There are two subjects I want to discuss in this blog post: agenda setting and framing. For both I want to discuss if they are avoidable at all or not. Let’s start with agenda-setting: agenda setting is the idea that there is a strong positive correlation between the issues most often discussed by media outlets and the issues which the audience regard as the most important (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). A good example of agenda-setting is the annual ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) controversy in the Netherlands. You saw it everywhere in the news, both before and during the arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. At the same time, it felt like every conversation you overheard was about the same subject as well. This seems to imply that people considered it to be very important. In fact, protests were held during the arrival of Sinterklaas. I can’t help but wonder if this would have happened at all without all the media attention. Of course, the media payed attention to the protests as well. A vicious circle is thus created: media attention leads to an event, which leads to more media attention, which leads to opinions polarizing more and more (which will probably be shown in the media through a survey done by Maurice de Hond), which then might lead to more events (like protests), which the media give attention to once again, etc. It creates a snowball-effect. The media has an influence on reality, which it then reports on, which again could have an influence on reality until the cycle dies out.
Can agenda-setting be avoided? Yes and no. I think it’s easier nowadays to seek out the news that interests you thanks to the internet and social media. In that regard, there might be a shift in the correlation between agenda-setting and the importance assigned to a subject. If you do not like the agenda that one online media outlet is pushing, you just visit another media outlet that does focus on the news you’re interested in. On the other hand, many ‘mainstream’ media outlets are still the first outlet people seek out online. And news received via social media cannot always be trusted until it is properly verified. In a sense, you’re always at the mercy of what media outlets want to report on. It cannot always be avoided.
The second subject I want to discuss is framing. Framing is often referred to as a persuasion technique employed by media outlets. They use frames, which are the different ways that media outlets can effectively and convincingly tell a story to the public (Van Gorp, 2006). The media can use words and images in such a way that they implicitly (or explicitly) try to ‘frame’ a subject in a certain way. And this can be related to agenda-setting: agenda-setting tells you what to think about, and framing can influence the way we think about the subject that we ‘should’ be thinking about. Van Gorp (2006) notes that framing also refers to the way the receivers of news media actively deal with the substance of the news they received. They have their own views and biases that color their interpretation of a news story. It means that framing is not just one-way traffic. Someone who is aware that the media utilizes framing could notice the usage of certain words in order to get a certain reaction out of the reader, which in turn could have an averse effect on that particular reader. In a sense, this makes framing a collaboration between the writer and the reader, though this might happen subconsciously.
An example of this is an article I read in a Dutch newspaper called ‘Algemeen Dagblad’ (AD). There was an interview with a man who had thrown a chair at a judge. This man had lost his daughter and parents-in-law in a car accident, and the father considered the sentence the judge gave to the perpetrator as being too low. After reading the article, I could empathize with the father and did feel anger at what I, at first, perceived as injustice. But then I read the article a second time, taking a closer look at the words used in it. Of course, you can’t blame the father for the anger that shows through his words, but inbetween the words of the father it felt like the writer of the article was trying to steer my feelings. Frames like ‘the judges threw one witness statement after the other off the table’ and ‘half of the Netherlands wondered how the hell this sentence was possible’. It felt like the writer wanted to frame this piece as a complaint about the law, while in reality the judges dismissed non-substantial evidence and basically held up the ‘innocent until proven otherwise’ maxim. The prosecutor couldn’t prove for a fact that the perpetrator was driving too fast, hence he received a lower sentence. The writer made it sound as if the judges were dismissive and did a lazy job. As the writer did the interview with the father as well, perhaps this framing happened subconciously based on empathy. I can imagine how this could seep in; in fact, it might be hard to avoid at all.
Framing happening subconsciously is what makes researching framing a challenge as well (Van Gorp, 2006). A researcher has to judge what is a frame and what not, and how to interpret a certain frame, which then relies on the researcher’s own frames. And one is not always conscious of their own frames/biases. In fact, even employing frames can in itself happen subconciously. Perhaps a writer is unaware of his/her biases, or simply considers an opinion to be so obvious that it is not given a second thought. For instance, when America performs an act of war, they ‘engage in defense’ (Chomsky, 2002). No matter what they’re doing – and usually they’re the ones invading other countries. But it’s a frame that few question and as such committed actions might not be seen as a bad thing.
The example above can also be seen as ‘reframing’, where a frame is reframed in order to change its cognitive effect. ‘Attacking’ becomes ‘engaging in defense’, which sounds like you need to defend yourself from something. This technique is also employed by some political websites. For instance, a right-leaning website could describe a socialist politician as a ‘leftist treehugger’. Whenever this politician talks about the environment, this frame is triggered for some, making it easy to instantly dismiss the politician without even listening to the story because they’re ‘leftist treehuggers’ (just check a comment section to know what I mean. Or don’t, so you won’t lose faith in humanity).
There is just so much to talk about when it comes to framing and agenda-setting that it is quite tough to put it all into one post. It’s just so broad and all-encompassing and such a big part of journalism, with so many clear examples, that it is tough to distill it to its essence. The main conclusion is: framing is part of journalism, you can’t avoid it. You’ll have to deal with it, and make your own choices. There are many nuances to consider, and since journalism is human work (until robots will replace us all, naturally), (subconscious) framing will probably always happen. As Goffman (1974) stated, we cannot fully comprehend the world and need frameworks to make sense of the world and to process new information. It’s therefore that I think it can never be avoided completely, but with some effort, with critical thinking aimed at both our own writing and the writing of others and with an awareness of our own biases, it might be possible to minimize it. That is, if the writer in question wants to at all. And often you just can’t escape it, and that’s when you have to make choices between one frame or the other.
Chomsky, N. (2002). Understanding Power. New York: The New Press.
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis. New York: Free Press.
McCombs, Maxwell E.; Donald L. Shaw (1972). “The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media”. Public Opinion Quarterly 36 (2): 176
Van Gorp, B. (2006). Een Constructivistische Kijk Op Het Concept Framing. Tijdschrift voor Communicatiewetenschap 34 (3), pp. 246 – 256.