment of the Bord Gais Eireann (BGE) – Ireland’s State-owned gas provider – to UK-based Centrica Holdings, one of the key, over-arching frames was the idea that privatisation would bring benefits to customers. Many articles were based around the idea that privatisation would bring market deregulation which in turn would bring competition which would ultimately drive down the prices that consumers pay for gas. This tallied with the general frame evident in the analysis of the public characterised as consumers first and foremost- a key neo-liberal frame.
Another key frame within the media was that privatisation is a generally desirable policy. This frame holds, notwithstanding the recognition that certain aspects of its implementation were insufficient in this particular instance; specifically the poor timing of the sale and the undervaluation of some of the State’s assets. These facts did not detract from the presentation of the privatisation in the media as a progressive policy generally. This tallied with the ubiquitous anti-State frame that State involvement in economic issues is unwarranted and unhelpful – the so-called ‘dead-hand’ moniker, whose absence would make way for deregulation and competition.
An interesting frame which emerged from the analysis revealed the bias towards employees of BGE. While many had paid into an Employee Share Option Programme ESOP, and as such had built up shareholdings of their own, the coverage of this scheme in the sale, using pejorative terms like ‘trousering windfalls‘ demonstrates negative journalistic attitudes towards the ESOP as seemingly tenuous and less-deserving.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the media coverage was in its absence. There was ‘significant silence‘ surrounding the media’s coverage of the sale to the extent that one analyst commented that most of the company’s customers would not have been aware that it had been sold as it ‘just quietly happened’; recognising the dearth of coverage of an issue that warranted genuine public interest, one that was overlooked in favour of predominantly consumer-based frames.
News Frames Blog:
Citizens Handbook on Framing:
Video: A lesson on Framing Theory
Video: Robert Entman and Framing