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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Framing poll questions & results

crimepollJuly 10, 2013Research has shown that metaphors shape the way people reason about social & political issues – with most folk having no awareness that metaphors are influencing their thinking. This is relevant to polling, of course.

For example, one study found that if crime is framed metaphorically as a “virus”, survey respondents proposed “investigating the root causes… eradicating poverty and improving education (etc)”. But, when crime is framed as a “beast”, participants prefer enforcement and punishment.

Notably, in this study, there was only a one word difference (“virus”/”beast”) in the questions asked. Most participants said the crime statistics (which were included in the question, and the same in both cases) influenced their reasoning most. The authors of the study remarked: “These findings suggest that metaphors can act covertly in reasoning.”

“Majority say X”
“Majority say NOT X”

YouGov tested how a question’s wording shapes responses by asking different groups essentially the “same” question (but with different wording). For example:

  • “The BBC licence fee costs £145.50 a year. Do you think this is good or bad value for money?”
  • “The cost of the BBC licence works out at 40p a day. Do think this is good or bad value for money?”

Since 40p x 365 = £146, you’d expect roughly similar responses. In fact there was a massive difference. The poll asking the first question found that twice as many people thought the BBC was bad value (27% good, 54% bad). The poll using the second question found a majority saying the BBC was good value (44% good, 36% bad).

There’s no obvious difference in terms of metaphor here, but the large shift in response suggests that different cognitive frames are activated in each case – perhaps the larger (yearly) sum “reminds” people of money they need (eg to pay utilities bills). Work in ‘behavioural economics’, by the likes of Dan Ariely, has catalogued similar examples.

Here’s another example, reported by the New York Times, of a simple change in poll wording that dramatically changed the responses:

“Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly [in the military]. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly.” (NYT, 11/2/2010)

As has been commented, this example probably isn’t surprising, as the wording evokes different frames, one about human rights, and the other about sex.

Framing poll results

So, small changes in wording can produce very different responses. And that’s just in the question asked. What about different framings of the results (eg by the news media)? Peter Kellner, the journalist & President of YouGov, makes the following comment:

The results frequently arouse media interest. Indeed we are often commissioned to ask stark questions in order to generate bold headlines and stark findings […]. It’s not that these headlines or allegations are wrong, but they are often too crude. A single question, or even a short sequence of questions, will seldom tell us all we need to know. (Peter Kellner, 24/10/2011)

But it’s not just the mass media which promotes simplistic conclusions based on crude polling. The “public interest” website, Spinwatch (of all people) recently did something similar…

Even SpinWatchers spin?

A Spinwatch blog commented on a poll which asked people in the UK to estimate the number of Iraqis who “died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003”. The poll itself seems genuinely shocking: 59% of the respondents estimated that fewer than 10,001 Iraqis died as a result of the war.

An obvious question: Where did these low estimates originate? – since they are far lower than figures reported from Iraq Body Count or the Lancet-published surveys, etc. (Or were they just ignorant guesses from people too embarrassed to select the “Don’t know” option?)

Unfortunately, the poll doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, as it was limited (for cost reasons) to just two poll questions, neither of which indicates sources of estimates or media preferences of respondents, etc. But this didn’t stop the Spinwatch blogger from making a sweeping conclusion:

“The poll results are a striking illustration of how a ‘free press’ imposes ignorance on the public in order to promote war.” (Spinwatch, 4/6/2013)

Of course, it doesn’t follow. The poll says precisely nothing about the press. The blogger’s conclusion that the press “imposes ignorance” is based on his own presumptions (whether valid or not) – not on the poll results.

(Spinwatch published a follow-up piece with some media searches, apparently showing unbelievably few mentions of the Lancet Iraq studies – eg only 13 results for “All English Language News”, since 1/12/04, from a Lexis-Nexis search. This is clearly wrong, and, in fact, the last paragraph – of an addendum to the piece – briefly notes that “searching ‘Lancet AND Iraq’ with Lexis Nexis turns up 2602 articles since December 1, 2004”. But the Spinwatch author doesn’t present this as a correction to his earlier seemingly botched search-term format which yielded just 13 articles. Rather, he writes: “As with any search, the results can be tweaked by modifying search terms slightly”!)

