Posts Tagged ‘framing’
I saw Spotlight for the first time a few days ago, and as a dramatization of journalism there were two things that struck me as incredibly insightful but easy to lose track of in the film’s narrative. The first is that, while presented and celebrated as a story of heroic journalism challenging and taking down a corrupt institution, it’s more a story of journalistic failure than anything else. The story of systemic abuse of children by Catholic priests wasn’t just something that “everybody” knew about, which I think tends to be the short version of the backstory; it’s something that the Boston Globe was specifically tipped off about years before the early 21st century reporting that ultimately became “the story.” This is a key plot point that occurs more than once in the film — victims and their advocates hesitant or unwilling to trust the news organization that dismissed them in the past.
That lack of trust is intimately related to Spotlight’s second big hidden element: the link between individual units and systems. This actually comes up in two important ways. Most directly connected to the trust question, the sources being interviewed by the reporters don’t see those reporters as almost entirely different from the people who failed to follow up on their tips in the past. The only member of the Spotlight reporting team to have seen that previous information was Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who had been the Globe‘s city editor. And yet, all the reporters are told, “you” were sent this information years ago. The “you” in question here isn’t the individual journalists; it’s the Globe as an institution, from which they are inseparable and for which they are responsible. From inside the institution, it’s easy to object and say that was somebody else’s mistake; from outside, the institution is a forest, and the trees indistinguishable.
But if the public is too likely to see only the system, reporters’ bias pulls them the other way, toward episodic stories that too often don’t link together to tell the bigger story beyond the individual events. In Spotlight, the one person who sees this is the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), now at the Washington Post. What got me thinking about this as more than just an interesting story note was seeing Baron’s name pop up in a piece about Post reporter David Fahrenthold’s tenacious pursuit of Donald Trump’s bogus foundation. Fahrenthold had begun reporting on Trump’s promised donation to veterans groups (you may recall this fundraiser as the reason he gave for skipping a debate right before the Iowa caucuses), which had not materialized, and which, like most of Trump’s promises, everybody had completely forgotten about. This is a story worth digging into on its own, but Baron suggested going further: “The logic was that Trump had just tried to wiggle out of a charitable promise he’d made on national TV. What, Marty wondered, had he been doing before the campaign, when nobody was looking?”
These different reporting styles map reasonably well to the concepts of episodic and thematic framing in the scholarly literature, and an over-reliance on episodic reporting is probably as much to blame for the Globe‘s failure as the social biases that would keep Boston reporters from seeing systemic corruption in the Catholic Church. Episodic reporting — or more directly, thought processes that lead to it — allows an event to be a one-off, with baseline assumptions reset the next time the reporter encounters a similar pattern. It means presuming good faith on the part of those being reported on. The potential trouble here is obvious. Unscrupulous actors can and frequently do game this type of reporting. We are seeing it happen right now with coverage of Donald Trump’s tweets. Coverage that simply repeats what he tweets, and makes the story the fact of him saying something, does not allow for examination of the pattern of misdirection and deceit in his statements. This sort of thinking also permeates campaign coverage, and especially post-election coverage, that uses candidate idiosyncrasies to explain outcomes, rather than the broader, macro-level fundamentals that political scientists use to model elections (many fundamental-based models suggested a narrow Trump win this year, for what it’s worth).
Although some of the individual stories in the Globe’s and Post’s respective reporting might be written in thematic frames that highlight general concepts over specific instances, this type of framing doesn’t fit the conflict as well as episodic framing fits the other side. Instead, what I’m talking about is probably better called systematic framing (and this maybe isn’t even framing at all), and occurs across stories, manifesting through linkages that are used to explain truths that can’t be found in a single event. As Fahrenthold put it regarding his systematic pursuit of Trump Foundation information:
The point of my stories was not to defeat Trump. The point was to tell readers the facts about this man running for president. How reliable was he at keeping promises? How much moral responsibility did he feel to help those less fortunate than he?
Any individual story about Trump stiffing a charity doesn’t and can’t answer those questions, in the same way that any individual story about a pedophile priest doesn’t and can’t answer questions about the extent of the problem or the systematic cover-up being run by the Church. These are complicated stories that are, by nature, not reportable in disconnected, single articles. More than that, they’re stories that can’t be expected to emerge simply from an amalgamation of one-offs pieces. They need context and connection, a tie consciously made by the reporter, and used to illuminate the bigger truth for the public.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 8:34, January 4 || No Comments »
As different as the 2016 election cycle was from the norm, in many ways the actions and attitudes of the national political press were entirely as usual. This was especially true when it came to how reporters saw their influence on the public when they were critiqued over their coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. A typical response to the idea that mainstream news coverage had helped deliver the election to Trump, either by helping him or hurting Clinton, argued that the press had provided honest coverage of Trump’s negatives, and that the negative things they reported about Clinton were true. In other words, coverage didn’t influence voters’ decisions; reality did. If the press had influenced public opinion, per se, it would’ve meant that the press had been unfair in its reporting in terms of accuracy or completeness.
That working journalists so routinely fail to understand elementary media effects is a failure of curiosity and reflection for them, and a failure of communication and engagement for those of us in journalism scholarship. In this case, there are at least three major and fairly basic types of effects that almost certainly occurred, but that most journalists are unable or unwilling to see. All of them stem from the fact that reporting a piece of information accurately is neither the beginning nor the end of representing truth through the news.
Some argue that agenda setting is the only real news effect that we’ve ever discovered, and everything else is just a variant on it. I disagree with that, but its various “levels” are all over the kinds of effects we can see in this campaign. The basic idea behind agenda setting is that the news doesn’t tell people what to think, but does tell people what to think about. That is, based on what the press chooses to cover, and the extent of coverage it devotes to a range of stories, the public develops a set of beliefs about how different stories compare in terms of importance, and obviously stories that don’t get covered are stories the public never learns about.
