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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

“News” as story – not facts

Daily_Mail_17_03_2014March 17, 2014No “newsworthy” event (or non-event) has “meaning” without a conceptual frame. We need frames to make sense of anything. As some cognitive scientists point out, we don’t think in terms of neutral “facts” – our thoughts aren’t strung-together facts. We require frames to provide “meaning” to facts. Journalists instinctively know this; much of the “news” is presented as narrative frames – taking the form of a story (often with simplistic attribution of causes, heroes and villains, crisis, drama, etc).

(Today’s distraction/digression: The Daily Mail is one of the biggest-selling newspapers in Britain. I once read that it was the biggest-selling paper among college students – but I don’t know if that’s still the case. See if you can parse today’s headline story from the Mail. What are the facts, what is the story, why are they headlining with it, and why do so many people buy it?)

How we tend to frame events will depend on our worldviews, our hierarchies of values, etc. Inevitably this will bring into play the “deep” moral frame structures in our psyches. When we read a newspaper story, however, a frame has already been selected for us in advance. If it’s a common news frame (ie one reinforced through repetition over many years), it may seem entirely normal, appropriate and “true” with respect to the “hard facts” (if any) reported. But at the same time it may induce a “tunneling” – or cognitive blinkering – effect, in which crucial “aspects” of the newsworthy event are excluded from our consciousness.

kindle-book-coverThe corporation

This occurs not just with news “events”, but with political and social institutions and abstractions – and indeed any players, roles, entities, etc, involved in the news story. Consider, for example, the notion of a corporation or big firm. It’s an entity that features often in stories on jobs, in which the frame is perhaps “job creation” or “job loss”, etc. The corporation is the creator of jobs, the “engine of productivity”, etc, within that frame.

Now consider the frame favoured by, say, Noam Chomsky: corporations as unaccountable private tyrannies. Both of these frames (corporations as job-creators and corporations as private tyrannies) might be more or less “supported by the facts” – they’re both “true” in that sense. But, of course, they evoke (or invoke) two very different sets of ideas in our minds regarding the reality or “meaning” of corporations.

News frames ensure, through repetition, that one set of “meanings” takes prominence over others. This isn’t “bias” in the usual, narrow sense in which media critics use that term. Neither is it primarily about battles between different sets of opposing “facts”. It’s more fundamental than that, and requires that we understand the new cognitive fields of frame semantics, conceptual metaphor and moral-values systems.

Written by NewsFrames

March 17, 2014 at 11:58 am

2 Responses

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  1. That Daily Mail story is a strange one. Apart from the headline about storms rocking political parties, it doesn’t appear to be much of a story at all. I can’t figure out why it’s a headline, unless someone owed someone else some political favour which we are not privy to.


    March 18, 2014 at 9:55 am

  2. The tendency of journalists to use narrative frames brings up the closely-related idea of the “narrative fallacy”, which is one of those cognitive biases that’s been written about by authors such as Nassim Taleb (eg chapter 6 of The Black Swan). It would take another post to do this topic justice, but to quote Taleb, “We fool ourselves with stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patterns: the narrative fallacy”.

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