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How the Media Frames Political Issues By Scott London This review essay looks at how the media — particularly television news — shapes political attitudes and behavior.
It examines the difference between "episodic" and "thematic" frames, the media's role as political "agenda-setter," the question of "establishment bias," the so-called objectivity ethic, the public's waning confidence in the press, the political consequences of news, and a handful of other questions that all of us — professional journalists and news consumers alike — need to think about and come to terms with in our increasingly news-obsessed and media-saturated culture.
The piece was written in January In the ever-expanding body of media effects research, relatively little attention has been paid to how news is framed, and still less has been written on the political consequences of media frames.
A frame is the central organizing idea for making sense of relevant events and suggesting what is at issue. News and information has no intrinsic value unless embedded in a meaningful context which organizes and lends it coherence.
News stories can be understood as narratives, which include information and factual elements, to be sure, but also carry an implicit message. The medium, in the case of news coverage, is the ultimate message.
As James Britton writes: Until we can group items in it on the basis of their similarity we can set up no expectations, make no predictions: To identify frames, the informational content of news reports is less important than the interpretive commentary that attends it.
While this is true of journalism in general, it is Argument analysis the debilitating effects of evident in television news which is replete with metaphors, catchphrases, and other symbolic devices that provide a shorthand way of suggesting the underlying storyline.
These devices provide the rhetorical bridge by which discrete bits of information are given a context and relationship to one another. Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA, has pioneered the research in the framing effects of news coverage on public opinion and political choice.
He explains that viewers are "sensitive to contextual cues when they reason about national affairs. Their explanations of issues like terrorism or poverty are critically dependent upon the particular reference points furnished in media presentations.
As such, news frames are frequently drawn from, and reflective of, shared cultural narratives and myths and resonate with the larger social themes to which journalists tend to be acutely sensitive.
Through a series of laboratory experiments reports of which constitute the core of the bookhe finds that the framing of issues by television news shapes the way the public understands the causes of and the solutions to central political problems.
Since electoral accountability is the foundation of representative democracy, the public must be able to establish who is responsible for social problems, Iyengar argues. Yet the news media systematically filter the issues and deflect blame from the establishment by framing the news as "only a passing parade of specific events, a 'context of no context.
In one of the clearest demonstrations of this phenomenon, subjects who viewed stories about poverty that featured homeless or unemployed people episodic framing were much more likely to blame poverty on individual failings, such as laziness or low education, than were those who instead watched stories about high national rates of unemployment or poverty thematic framing.
Viewers of the thematic frames were more likely to attribute the causes and solutions to governmental policies and other factors beyond the victim's control. The preponderance of episodic frames in television news coverage provides a distorted portrayal of "recurring issues as unrelated events," according to Iyengar.
This "prevents the public from cumulating the evidence toward any logical, ultimate consequence. Since the early part of this century when the ethic of objectivity began to dominate news reportage, journalists have used the individual frame to dramatize a story.
The general presumption was that personalized news stories were not only more accessible and "newsworthy" but that this form of "muckraking" spurred governmental and social service agencies to action by arousing public support on behalf of the disadvantaged. Yet Iyengar suggests that the opposite is in fact the case.
He adds, however, that the effects of his experiments tend to vary widely, depending on the subject matter of the news. But the theories and premises of his research are derived in large part from his book News That Matters co-authored with Donald Kinder.
In the book, he examines how we think about politics, suggesting that television determines what we believe to be important issues largely by paying attention to some problems and ignoring or paying minimal attention to others. In the late s, Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw began studying the agenda-setting capacity of the news media in American presidential elections.
They were especially interested in the question of information transmission — what people actually learn from news stories, rather than attitudinal changes, the subject of earlier research.
Their research precipitated a stream of empirical studies that underscored the media's critical role as vehicles of political information. In their book, The Emergence of American Political Issues, McCombs and Shaw argued that the most important effect of the mass media was "its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us.
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