Causal metaphors – a digression

Reports of poll results (in common with headlines in general) often use direct causation metaphors to frame complex social issues. All such metaphors have their own logic, which is transferred from the physical realm of force to the more abstract social realms of institutions, politics, beliefs, etc. The effect is inescapably “reductive”, but not necessarily illegitimate (some metaphors – and their imported logics – are more appropriate than others). Here are some examples of such metaphorical causal expressions:

  • Public generosity hit by immigrant wave
  • 72% believe Iraq on path to democracy
  • Obama’s leadership brought the country out of despair
  • Majority fear Vietnam will fall to communism

Each of the causal logics here is different – for example, the notion that one country “falls” to communism, while another takes the right “path” (to democracy). Of “falling to communism”, Lakoff & Johnson remark (Philosophy in the Flesh, p172) that the ‘domino effect’ theory was used to justify going to war with Vietnam: when one country “falls”, the next will, and the next – unless force (military might) is applied to stop the “falling”. The metaphor of taking a “path” has very different political entailments. A nation might not even resemble a democracy, but if it chooses the “right path”, it “deserves” US military and economic “aid”, to help overcome any obstacles put in its “way”. (Incidentally, rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

The different types of causal logic resulting from each metaphor may seem obvious when spelt out like this. But the point is that the reasoning in each case is evoked automatically by the metaphorical frame; it takes effect without being spelt out, without being “made conscious”. Rather, the logic – including political inferences – is an entailment of a frame that’s simply activated by the language used.

“Imposes ignorance”

The notion that the press “imposes ignorance on the public” is also metaphorical (although this perhaps isn’t as obvious as in the above examples). The question is whether we regard it as valid and appropriate for 21st century media – given the increasing levels of information access. It takes less than a minute, for example, for anyone with an internet connection to google “Iraq war deaths”. Such a search immediately returns the BBC article, Iraq war in figures, which cites Iraq Body Count, UN-backed IFHS, and Lancet studies, and their figures.

(BBC headlined with the 2006 Lancet study – on BBC1 News and BBC2 Newsnight – on the day of its publication, published a “question and answer” piece with one of the study’s authors (Les Roberts) and conducted an investigation – using a Freedom Of Information request – showing that the government’s scientific advisers privately stated that “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area”.)

None of this fits the notion of a media which “imposes ignorance on the public”. That’s not to say that the “news” media isn’t a determining factor in “public ignorance” (in various complex ways – several of them explored in the cognitive framing literature and in the work of Tversky, Kahneman and others on heuristics and biases, etc). But to conceive of it as forceful restriction (“imposes”) seems a fundamental misunderstanding of how the media works in the 21st century – not to mention how people acquire knowledge and form opinions in an information-saturated world of competing frames.

The Spinwatch piece notes that “Rumsfeld AND Iraq” yielded more search results in a 3-week period than “Lancet AND Iraq” did over 8.5 years – and the author concludes that, “There is simply no honest way to absolve the establishment media for imposing ignorance on the public”. But if there were a simple (inverse) correlation between number of media mentions and public ignorance, you’d expect the “public” to be relatively knowledgable about what Donald Rumsfeld said and did regarding Iraq.

That would take another poll to determine, but I suspect that public indifference/ignorance on Iraq (if that’s what the above poll illustrated) extends to what Rumsfeld said and did – regardless of the media’s apparent over-representation of Rumsfeld.

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

July 11, 2013 at 8:02 am

9 Responses

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  1. Excellent piece. Very thought-provoking on the metaphor & framing material.