That key relationship with knowledge tells us a lot about how Gallup’s word cloud came to be. Clinton’s email server (and most likely the unrelated email hacking stories contributed to this) dominated the press agenda, as confirmed by every study of campaign coverage. Negative Trump topics, such as the seemingly criminal Trump Foundation, were covered, but much less so. In the development of the press agenda, they were only minor pieces, sometimes pursued by only one outlet or even one reporter.
Perhaps more importantly, by running his rallies live so frequently, TV news allowed Trump to directly set their agenda. Print and digital outlets joined in by picking up elements from those rallies, as well as by obsessively covering his Twitter feed, which they continue to do now. As many have noted, Trump has essentially become a media outlet himself, and as such, theory related to intermedia agenda-setting is highly relevant. Needless to say, Clinton’s events and campaign communications were not granted the same access to the press agenda, which may be why so many people now wonder why she “never talked about economics.”
Mere prominence of one story over another was not the other thing going on. How those stories are presented contextually, even if the facts are 100% true, also has an impact on what people take away from them. In 2016, it’s clear a scandal frame was used to present many stories about Hillary Clinton; you can see this is the way the New York Times and others so often reported on “clouds” being raised or “shadows” being cast around her. For Clinton, the scandal frame was always operative, and it interacted with the game frame to produce stories that were often first about how things looked, and second about how the way they looked might affect the campaign.
We can hypothesize that these frames were picked up by the public by looking at candidate honesty judgments, which mostly found the public thinking Trump was the more honest candidate, despite direct assessment showing Clinton to be one of the most honest politicians, and Trump the very least. On top of that, Clinton was transparent about her and her foundation’s finances, while Trump refused to release anything he wasn’t legally required to. Given that, why would the public have things so backwards? Framing provides the simplest answer. It also provides the foundation which the single most important priming effect of all time was built.
I can’t be sure what various scholars might have planned to study the effects described above, but I’d be astonished if there weren’t a dozen or more public opinion scholars ready to pounce on the effect of priming in late vote decisions. Back in 1990, Jon Krosnick and Donald Kinder published a seminal article on the role of priming in assessing the president. This article used data from the 1986 National Election Study, a panel survey that included interviews of the same people before and after the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair. What they found was evidence of the extent to which evaluations of Ronald Reagan shifted in the direction of evaluations of him specifically on foreign policy grounds when the new scandal emerged and primed people to think of it when they thought of him.
James Comey’s October 28 letter to Congress serves the same role in the 2016 election as the Iran-Contra news did for the 1986 NES data. An analysis of panel data recently conducted for 538 structurally confirms this, as pre-letter and post-letter data gathered from the same respondents show a 4% swing to Trump as the dormant email story was made newly salient for late-deciding or flippable voters. Without additional data we can’t say for sure this was due to Comey’s letter, but there is no other plausible competing theory.
Some members of the press might point out that this is not really a media effect — Comey is a newsworthy individual who did a newsworthy thing in the context of the election, and they simply reported it. But this is where all three of these effects come together. The national political press responded to this event with zone-flooding coverage; the New York Times alone ran seven front page stories on it in the first three days of coverage, making it highly salient, telling the public it was an especially important story, and presenting it in the scandal frame. These choices were not made with any Trump stories, such as the illegal donation his foundation made to the attorney general of Florida before she dropped her investigation of Trump University, or indeed, the $25 million settlement of the broader Trump University case.
None of this is “fake news.” And yet, we have a journalism that is working at odds with what we think journalism ought to be for. Matthew Yglesias has this right when he says that the overriding issue of what looks to be the most consequential election since 1932 was email server management. That’s not something that just happens. But really, none of the things that happen in public opinion just happen. The press and the decisions that journalists make everyday — and they do make decisions everyday and in every story — affect what people know, think, and believe. Their desire to stand apart and abdicate responsibility for outcomes doesn’t change that.
Filed: Science Is Real || 9:52, December 25 || No Comments »
Dylan Matthews (guesting for Ezra Klein) has a nice piece on the way perceived audience make-up affects news framing:
[C]limate hawks aren’t in charge. Because of the filibuster, and now GOP control of the House, the balance of power rests with people who deny the need to take just about any action to stop climate change. So why is Fallows concerned with rebutting them, rather than trying to win over people to his right, who are actually in a position to change things?
In fairness, Fallows, like any journalist, has to target a specific audience, and chances are that the average Atlantic reader believes that manmade global warming is a serious threat, and are skeptics about clean coal insofar as they have views on the matter. Presenting the piece as a defense of coal makes more sense as a response to them than as an attempt to influence the political system.
He further notes that, though elite political journals all have narrowly perceived audiences, the long-form journalism they produce can be influential all around Washington — even if you think all your readers are center-left think-tankers, what you produce will be seen and used by pro-coal figures. The classic example of this is perhaps Betsy McCaughey’s “No Exit,” published and later retracted by The New Republic, and coincidentally cited as the most destructive impact on public discourse of the 1990s by James Fallows, who wrote the above-mentioned clean coal piece. “No Exit” presented an extreme, right-wing (and fictitious, as it turned out) view on the Clinton health care proposal to TNR’s middle-of-the-road audience, informing them that the proposal would forbid Americans from purchasing health care services outside of the new government-run system. While its first-level affect might have been to lead moderates away from supporting the plan, it also became a springboard for conservatives — George Will later claimed the proscription on outside care would be enforced by jail time.
All of which is to say, who you think you’re writing for matters, and who you’re actually writing for matters. Being able to reconcile the two could be key in producing journalism that can positively affect public policy.