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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for July 2012

A Tale of Two Racisms

24 July 2012 – I intended to write about something called ‘moral licensing’, but the Daily Mail published something (on football racism) that deserves comment. This will probably interest those who’ve followed the John Terry & Luis Suarez cases, but I doubt it’ll interest anyone else, unfortunately. (The ‘moral licensing’ piece – which, in an odd way, is relevant to this – will follow in a few days).

I won’t rehash the Terry & Suarez cases (I’ll assume you know the details). There were some striking similarities between the cases, and some differences – eg process and burden of proof (more on that below). Also, the media coverage. Here’s what caught my eye in the Daily Mail yesterday (23/7/12):

John Terry piece, Daily Mail , 23/7/12

(There’s an online version of this on the Daily Mail site – scroll down past the main story).

It was written by Mail columnist Martin Samuel. The parts which caught my attention were these (my bold):

  • “To brand a man a racist requires only a balance of probability, according to the FA.”
  • “…his outdated ideas about a case needing to be proven.”
  • “Terry did not swing in a proper court, so now he will be tried in one with less exacting standards.”

So, to summarise: The FA’s “standards” in these matters aren’t as “exacting” as they could be. And, anyway, the newfangled “balance of probability” doesn’t establish proof, and it’s insufficient to “brand a man a racist”.

The UK media (en masse, including the Daily Mail) – took the exact reverse of this position over the FA’s “standards” on the Suarez case. “Balance of probability” was regarded as appropriate – yes, a lower burden of proof than “beyond reasonable doubt”, but just fine for the job. And quite sufficient to “brand a man a racist” (actually, “racial abuser”). As for “exacting standards”, the UK press fell over themselves to congratulate the FA on its 115-page Suarez report. Here’s what one fairly typical Guardian piece said about it:

The thoroughness, attention to detail and remarkable depth of the 115-page document [...] a report that has prompted legal experts to talk about a document that is “appeal proof”. [...] has brought a new meaning to the word transparency by revealing every last detail [...] this extraordinary report… (Guardian, 1/1/2012)

This kind of gushing praise for the FA report was all over the newspapers, as was quick denunciation of those who criticised or questioned the FA panel’s verdict. Even before the FA released its delayed 115-page report, criticism of its verdict on Suarez – whether direct or implied – was framed by the UK media as “shameful“, as “confusing” the “zero tolerance messageon racism. When Suarez’s club (Liverpool) raised the issue of lack of evidence, etc, they were denounced as “beyond the pale“, “hypocritical“, and their actions viewed as a “constant undermining of the FA’s role“:

“Some of the words being used to describe the FA and its role in governance on these sort of issues, that is really beyond the pale.” (Piara Powar, BBC, 8/1/12)

(One of the things I learned about the fight against racism – from campaigners such as Piara Powar, Lord Ouseley, Sports editors at the Guardian, etc – was that it entails, indeed requires, an uncritical acceptance of “the FA and its role in goverance on these sort of issues”. I’d never realised this before, as the FA always seemed to me like a dubious assortment of inept old blokes in suits, with a rich history of unprogressive views and general cluelessness. But that’s what the UK media is for – to inform and educate).

Bandwagons, herd-mentality, etc

So, what about Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail – author of the above critical remarks about the FA’s “standards”, etc (in the context of the John Terry case).  Surely he, of all people, didn’t jump on the hack-bandwagon – praising the FA’s Suarez report and dismissing its critics? Actually, that’s exactly what he did. Here’s the damning evidence, from his Daily Mail column, 4/1/2012:

Martin Samuel on Suarez, Daily Mail, 4/1/12Burden of proof

The FA uses the civil “balance of probability” rule of proof. This generally means a lower burden of evidence required to “prove the matter” than applies in criminal cases.

Many journalists seem to forget that “balance of probability” is a flexible rule, and that the more serious the allegation, the greater the burden of evidence required to prove the matter. This is clearly stated in the FA panel’s 115-page report on the Suarez case (see paragraphs 76-80). Paragraph 80 states: “The FA accepts that the Charge against Mr Suarez is serious, as do we. It is for this reason that we have reminded ourselves that a greater burden of evidence is required to prove the Charge against Mr Suarez.”