    Paul Wilcox

    July 11, 2013 at 8:50 am

  2. Really interesting piece. It’s fascinating how such minute details in the construction of a sentence completely change the meaning derived from it.


    July 11, 2013 at 3:33 pm

  3. Thanks, Paul & Roy, for taking the time to post positive feedback.

    Here’s an interesting article from the Independent (a few days ago): ‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows’

    It says that the British public overestimates the level of benefit fraud by 3400%. (Among other things).

    What does that say about the media? Well it perhaps says something very different about the Sun, Mail, Express, etc, than it does about the Guardian & Independent (but you’d need to conduct more research to find out). And it possibly suggests that, statistically, “public opinion” is shaped far more by rightwing tabloids than by “liberal” newspapers. Only possibly (you’d need to ask more questions to find out).


    July 11, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    • i think you are right to draw that conclusion, as the areas in which people get the answers wrong are fairly well served by the guardian and independent (eg benefits fraud). those newspapers often go out of their way to correct myths circulated by the tabloids.

      chris eriksen

      July 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm

  4. Good article. Regarding the Spinwatch piece, its author (Joe Emersberger) has long held the belief that the media favours citing Iraq Body Count’s figures (rather than higher estimates – eg the Lancet studies). So his original searches seemed to confirm this view, and he wrote (in the Spinwatch piece): “When it was provided at all, coverage focused overwhelmingly on the group providing the lowest figures, Iraq Body Count.”

    But his “tweaked” – or rather, corrected – searches (in his addendum) show no such thing. Joe Emersberger is suddenly quiet on this point, and focuses on the comparison with Rumsfeld, etc, instead.

    Of course, it’s nonsense anyway, given that the poll he is writing about showed that at least 74% of respondents weren’t citing *either* IBC or Lancet studies (or anything close). One would conclude that their ignorance on the matter is less to do with media mentions of IBC or Lancet studies *specifically*, and perhaps more to do with placing more importance (and attention) on other prominent media issues – eg Jimmy Savile type scandals, benefit scroungers, whatever. But that would require focusing critical attention on the Mail, Sun, Express, etc – contrary to Joe Emersberger’s long-held obsession with the “liberal” media (BBC, Guardian, Independent…)

    • the iraqbodycount do a running total right up to 2013, so they should be covered in the press more often than the lancet survey which ended in 2006. if you searched around the release date of lancet survey, you’d get different results. i don’t quite get the fixation on the lancet study in the spinwatch blog.

      chris eriksen

      July 12, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      • Good post again, no surprises on the first results for the virus / beast metaphor but it is a great example of how to frame a point with an accompanying mental image. I’m liking the current politician / commenator pushing the notion of nations in a ‘global race’ and thankfully the UK is out of ‘intensive care’ to join said race! Although should we be racing so soon after being in intensive care? I’d give it a least a year of R+R before embarking on some running, a few more bank holidays needed perhaps..

        On the body count ignorance point, isn’t this more to do with the placement and exposure of the information? Yes the BBC prints the figures on the linked web page and yes there are 2602 articles for ‘iraq AND Lancet’ but they’re not really shouted from the roof tops as far as I’ve seen. It seems a rather cack handed way of Spinwatch to prove its point and that one quickly countered example was a very poor one but the ‘exposure’ premise still stands in my eyes.

        A single UK soldier’s death will garner so many more tv minutes and pages than the news of thousands of monthly Iraqi deaths in all media outlets whether ‘right’ or ‘left’ but also, and perhaps more importantly, will be presented in a completely different manner. One will be shown with more sombre tones and in a dramatic style to highlight the struggles of the UK fighting the just war and the other will be displayed in business like graphs and reels of numbers that a vast number of people will switch off mentally upon seeing – much like the reasons for the financial meltdown – easier to frame and blame the general overspend of the ‘credit card’ nation than to explain the farcical nature of the derivatives been gambled on and hidden offshore.

