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A Word the Press Should Remember
And it's not "midterms."
This post is about the usefulness of the word framing.
Like some other words in the shaggy vocabulary of today’s English, framing is tricky because it can mean opposite things. Similarly: think of sanction, or oversight.
—In the legal world, framing can mean manufacturing evidence or unjustly accusing someone. Naturally that’s not what I have in mind.
—Instead I mean the rhetorical or logical sense of framing an argument, which in turn means the assumptions, the emphases, the supporting structure for the ideas you want to present.
It’s the conceptual counterpart to the physical work of framing a barn, as shown above. The bones of a building don’t set all the details of its final look. But if the bones are askew or shaky, the structure will not stand.
In thinking about the media, and how and whether it can meet the challenges of this moment, I contend that the framing of stories and coverage is what we should be talking about—more than familiar discussion of “bias” or “balance,” or even refinements like “both-sides-ism” or obsession with “the horse race.” I’ll give a few examples of what I mean.
Framing is hardly a new concept in the media-discussion world. Back in 1998, the Pew Research Center had a full study called “Framing the News.” Jay Rosen, of NYU, was a leader of that project, and he writes frequently about frames of coverage on his Pressthink site. Many other figures I’ll mention in the notes1 have advanced this theme.
But think about some familiar frames:
1. From Fox News: ‘They’re Out to Get You.’
Part of the genius of Roger Ailes was discovering, even before Donald Trump did, that an aggrieved audience would be a loyal and attentive one. Thus most stories and narrative themes on Fox boil down to, someone is trying to get you. And those people are probably being hypocritical or cheaters while doing so.
It could be “the caravan” that is trying to get you. It could be “the Squad.” It could be Antifa — or the proponents of Critical Race Theory. It could be urban shoplifters, or the Chinese. It could (still) be Hillary Clinton. It could be crime in general — which has been going down in the U.S. for decades, while prevailing fear of crime has been going up. (Thanks, in significant degree, to emphasis by local TV news and by Fox.)
It could be anything. But it’s them. And they’re cheating and scheming against you. And against people like us. It’s a sad but true reality of life that as people get older, more of them are predisposed to a “someone’s trying to get me” view of the world. Fox’s audience through the years has been the oldest among the cable outlets (whose audiences in general are older Americans). Ailes’s insight, now embodied in different forms by the Hannity, Ingraham, and Carlson shows on Fox, has been a success in commercial terms, but toxic for civic life.
My point is: Don’t look for the “bias.” Look for the frame.
2. From many mainstream outlets: What’s most interesting about anything, is the politics of it.
When presented with news about migrants drowning at sea, in a failed and tragic attempt to reach America, people might have a range of reactions.
Here was the way the headline writer for the New York Times, and the editors in charge of the print edition, thought to frame the news with a headline that said:
Rise in Migrants at Sea
Poses a Worry for Biden
In its online versions of this story, the paper later thought to change the headline to something less crass. (It now says: “A Surge at Sea: Migrants Seek Entry to the U.S. Aboard Flimsy Boats.”) The point is the initial impulse, that what mattered in the news was: What it meant for politics, and what it meant for “how’s Biden doing?”2
As I mentioned in this previous post, once you start noticing this framing, you’ll see it everywhere. It’s the conversion of something that has happened, into what that something means for the midterms, or for the sitting president’s approval.
Those political implications matter. But usually they’re not what matters most, or to most people. As I discussed 26 years ago in The Atlantic, questions at White House press conferences follow this pattern as well. Most people are interested in the what of government — how it will help them pay the bills or go to school. Reporters are mainly interested in the how of politics. The challenge is to keep the reporters’ own personal framing from controlling what they present to readers.
Watch for this conversion — and when you see it, don’t complain about the “bias.” Rather talk about the frame.
3. Also from most of the media: Grading on the curve, when it comes to Trump and the modern GOP.
On January 6, 2021, both Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican party’s leaders in the Senate and the House, respectively, seemed genuinely shaken by the attack on their colleagues and their institution. They were clear about Donald Trump’s responsibility for the violence and near-coup.
A few months later, McConnell and McCarthy led their Republican delegations in near-unanimous bloc opposition to the creation of a January 6 Commission to investigate what had occurred.
Through the six-plus years of Donald Trump’s rise, the Republican party as a whole has decided to “grade him on the curve” — and live with behavior, excesses, and abuses that would have been deemed the end of an administration in other eras. (I chronicled this change, and the transformation of Republicans into “Vichy Republicans,” during the 2016 campaign.)
Much of what Donald Trump does, and encourages, has been written off as “that’s just Trump” by many of the Republicans. The mainstream press — aware that one established party now thinks and acts this way — is tempted to adopt this framing in its coverage. Here is one more image from the New York Times, on the day that evidence emerged of Trump’s asking whether the Department of Homeland Security could seize voting machines to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
I’ve noted in red where the story appears.
For comparison, when a new wrinkle in the Hillary Clinton email “scandal” erupted ten days before the 2016 election, the Times devoted nearly all of its front page to the story.