Martin Samuel’s piece, above (on the Terry case), perhaps confuses the issue over “proof” and “standards” (depending on how you interpret his wording). “Balance of probability” doesn’t, in itself, imply “less exacting standards”. It implies a lower burden of evidence, which is not the same thing – it doesn’t mean a licence to be sloppy. In fact, on the Suarez case, the media seemed convinced that the “balance of probability” rule had been applied to the most exacting standards. (Close scrutiny of the FA panel’s report reveals that this wasn’t the case. The FA’s own prescription for stronger evidence – in accord with the seriousness of the allegations – seems to have been “forgotten” by the FA’s panel, and completely overlooked by the media. No direct evidence/witness testimony was submitted in the Suarez case. And so the ironies pile up…).

Please also see: the original piece I wrote exposing media falsehoods on the Suarez case: Media on Racism: Part 1 – Churnalism (this article “went viral” on social media, and has been read by several hundred thousand people to date).

Written by NewsFrames

July 24, 2012 at 1:16 am

Misconceptions about framing

My last post brought up some comments which reminded me of common “misconceptions” about Frame Semantics. Here are some extracts from George Lakoff’s book, Thinking Points, which will hopefully clarify things a little…

Frames and Brains

“Framing” is not primarily about politics or political messaging, or communication. It is
far more fundamental than that: Frames are the mental structures that allow human
beings to understand reality—and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.
But the discovery and use of frames does have an enormous bearing on politics.
Given our media-obsessed, fast-paced, talking-points political culture, it’s critical that
we understand the nature of framing and how it can be used.

Political framing is really applied cognitive science. Frames facilitate our most basic
interactions with the world—they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way
we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most part,
our use of frames is unconscious and automatic—we use them without realizing it.

Erving Goffman, the distinguished sociologist, was one of the first to notice frames
and the way they structure our interactions with the world. Goffman studied institutions,
like hospitals and casinos, and conventionalized social behavior, like dating and
shopping. He found something quite remarkable: Social institutions and situations are
shaped by mental structures (frames), which then determine how we behave in those
institutions and situations.

To describe this phenomenon, he used the metaphor of “life as a play.” For instance,
consider the hospital frame, with its clearly defined roles: doctor, surgeon, nurse,
orderly, patient, visitor, receptionist, janitor, and so on. There are locations where
scenes play out: the operating room, the emergency room, the recovery room, the
waiting area, and patient rooms. There are props: the operating table, scalpels, bandages,
wheelchairs, and so on.

The hospital frame also has an internal logic, because there are fixed relations and
hierarchies among the roles: Doctors are superior to nurses, who are superior to
orderlies; all surgeons are doctors, but not vice versa; surgeons perform operations in the
operating room.

Conversely, the hospital frame rules out certain behavior, because it determines what
is appropriate and what isn’t: Orderlies or visitors do not perform operations; surgeons
don’t empty bedpans; operations are not performed in the waiting area; visitors bring
flowers to the patients, but surgeons don’t bring flowers to orderlies.

All of us know thousands of such frames for everyday conventionalized activities,
from dating to taking buses to getting money at an ATM to eating at a restaurant.
Many frames come with language that is meaningless outside that frame: surgeon,
emergency room, waiter, bus driver, PIN. Without operations, a surgeon would be
meaningless. Just as a waiter would be without restaurants.

Political disputes are sometimes about how frames interact and whether one frame
takes priority over another. Can the FBI search a congressman’s office for evidence of
corruption? That is, does the administration frame include law enforcement jurisdiction
over Congress?

Frame structures also appear on a smaller scale. Charles Fillmore, one of the world’s
great linguists, has studied how everyday frames work at the level of sentences. The verb
“accuse,” for example, is defined with respect to an accusation frame, with semantic
roles: accuser, accused, offense, and accusation. The accuser and accused are people (or
metaphorical people, like corporations), the offense is an action, and the accusation is a
speech act, in particular, a declaration. The offense is assumed by the accuser to be bad,
that is, illegal or immoral, and the accuser is declaring that the accused did perform the
offense.

