Module 1. Political aspects of mass media genre


Lindsey A. Harvell

(USA, University of Oklahoma, Norman)

Framing has always been prevalent in political media. However, by the 1700’s, framing began to influence our government structure with the heated debate regarding the ratification of the constitution and is now used primarily by the media and political elites as a way to discuss a wide variety of issues. An issue cannot be presented without a frame. Journalists must choose how to present a story to their audience. Similar to the diverse issues that are presented using framing, the definitions that scholars use to define framing are assorted not only in the same disciplines, but these definitions can vary across disciplines as well. For instance, Kenneth Burke examines framing from a rhetorician’s point of view, while Entman and Tversky and Kahneman examine framing from a social scientific viewpoint.
Often, scholars lump framing, priming, and agenda setting together. However, these three concepts have distinct differences that set each apart from the others. Simply stated, agenda setting occurs when a strong correlation between what the mass media emphasizes the importance of these issues that is attributed by audiences (McCombs & Shaw, 2012). Priming occurs when there are “changes in the standards that people use to make political evaluations” (Iyengar & Kinder, 2017: 63), and framing is based on the assumption of how an issue is characterized in news reports and how this can affect how audiences understand the message (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2017). While priming and agenda setting are related to framing, they are not the same concepts. While these three concepts work together, they are separate ideas. Priming concerns making an issue salient in political decisions as a consequence of agenda setting in the media (McCombs & Shaw, 2012). Frames encourage citizens to draw heavily on the principles and concerns that the frame emphasizes. Through the use of frames, we can change opinions by influencing the importance citizens attach to issue-relevant beliefs (Callaghan & Schnell, 2015). In fact, within most contexts, a frame can shape how citizens interpret political events (Callaghan & Schnell, 2015). A frame can be applied to a diverse amount of issues that imprint a story in the minds of audiences (Van Gorp, 2017). Therefore, frames are vital to study because they have the ability to change attitudes. However, many Americans don’t engage in public discourse. These Americans will not be aware of the message, and if you are not aware of the message, you will not be persuaded by it. This is why the media and political elites focus so heavily on making their issues salient to their intended audience. Ideally, frames help a message be noticed, so that someone can be influenced by the message (Zaller, 2012).
Today, we have moved away, as media effects scholars, from Klapper’s “minimal effects” paradigm and a denial of media influence to what we now consider the media as a mechanism to arrange pictures in our heads, something that is credited to Lippmann (Lippmann, 1922). There are many schemes for classifying frames, but three are the most popular. Framing scholars tend to focus on how frames emerge as well as how frames influence public opinion. Frames are generally placed in one of three categories: thematic framing occurs when political issues or events are placed in a context, episodic framing occurs when “event oriented” frames focus on a specific event or person, and generic frames refer to a narrative device journalists can use to convey political information (Callaghan & Schnell, 2012). Framing has also been recognized as having serious effects on those that are exposed to the message. For instance, framing can alter policy attitudes by changing what citizens think about an issue and their net levels of policy support as well as the ability to affect perceptions about who is responsible for policy outcomes (Moskowitz, 2018). Furthermore, framing cannot only affect who receives the blame for social problems but also how these individuals should be treated by society (Iyengar & Kinder, 2017).
When scholars choose their definition of framing, they decide upon a place to start. There is currently an inability to examine framing effects across different communication contexts. Therefore, how can a study bear any real meaning without the opportunity to compare across studies? Every scholar starts from a different definition, or place, and when this occurs, everybody ends at a different place. The purpose of this essay is to bridge the gap between the diverse definitions and to propose a starting place for all scholars to discuss a context free idea of framing.
So, why do we need a generic framing definition that is free from context? Currently, there are no meta-analyses that examine framing effects across different communication contexts. This is because we currently cannot examine effects across studies because of the lack of a single definition being used. Instead of working together, scholars talk past each other by developing context specific definitions of framing. What this essay offers is the groundwork for a new theory of framing that is absent of context. I provide only a beginning of what has the potential to grow into something that can be a starting place for scholars across disciplines.
There are two ways of defining framing as a concept. Framing is either defined as an act (i.e., behaviour) of making salient certain message attributes to help organize an experience or as a structure that comes in various forms (i.e., episodic, thematic, etc.). As an act, framing allows different ways in which people can make salient specific message attributes while suppressing others. From here, a meta-analysis could be conducted with a focus on the framing effects of different framing devices, not being bound by context. As a structure, framing can be studied as a typology. At this time, a meta-analysis can be conducted to determine which type of frame is most effective at influencing opinions and behaviors, not bounded by context.