To its credit, after this latest Trump story, the Times had a front-page story the next day about Trump’s efforts to hold onto power, however he could. But again, please watch for framing that normalizes the grossly abnormal.
4. From everywhere: What works is suspect, or boring.
By definition, news is about the abnormal. The 100,000 commercial flights that safely take off and land each day around the world are not newsworthy. The one that runs into trouble may well be.
And that’s sensible and fine.
The problem is a framing that is unduly dark, and failure bound. Not everything works, and the press should be alert to these failures to explain why and how.
But some things do work, and they deserve attention as well. That is the only way to have a sense of the world that is proportionate and whole, which in turn is part of the basic function of the press.
America’s job growth in the past twelve months has been an unprecedented success. It has coexisted with other problems, notably related to inflation. But the job-boom news itself, which is an important part of the whole picture, has been under-covered, to put it mildly.
Free Covid tests through the mail — what could go wrong! This combined a major area of U.S. backwardness in Covid response (testing); with a symbol of government ineptness (health-related web site); and all being run by …. the USPS! (I say this lovingly, as a one-time letter-carrier and parcel-post sorter, and as someone who goes out of his way to send “actual” letters, to create first-class mail business for the Post Office.)
But in fact it largely has worked. And has receded to inside-page coverage in the papers, and no mention at all in broadcast news, as tens of millions of test kits have been delivered across the country.
But as a reminder, here was the framing recently in a big New York Times overview of Biden-and-Covid, headlined “Biden’s Pandemic Fight: Inside the Setbacks of the First Year”:
“By year’s end, facing a barrage of criticism, Mr. Biden pledged 500 million free tests for all Americans, followed by another 500 million a few weeks later. The first of those tests have just begun to arrive, and the bulk of them most likely will not arrive until after the administration’s own experts predict Omicron will have peaked later this month.”
5G and the airlines: The early coordination of this was a mess, as I described here. Now it’s largely been worked out — and has disappeared from the news.
The Webb space telescope. This could have been a heartbreaking disaster. And instead it has been a phenomenal, historic success. As has been noted on the inside pages of the major newspapers. For instance, here in the Washington Post, by Joel Achenbach; and here, today, on page D3 of the Times, by Dennis Overbye.
Every one of us knows that if the Webb space craft had blown up on the launch pad on Christmas day, or if the elaborate arrangements necessary to achieve its deployment had gone awry even in small ways, we would be hearing about them still, as yet another metaphor that, today, things fall apart.
A writer friend of mine, who has covered many technology stories, sent me an email about what could have been. He was talking about the telescope, but about “framing” more generally:
Nowhere has anyone, on any media outlet, latched on to and covered the story about the Webb telescope. None that I've stumbled over, at least. Two days ago, the telescope reached its L2 orbit, a million miles distant from the Earth. It went unnoticed on the evening news. When a $10 billion project that evolved over 30 years, in the workshops of 13 nations, prepares to peer back in time 13 billion years, to the petri dish of the Big Bang, that's the news!. Ho-hum. Let's do the weather.
Once, space exploration galvanized Americans and led the news. Sure, arm wrestling for scientific glory with our Cold War opponent helped raise the bar.
The networks should have raced each other to report on a complex transformer-like telescope unfurling itself into a tennis-court-sized lily pad, lassoing the planet as it orbits the sun. I've seen zero TV coverage of the telescope's many difficult and risky milestones it has mastered over 30 days. "60 Minutes" did a piece, shown weeks before the Ariane launch.
One more crucial development lies ahead. If the 18 golden mirrors, which are at the heart of the mission (and the telescope), fit together to the tolerance of 1/10,000th the width of a human hair, Webb will have saved NASA. Move over Charles Darwin.
Sadly Webb might have been held up and celebrated as a source of national pride, an event that fused the nation to a common purpose. But no, night after night, the Evening News tracks an on-again, off-again snowstorm that might tear up the knickers of the East Coast. My goodness, who would have imagined, snow in the winter.
It’s fitting and proper that news emphasizes what goes wrong. But it can be a problem if it emphasizes only what goes wrong.
As a reminder, rather than talking about “bias,” please look for framing:
That is largely intended to make people feel angry or victimized;
That reduces everything to its party-politics ramifications;
That normalizes abnormal behavior; and
That gives a disproportionate view of what works, and doesn’t.
And, subscribe to your local paper! That is it for now.
To spell out something I’ve belabored many times: I consider the New York Times overall the finest news organization in the world. The ambition, creativity, and excellence of its coverage in countless realms exceeds what other organizations even try to do. These include: global affairs; climate; technology; cyber security; business; finance; the arts; books; medicine and health; an innovative approach to graphic design; its regular Kids’ sections; puzzles and games; and countless other aspects.
But then there is its framing of national politics, which is different from its approach to these other topics, as illustrated by the “Worry for Biden” headline. You wouldn’t see something like this on most other topics in most other parts of the paper.