Here’s what my mass media theory book says about the concept of “frames”:
To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicationg text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described. Typically frames diagnose, evaluate, and prescribe …
I posted comments earlier from a soldier’s article compaining of the way Iraq has been presented by the media. He’s complaining about the frame through which Iraq has been presented.
Few journalists realize they are reporting from inside a frame. The current frame can be summed up thusly: if anyone in Iraq dies (particularly U.S. soldiers) then the mission must be going badly. The frame downplays good news and places a disproportionate emphasis on bad news. Unfortunately, I can’t prove that this perception is the result of a frame, and not based upon a true reflection of reality. But I can point to an instance in which the frame didn’t jibe with reality: Afghanistan coverage.
By searching the NY Times archives, a negative Afghanistan frame emerges:
11 Civilians Reported Killed In a U.S. Raid In Afghanistan (Jan. 20, 2004)
Afghans Say 10 Civilians Died in U.S. Raid (Feb. 1, 2004)
2 Bombings Seen as Part Of New Drive By Taliban (July 1, 2004)
Killings Drive Doctor Group To Leave Afghanistan (Jul 29, 2004)
U.S. Woman and Girl, 12, Die In Attack by Afghan Bomber (Oct. 24, 2004)
Not a perfect content analysis, but certainly indicative of the general mood of Afghanistan coverage. Since then, a president has been elected and we hear little — apparently because things are going relatively well. By reading coverage through the Times’ Afghanistan frame, a reader might well be surprised that things have turned out so well.
(In fact, one important news story was completely overlooked. On election day in Afghanistan, not one Afghan was gunned down or blown up while standing in line to vote. Front page news had a terrorist struck such easy targets. More framing.)
Perhaps, when the dust settles in Iraq, we will cast a dubious eye at today’s coverage. We may wonder why the situation seemed so dire. Wonder why Rolling Stone dubbed Iraq “The Lost War.” Wonder when all the construction started. Time will tell.
I’m not sure how we prevent frames likes these from forming. I know that in my business, an attempt to work against the frame is often frowned upon.
When Sincalir Media attempted balance the frame by searching for good news in Iraq, many critics lashed out. A Fox News exec was criticized for a memo which stated: “Do not fall into the easy trap of mourning the loss of U.S. lives and asking out loud why we are there.” Seems reasonable. If all we hear from war news is body counts, then we aren’t getting the whole picture.
Many journalists judge those two organizations as right-wing propaganda camps. They see bias, not balance. Ironically, these other organizations are hardly paragons of objectivity.
I think I’ll have to fall back to my old diversity argument. The reason for the negative Iraq frame is simple. Most journalists don’t support the effort in Iraq. They are uncomfortable with the idea of using our military force in this manner. They think our wrong-headed policies are to blame for terrorism in the world. Most importantly, they dislike President Bush and can’t believe he got re-elected.
Find some journalists that think a little differently and the media might be surprised at how the frame changes.