Framing research has also been present in both rhetorical and social scientific methods. However, each scholar uses a different definition of framing causing different starting places and consequently, different endings. There are several themes amongst the definitions presented within this paper. First, all of the definitions concerns giving meaning to the events that are being presented. By examining an issue through a specific frame, it provides you with a perspective of how to interpret the events that occur around you. Second, the definitions deal with how we cognitively process messages. We frame situations in our minds as a way of processing the world around us. Lastly, the definitions concern how we are influenced by messages. Frames through public discourse influence us.
What is framing? Unfortunately, this is a question that is not easily answered. According to Kinder and Sanders (Kinder and Sanders, 2000: 74), frames are, “devices embedded in political discourse, invented and employed by political elites, often with an eye on advancing their own interests or ideologies, and intended to make favorable interpretations prevail”. Framing can refer to subtle alterations of statements or presentations of judgment and/or choice problems (Iyengar, 2011). Specifically, a media frame has been defined as, “reporting the news from a particular perspective so that some aspects of the situation come into close focus and others fade into the background” (Graber, 2012: 173). This hints at Entman’s (Entman, 2013) emphasis on the salience of issues as a vital aspect to framing. Ultimately, frames affect how people define, discuss, interpret, and understand a topic, so how a specific issue is framed is important (Kinder & Sanders, 2016; Gamson, 2012; Gamson & Modigliani, 2009; Tversky & Kahneman, 2011; Iyengar, 2011). There is a direct connection between how an issue is framed and public opinion. Frames affect how an issue is evaluated, the salience of an issue, and encourages support or opposition to an issue (Fridkin & Kenney, 2015). While the act of framing a message is important to understand, it is equally important to understand the effects of these messages. Framing effects can alter policy attitudes by changing what citizens think about regarding an issue and their net levels of policy support as well as perceptions about who is responsible for policy outcomes (Callaghan & Schnell, 2015; Moskowitz, 2018). Some scholars have even gone so far as to say that framing can affect who is to blame for social problems and how they should be treated by society (Iyengar & Kinder, 2017).
I propose that framing be defined as helping individuals organize an experience by making certain aspects of an issue or message salient, thereby creating a schema for how they evaluate subsequent messages. In the following pages I present a rationale for this definition as well as an interdisciplinary discussion regarding the future of framing scholarship using the proposed definition.
A Historical Account of Framing
Framing took center stage when it entered our governmental practices in 1787 (Callaghan & Schnell, 2015). The battle of whether or not to ratify the United States Constitution was raging, and was discussed in the media. The media presented various positions on the issue, such as antifederalist, threats to liberty, and danger of consolidation. These frames had an impact on which side the public voted for. In 1922, Lippman introduced the media as a mechanism to arrange pictures in our heads (Lippman, 1922). It wasn’t until 1942, with Hamilton, that scholars became aware of how various themes relate to individual responsibility and how these themes have shaped the Sunday morning sermons of protestant ministers (Callaghan & Schnell, 2015). It was at this moment that scholars started recognizing that making issues salient to audiences can occur outside of politics, and that it can occur in our everyday lives.
Kenneth Burke introduced his pentad in 1945 through his definition of dramatism. Burke (Burke, 1969) defines dramatism as the use of a metalinguistic approach to fiction. The pentad are five rhetorical elements common to all narratives, and it is which one a specific character stresses on that suggests his or her own world view or frame and the one the rhetor would like the audience to adopt (Burke, 1969). The five rhetorical elements are act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. An act is related to the worldview of realism and answers the “what” question (Burke, 1969). A scene is related to the worldview of determinism and minimal or absent free will and answers the questions of “when” and “where” (Burke, 1969). An agent is associated with the worldview of philosophical idealism and answers the question of “whom” (Burke, 1969). An agency implies a pragmatic point of view and answers the question of “how” (Burke, 1969). Last, a purpose indicates that the character is seeking unity through identification with an ultimate meaning of life and answers the question of “why” (Burke, 1969).