Lessons from Cognitive Science

1. The use of frames is largely unconscious. The use of frames occurs at the neural level,
so most people have no idea they are even using frames, much less what kind of frames.
Thus, the conservative message machine can impose its frames without the public—
progressive or not—being aware of them. For example, the “war on terror” frame has
been imposed by conservatives but used by independent journalists and even by many
progressives without much comment. In another area, Time magazine ran the headline
“Illegals!” for a feature article on immigration. Democrats have used the “tax relief”
frame without being aware that it undercuts their own views.

2. Frames define common sense. What counts as “common sense” varies from
person to person but always depends on what frames are in the brain and how frequently
they are used and evoked. Different people can have different frames in their brains, so
“common sense” can differ widely from person to person. However, in getting their
frames to dominate public discourse, conservatives have changed “common sense,” and
progressives have been letting them get away with it. Progressives should become
conscious of framing that is at present accepted unconsciously as “common sense” but
that hides the deep problems.

3. Repetition can embed frames in the brain. One of the funniest bits on Jon
Stewart’s The Daily Show is video clips it runs of right-wing leaders and spokespeople
using the same words over and over on the same day. The technique of repetition of the
same words to express the same idea is effective. The words come with surface frames.
Those surface frames in turn latch onto and activate deep frames. When repeated over
and over, the words reinforce deep frames by strengthening neural connections in
listeners.

The problem of rationalism

Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds
of others. This is a big task. We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and
metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one
common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is
determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire, and one person’s common sense is
another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind
are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.

The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old
theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration
for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for
our democratic system. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all
human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have
to rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best
form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.

But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind.
• We know from cognitive science research that most thought is unconscious, but
rationalism claims that all thought is conscious.
• We know that we think using mechanisms like frames and metaphors. Yet
rationalism claims that all thought is literal, that it can directly fit the world;
this rules out any effects of framing, metaphors, and worldviews.
• We know that people with different worldviews think differently and may reach
completely different conclusions given the same facts. But rationalism claims
that we all have the same universal reason. Some aspects of reason are
universal, but many others are not—they differ from person to person based
on their worldview and deep frames.
• We know that people reason using the logic of frames and metaphors, which
falls outside of classical logic. But rationalism assumes that thought is logical
and fits classical logic.

If you believed in rationalism, you would believe that the facts will set you free, that
you just need to give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they
will reason their way to the right conclusion. We know this is false, that if the facts
don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all,
physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts. The facts must
be framed in a way to make sense in order to be accepted as a basis for further reasoning.

If you were a rationalist policy maker, you would believe that frames, metaphors,
and moral worldviews played no role in characterizing problems or solutions to
problems. You would believe that all problems and solutions were objective and in no
way worldview dependent. You would believe that solutions were rational, and that the
tools to be used in arriving at them included classical logic, probability theory, game
theory, cost-benefit analysis, and other aspects of the theory of rational action.

Rationalism pervades the progressive world. It is one of the reasons progressives
have lately been losing to conservatives.

Rationalist-based political campaigns miss the symbolic, metaphorical, moral,
emotional, and frame-based aspects of political campaigns. Real rationality recognizes
these politically crucial aspects of our mental life. We advocate getting real about
rationality itself, recognizing how it really works. If you think political campaigns are
about laundry lists of policies that have no further symbolic value, then you miss the
heart of American politics. [End of excerpt]

I’m aware that this will probably lead to further misconceptions (“Are you saying we should just be irrational?”, etc). Such is the way with new “paradigms” (I’m not keen on this word, but how else to highlight that this isn’t just a new surface gloss?). It takes a while for the non-familiar to sink in. But, one step at a time…

Written by NewsFrames

July 9, 2012 at 8:49 am

Framing for “radicals”

A view I often encounter is that Lakoff’s Frame Semantics is not politically “radical” enough. Take this review of Lakoff’s book, Whose Freedom? (from CounterPunch), which argues that Lakoff ignores “any facts or analyses that suggest the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states”.

CounterPunch’s reviewer, Robert Jensen, seems (to me) hostile towards Lakoff throughout, and I see indications that he hasn’t read Lakoff’s book very thoroughly (for example, he claims incorrectly that Lakoff “makes no mention” of the distinction “between negative freedom [...] and positive freedom”).