        I often think that printing the information but not highlighting it or presenting it in a scholarly manner (if that’s not too patronising a way to describe it) is akin to a retraction at the bottom of page 26, ‘well we apologised for the incorrect front page headline, look here it is’ or ‘well we printed the iraqi death figures, look right here’.

        Finally on that war point, taking another look at the many painful examples of the pre-Iraq-war war mongering from all sides of the ‘free-press’ never get easier to see and how lightly the majority of those involved in it got away with a ‘yep, I was wrong on SOME of what I said on Iraq’ and that’s that, move on, next phase of the somehow unblemished career – again much like the bankers who (how’s this metaphor..) bought the financial system to its knees! But seriously without the needless metaphor, the bankers who made millions in bonuses and payouts directly and indirectly at the expense of unaware savers and tax payers around the world.

        Here’s another one to look into, the constant ‘left’ or ‘right’ … ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ … ‘softie’ or ‘heartless’ etc framing to neatly put any viewpoint or stance squarely in one camp or the other and with a word, to dismiss any view or collection of views as one or the other of those ‘extreme camps’. Dismissing a view point as a ‘Left’ one or a ‘Right’ one seems to have become enough to end an argument and prove a point or at least lead to a defence against that tag. I always think of the ridiculous ‘political compass’ graph (www.politicalcompass.org/analysis2 in relation to this grouping of everything.

        Mike Munners

        July 14, 2013 at 11:55 am

  5. yes, mike, the “graphs and reels of numbers” you mention do make people switch off, as you say. the left should have humanised the issue more, instead of fixating on the numbers debate. as i said above i don’t get the obsession with the lancet studies. they’re just statistical ranges. even the scientists argue about it. the figures may be close or they may be miles off – that is what the experts in the field say due to the divergent results from different surveys.

    and once there’s this fixation on numbers, statistics, the whole of the media criticism goes down that blind alley. what’s forgotten is the human, the humanising, the story of people with lives suffering and having those lives come to a violent end. that’s why the spinwatch article lost its way. the writer got stuck on this “imposing ignorance” thing about a statistical study that people won’t remember even when they do hear about it (it was covered as headline on bbc news, afer all, according to the above – and i’ve certainly seen references to it everywhere). there’s no suppression. the issue is more complex than that. people need narratives,human stories to latch onto, or the numbers themselves won’t stick in the mind.

    chris eriksen

    July 14, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    • Yes, I didn’t mean to imply direct ‘suppression’ in my comment, the figures are often argued in many media outlets and given headline status, but I tried to highlight the point that by doing it entirely in a graphs and numbers manner it’s almost entirely dehumanised (which you phrased well) and thus acts like a form of suppression to the ultimate message and meaning of the figures.

      What I don’t agree with is the sectioning off into two disagreeing factions as ever, i.e the ‘Left’ being the ones who should have humanised the issue to encourage more support for ITS views, it should be humanised by all those who have an ounce of compassion to the sheer numbers of ‘collateral’ deaths from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (and they’re not really wars in the traditional war sense). Left, right, centre-left, right-sometimes-left-but-more-often-right, inside-left, flanker, whoever, my final paragraph of the previous point was to not group views and people into the left / right dichotomy because all that implies is a complete battle of two mutually exclusive ideals on everything.

      Any argument that the public doesn’t want to know or see the true picture can be refuted by the numbers who marched peacefully against the war and the same numbers that can take some of the most brutal war images that are shown from other conflicts where us and our allies aren’t doing the killing. The Syrian conflict has had far more painful stories and footage of innocent deaths (especially highlighting the number of children’s deaths) reaching our shores via the media than the Iraq war ever seemed to, despite the smaller numbers of deaths (whichever figures you base on). This of course is as I’ve perceived it with no empirical evidence to back this up and I’m entirely willing to be disproved on that.

      Also apologies for my incorrect replying above, wasn’t supposed to be an inline reply but more of a reply to the main article and all the comments!

      Mike Munners

      July 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm

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