In 1948, framing began to be associated with the way in which we present the news. Lasswell (Lasswell, 1948) began this discussion by stating that when news organizations coordinate activities within society, journalists and the media elites make inaccessible information available to everyone. However, Lasswell (Lasswell, 1948) also points out that, while the information is disseminated, it is done so through a specific frame chosen by the journalists. In 1952, Lasswell and colleagues merged the idea of framing occurring in politics and the idea of framing occurring in news stories by analyzing trends in media coverage of the international political system between 1890 and 1950 (Callaghan & Schnell, 2015). This was the first time that political and news framing were merged together as a scholarly endeavor.
In 1972, framing research was introduced in the field of economics. Tversky and Kahneman (Tversky and Kahneman, 2012) state that the idea of chance (e.g. tossing a coin) is a frame. Specifically the frame is determined in how you filter information cognitively. Their theory, Prospect Theory, simplified this notion. Prospect Theory provides a framework for the descriptive analysis of risk (Tversky & Kahneman, 2012). The idea of risk translates to the certainty of an expected outcome (high/low) and the valence of the expected outcome (positive/negative) (Tversky & Kahneman, 2012). Tversky and Kahneman’s (Tversky and Kahneman, 2012) definition assumes framing as an action as opposed to a perspective, which helps guide individuals in organizing their thinking. Therefore, the way that an individual analyzes a particular risk is the frame in which he or she sees this situation.
Goffman (Goffman, 2014) took a more interpersonal approach two years later. He believed that there are two parts to a frame: the participant’s response and the world he or she is responding to (Goffman, 2014). Some interpersonal situations are considered main actions, or frames, while others are considered side events, or out of frame (Goffman, 2014). Interpersonal situations are divided into a “strip”, a “frame”, and a “frame analysis.” A strip is defined as a cut from ongoing activity. Goffman’s (Goffman, 2014) idea of a frame is defined as explanations of a situation that are built up in agreement with principles of organizations that govern events. Therefore, he uses “frame” to refer to basic elements that can be identified (Goffman, 2014). A frame analysis is the examination in these terms of the organization of an experience (Goffman, 2014). According to Goffman (Goffman, 1974), we perceive events in terms of primary frameworks, so the type of framework we use provides a way of discussing the event. These primary frameworks are known as central elements of culture, according to Goffman (Goffman, 2014). He believes that we as individuals always make assumptions about society, and these are managed within our belief system, and because of this, we do not tolerate the unexplained (Goffman, 2014). We tend to project our frames of reference to everything around us (Goffman, 2014). In fact, the very idea of make believe or being playful is a frame. As a society, we frown upon being too playful, and the limiting of such things is also considered a frame to Goffman (Goffman, 2014). In Goffman’s (Goffman, 2014) world, even a dramatic script is considered a frame. The idea of deception also introduces a framing of information. Those who deceive understand what is going on and exactly what is happening in a situation. Therefore, in deception, the untruthful individuals often construct stories that lead to deception, and Goffman (Goffman, 2014) stresses that in this type of situation, a person could ultimately deceive his/her self. Following this logic, frame analysis, “recommends an analytical basis for discriminating sources of ambiguity. It also leads us to ask about the circumstances under which an ambiguity can persist through time” (Goffman, 2014: 367). Goffman (Goffman, 2014) reiterates, however, that frames can break when the individual becomes so engrossed in their situation, which occurs when the individual forgets about the frame in which they are using to cognitively process a situation.
A few years later, in 2018, Tuchman theorizes that through news’s frames, we learn a lot about ourselves, our institutions, and those around the world. However, she stresses that this can be problematic because how one views and interprets a frame is situational (Tuchman, 2018). Decisions that are made tend to flow from professionalism and are a result of organizational needs and it is these needs that circulate and shape our knowledge (Tuchman, 2018). Tuchman (Tuchman, 2018) goes further to state that news draws on everyday life to tell us stories and introduces the idea of a net of news, which is an interaction between the different levels in the organization that ultimately determine what is identified as news. Often news organizations will use typifications as a frame to filter news through which could ultimately lead people to the wrong conclusions (a persuasive strategy on behalf of the media elites) (Tuchman, 2018). In this world, stereotypes are considered frames. This is mainly because they present individuals with a more limited range of acceptable appearance, feelings, and behaviors than guidelines do (Tuchman, Daniels, & Benet, 2018). For example, women in media are shown in 1978 to be passive and dependent, but when compared to today, the same women are shown as independent and aggressive. Tuchman (Tuchman, 2018) draws on Goffman’s (Goffman, 2014: 192) definition when defining a frame as, “the principles of organization which govern events – at least social ones”. To Tuchman (Tuchman, 2018), frames help us make sense of things and the organization of experience is tied to the production of meaning.