But, putting that aside, what is Jensen’s main problem with Lakoff’s approach? Jensen first makes some good points about the US Democratic party, but Lakoff’s book is not really about the Democrats (except for the illustrative examples cited). Jensen then returns to the same criticism that he started his review with:

Though this critique may seem harsh, it is a friendly one. I agree with many of the policy prescriptions that Lakoff labels as “progressive,” though I would want to push his analysis to the left and move past the predictable and uninspiring liberal ideology. I would highlight the more fundamental issues around illegitimate systems and structures of power, primarily the corporation in capitalism and the nation-state in the imperial era. (Outside the Frame, Robert Jensen)

So: “structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, the “nation-state” – these are the “fundamental” issues/systems for Jensen (and for many others who use the same terminology). Jensen writes that Lakoff’s approach is “shallow” for (allegedly) not addressing these fundamentals.

But, to my reading, Lakoff does address these issues – repeatedly and “deeply”. Except, he doesn’t do it in Jensen’s preferred terminology. For example, Lakoff goes to the roots of conservative (including corporate) beliefs in the so-called “free market” system (more on this below). He analyses how states and state power are conceptualised in terms of cognitive frames, and provides a more thorough account of the ideological underpinning of rightwing (including “imperialistic”) policy than any other researcher I’ve come across.

It’s worth pointing out that Jensen’s “fundamentals” (“structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, “nation-state”) are abstract nouns. They seem useful abstractions to me, but we should always remember that they are words, pointers. The realities they point to – unimaginably huge, complex aggregations of countless human actions – can be “addressed”, “mapped”, “encoded”, conceptualised in many ways. Pluralism demands that they are, so let’s not restrict ourselves to any particular lexicon. (Another author who explores Jensen’s “fundamental” issues in depth and detail – but without adopting Jensen’s lexicon of “imperialism”, “capitalism”, etc – is Greg Palast. See, for example, his excellent book, ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’).

So, where does Lakoff’s work come in? For a start, it gives us a better understanding of our own cognitive mapping of this fundamental stuff. We become more adept at distinguishing the “map” from the “territory”. We see how our views (and those of people who oppose us), on a range of diverse topics (eg economics, international conflict, various social issues, etc), fit together from an internal “moral logic”. One example Lakoff provides to illustrate this is the question: Why, in the US, do conservative positions on, say, abortion, correlate with support for “punitive war” or capital punishment or opposition to social programmes for reducing child mortality? There’s no obvious, “rational” explanation – and no other field of research has seriously attempted to provide answers (especially not empirically-based ones).

Frame Semantics, metaphorical framing, the cognitive-linguistic mapping of “political” views (whatever you want to call it) gives us rich insights into how our “moral” and “political” concepts form and function at the “deeper” levels of what the researchers call the “cognitive unconscious“. To me, there’s a beautiful irony in Robert Jensen’s evaluation of this approach as “shallow”.

Lakoff’s book in fact deals with types of framing directly relevant to Jensen’s “fundamental” issues. Take the section on ‘Economic Freedom’ in which Lakoff writes at length on frames which form the ‘Economic Liberty Myth’ – ie the metaphorical rationale “behind” what Jensen calls the “structures of power” and “corporate capitalism”.

For example, this myth unites the following ideas in a complex moral frame:

  • “Free markets are natural and moral”
  • “Competition naturally maximises efficiency”
  • “Private industry is more efficient than government”
  • “Regulation reduces market efficiency”
  • “Everybody with sufficient discipline can succeed”
  • “Market discipline is natural; regulation is unnatural”

Lakoff shows how these moral-economic frames tend to accompany other ‘conservative’ positions on seemingly unrelated matters (eg foreign policy, war, “domestic” issues such as welfare, etc) in a systemic way. Unlike the rhetoric-heavy “radical” churnalism which is so often found on the pages of CounterPunch, it’s based to a large extent on empirical work, eg research in conceptual metaphor – a truly “radical” field (in the sense of new, original, groundbreaking and “getting to the roots” of things).

Perhaps if Lakoff hadn’t done this pioneering work – perhaps if he’d just stuck to repeating reified terms (“structures of power”, “Power-elites”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, etc), and citing evidence proving that these abstract nouns refer to the major destructive “forces” on the planet (not difficult to do, really) – then perhaps smart, deeply radical guys like Robert Jensen would welcome him with open arms: One Of Us.

Written by NewsFrames

July 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm

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