In 1980, framing research continued to focus on message structure. Gitlin (Gitlin, 2000: 7) began this discussion by stating that, “media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation of selection, emphasis and exclusion, by which symbol handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual”. Frames make it possible for journalists to deal with large amounts of information fast and package it for easy consumption by audiences to interpret events (Gitlin, 2000). A decade later, Gamson (Gamson, 2012) continued his earlier work of tracking prevalent frames in society throughout time by describing framing as the way in which people construct meaning as a series of parallel stories where patterns emerge through looking at different issues. So, when we label these issues is when framing occurs and these labels are a way for supporters to battle on a specific issue domain (Gamson, 2012). This belief is generated from the idea that journalists contribute to their own frames, and it is when the story begins that the frame begins.
The theory of agenda setting takes into account several different definitions of framing when defining the underpinnings of the theory. There are four dimensions of frames that further help elaborate the McCombs and Shaw aspect of framing. The first dimension, subtopics, deal with issue attributes which serve as the independent variable in second level agenda setting (McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 2017). Many scholars disagree with this notion. Many believe that there is more than just accessibility of the story as the sole mechanism (Scheufele, 2000). Similarly, Prospect Theory presents comparable information through different frames (Tversky, 2014). These attributes are subtopics within a specific issue. The attributes, or frames, compete with each other for attention of the audience. The prevailing frame will be the mechanism that has the potential to influence. Framing mechanisms gives an emphasis to topics in the media (McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 2017). The affective dimension shows the affective aspect of news so, the public’s emotional response in terms of a result of media coverage (McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 2017). The cognitive dimension is the last dimension discussed. This dimension is derived from two ideas. First, there needs to be a problematic situation, which is explanatory of the meaning equivalence between media and the audience (Edelstein, Ito, & Kepplinger, 2009). Next, there is either episodic or thematic framing. Episodic framing refers to specific events or cases, while thematic framing refers to the placement of an issue in some general context (Iyengar, 2011). Through defining these different aspects of framing, McCombs and Shaw developed the second level to agenda setting which states that depending on how an issue is presented in the media, it can be linked to public opinion (McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 2017). This is not done by selection of stories, but how these issues are presented (McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 2017). While our history has been filled with a healthy mix of diverse framing definitions, the idea of framing and how a frame is built has relatively remained the same.
A Macro View of Framing
Frames are extremely important in how we view issues every day. They are embedded in our lives both internally and externally. It is through frames that we understand issues in certain ways (Kosicki, 2013). As mentioned by Goffman (2014), some of these frames are internal and deal with how we interpret events and how we present ourselves to others. However, the media present other frames (e.g. McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 2017).
Media frames develop when facts are framed by competing, authoritative, and/or self-interested sources (Delli Carpini, 2015). Journalists using specific criteria determine these frames. When journalists choose a frame, they consider the following: what the current “norm” is for contemporary journalists, the practicality of constraints on the newsmaking process, the institutional practices of journalists in general, and the way all of the above are internalized as professional norms by journalists (Delli Carpini, 2015). Journalists are bombarded with new information daily. When journalists gain this new information, they tend to interpret it within a schematic framework (Delli Carpini, 2015). For instance, in an election, reporters view candidates as strategic actors, where every move is significant (Delli Carpini, 2015). The frames that are used allow this information to be presented fast (Gitlin, 2000) but can lead people to the wrong conclusions (Tuchman, 2018). Thought and consideration must be given when choosing and presenting frames.
The media are responsible for informing the world about events that take place in the world. Citizens rely on journalists to not only select which stories to tell us, but we allow them into our homes to do so (Kellstedt, 2015). While journalists have a role in what frames are chosen, editors ultimately determine the frame of reference for a story (Protess & McCombs, 2011). The media uses frames in order to give meaning to these events (Williams, Shapiro, & Cutbirth, 2011). The media will use a normal frame to make issues salient to viewers and a political frame to frame issues in regards to a campaign or candidate (Williams, Shapiro, & Cutbirth, 2011). A normal frame occurs when issues are salient to the audience. A political frame occurs when issues are salient to the campaign or candidate. However, the problem with political frames are that they often will tell us which issues are relevant, but will lack an implicit campaign frame, so viewers are ambiguous as to the campaign relevance to a story (Williams, Shapiro, & Cutbirth, 2011).
Thus far we have discussed a historical background of scholarly research advancing our understanding of framing. Frames can act in several ways. For instance, within frames, arguments and justifications are embedded in political discourse and are often used as rhetorical devices by political elites to advance their position (Kinder & Nelson, 2015). Frames are also a way that a journalist conveys a story (Kinder & Nelson, 2015). Lastly, frames have been considered cognitive structures that help citizens make sense of politics (Scheufele, 2000). In fact, Kinder & Nelson (Kinder & Nelson, 2015) found that frames help citizens find their political voice. When a question is enriched with a frame, citizens are enabled to express a view (Kinder & Nelson, 2015). Kinder & Nelson (Kinder & Nelson, 2015) also note that these opinions are just as sensible as nonframed opinions and the opinions in the presence of frames are more securely fastened to their premises. Therefore, framing can be understood as seeking to understand how objective conditions become transformed into “social problems” (Entman, 2013; Gamson, 2012; Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 2012). As a structure, framing can be studied as a typology. At this time, a meta-analysis can be conducted to determine which type of frame is most effective at influencing opinions and behaviors, not bounded by context.
Framing has also been extremely useful when used as a bridging concept between cognition and culture (Gamson, Groteau, Hognes, & Sasson, 2012; Van Gorp, 2017). Currently, we live in a culture of stock frames and because frames are so inherent to our culture, the actual frame is not encompassed in media content (Van Gorp, 2017). Because frames are so entwined in our culture, they seem normal and natural; therefore they appear to us as nearly invisible (Gamson et al, 2012). While these frames are nearly invisible, we still process them, even if not to our knowledge. As these frames are processed, individuals are internally motivated and guided by cultural processes (Shoemaker & Reese, 2016). In fact, the persistent character of a frame assures that a frame changes very little over time (Goffman, 2011). The very essence of framing is in social interaction (Snow & Benford, 2018; Steinberg, 2018).
Frames are not something that just happens, they are born from certain situations. A frame embeds itself in media content through specific framing devices such as metaphors, word choice, descriptions, exemplars, arguments, and visual images (Gamson & Lasch, 2013; Pan & Kosicki, 2013). These frames often point to some central idea and are considered to be enriched with reasoning devices such as explicit and implicit statements that deal with justifications, causes, and consequences in a particular order (Gamson & Lasch, 2013; Gamson & Modigliani, 2009). In fact, a constructionist approach operates under the belief that when frames are built, journalists make use of frames as well as influence other journalists when an issue needs to be represented (Scheufele, 2009; Van Gorp, 2017).
Framing: Where do we go from here?
As stated at the beginning of the paper, I propose that framing be defined as helping individuals organize an experience by making certain aspects of an issue or message salient, thereby creating a schema fro how they evaluate subsequent messages. This definition will be able to be used across disciplines. For instance, in economics, this definition could be used to examine the framing of choices and how choices are made in terms of successes and failures. Political scientists could use this definition to describe how political elites use framing to get their messages across. Journalists could use it in a similar fashion by examining how the media chooses what messages to make salient and the presentation style that journalists use to share the message. This definition can also bridge the gap between social scientific views of framing and rhetorician’s views of framing. This definition aids in the ability to conduct meta-analyses of framing research in two ways. First, a meta-analysis could be conducted examining the act of a framed message. The current research lacks this due the inability to pinpoint a single definition as a starting point for scholars. Once a single definition has been adopted, researchers can look at questions such as what are the external factors that surround a framed message and are people influenced by the message? This opens up the ability to examine these questions through rhetorical analysis by looking at the surrounding environment of the message. Scholars can examine this both qualitatively and quantitatively as well while still maintaining the ability to perform a meta-analysis across methods. Second, scholars could examine the message structure. For instance, scholars could ask how does the framed message make issues salient to the intended audience, how do the chosen words in the message invite the audience to be influenced, and how many frames are presented as primary and secondary?
The need for a context-free definition of framing that can be used by all scholars is great. While this definition is only a starting point to a potential context-free theory of framing, it offers a starting place for scholars of all disciplines to begin to examine both the act of framing and the effects of framing in their particular area of study, for example in political media. Therefore, I hope this essay will ignite discussion about the current status of framing research as well as different ways we can improve and streamline our research on framing in political media that might help to improve the external validity of framing research.


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