1998 Batten Symposium Panel Presentation:
Framing the Story in New Ways
Cracking the Spiral of Silence, Empowering People
Wisconsin State Journal
I got a powerful lesson in framing recently when I went to a town hall meeting to hear some citizens complain about a group halfway house for federal white-collar felons being planned for their neighborhood.
It was the kind of story that we cover all the time -- a well-intended social program, being opposed by people looking out for their own personal interests. We reporters call it nimbyism with the implication that these people are selfish and anti-social.
As someone with 30-plus years of hard-boiled newspapering under my belt, I would had felt that same way this time, except that this was my neighborhood and these ex-cons were to be just down the block from my own home and my young daughters.
So suddenly the story took on a whole new perspective -- one that I tried to share in my newsroom to raise a good discussion of reporting from a different angle -- separating myself from the self-interest as much as possible.
In fact, I tried to tell them that I wasn't framing the story, but the story had already framed me.
I think these new questions about framing are important not only for their answers that we're searching for here today, but also simply because they're being asked -- and by working journalists yet.
Aside from the regular readership surveys, this is very unusual -- actually analyzing what we do and its presumably interactive relationship with the people we believe we serve.
In the past, we've just assumed a close relationship with our readers, and mostly we worried about our impact on institutions -- using as a measure of success how many heads we can hang on the wall, either thrown out of office or into jail, or how many plaques we have on the wall.
Meanwhile, our close relationship that we thought we had with readers actually turned out to be increasingly distant and frail.
Now, the next step beyond being analytical is being actually theoretical, which is not as bad as using the term "marketing" up here, but "theoretical" is pretty bad. Theory . . . means trying to figure out how things work. It's what scholars do. Of course, we working journalists have always ridiculed and marginalized communications scholars. So it's going to be hard on us to do what we now should do, and that is to turn to them and ask for their help in understanding this conundrum we face in connecting with the folks in our own communities.
In my ventures in communications theory, one of my most important epiphanies was one of my first: Journalism, like any communication, is not a relationship of sending and receiving. Rather it's more akin to a tug of war, with the nature and characteristics of the would-be reader at least as important to the process as the message and its bearers. In fact, each relies on the other.
In their book, Common Knowledge, Russell Neuman, Marion Just and Ann Crigler looked at both parties in the communications relationship.
They defined frames as 'conceptual tools, that media and individuals rely on to convey, interpret and evaluate information."
In content analyses of the media, they found that the two dominant frames used by journalists, more than 60 percent of the time, were either conflict or powerlessness. Powerlessness is generally that everything is going to hell and nothing can be done about it.
But in in-depth interviews with ordinary people, they found the overwhelmingly dominant frame to be human impact, what it means to real people, followed by moral values, economics, and powerlessness.
So the point is that we and our would-be readers are looking at the news and at the world from substantially different perspectives -- and undoubtedly we're seeing different phenomena at work.
What I take away from that is that is that before we can fix what we're doing, we have to understand the people we're trying to serve a lot better. That is, understand our communities and how people live in them.
In the science of consumer behavior, which has been working in this area for more than 30 years, what we are calling "framing" is really related directly to what they call "involvement," the individual's involvement in the subject matter.
But the word "involvement" to them doesn't mean exactly what it does to us -- that is, someone actually doing something, like voting.
A pioneer in that field, Herbert Krugman, wrote in 1965: 'By this, we do not mean attention, interest or excitement, but the number of conscious bridging experiences, connections, or personal references that the viewer makes between his own life and the stimulus.'
What followed were three decades of advertising-driven research on understanding involvement and framing advertisement for effectiveness. There is an entire field of research on the subject, which is one reason why most advertising tends to work better than most journalism.
I should point out that consumer-behavior research is so far beyond journalism research, in my opinion, because it's well supported. It's funded by consumer product companies. Journalism research has very little support, even though most newspaper companies make a lot more money than most consumer products companies.
Still, consumer-behavior researchers decry how little they know. By comparison, our understanding of such concepts as framing and involvement for journalism is primitive.
Looking at the world from the individual's point of view, rather than ours, here are some things that we can be confident that we know:
People do care. They care about their communities and they care about the world.
People will become involved if they think they can make a difference.
People don't think they can make a difference; they think only powerful forces and special interests can and that we journalists are part of the conspiracy.
People rarely even try to become involved because they feel constrained, mostly by time pressures and partly by other circumstances.
People will find time for things they value and if they're not finding time for us that means they don't value us.
That list gives us even more things to work on than the narrower concept of framing stories.
In my newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, our humble efforts to apply theory to our daily practice are what I have come to think of as populist journalism.
Here are a few of the things that we're doing, in addition to our overt civic journalism projects.
We have largely traded in meaningless conflict and Washington thumb-wrestling stories for what we call real people stories, things that affect people's lives, and they're on our front page every day.
We devote tons of journalism to real problems that affect people and a good part of that journalism offers a full range of solutions.
We don't believe in helplessness or powerlessness. We actively try to empower people. Our paper is peppered with what we call "democracy boxes," telling people specifically how they can get more information or comment to the responsible public official or agency; what their hours are; what the phone number is. If you're going to this meeting, here's where to park and here's how you can speak.
We also have boxes that we call "helpful boxes" and "timesaver boxes" and these little services, people tell us, plug them in and save them time. People might want to express their opinion, but if they've got to figure out who their state representative is because they may not have been paying attention, or if they've got to know how to write or call her or him, they'll say, "We'll do that later," and they never quite get around to it. But we tell them: here's the phone number, here's the person's name, here's the number to call to find out who serves your area.
We're experimenting with an innovative Sunday section designed to involve people -- in Krugman's sense. The page presents information and ideas that are important to people and it's aggressively interactive, one big issue every Sunday with feedback on the following Sunday.
We want to crack the spiral of silence. It's something that is at the heart of civic journalism . . . we want to legitimize and validate people's views.
I think it's important to note that those of us in this room are venturing into foreign territory and we're making it up as we go along. By definition, if we aren't making mistakes, we aren't trying hard enough. So some of the things we're going to try will fail and we'll step back, regroup, and try some more things. We expect to fail and we have failed in some things. We have succeeded in far more things.
Whatever we try, I think that we have to move forward with a new mindset:
We must rise above being as neutral, as sterile as coolly removed as we were taught to be in journalism school. While, of course, we are fair and impartial, we should not be dispassionately detached. We must be passionate in understanding, reaching and involving the reader.
We need a new idealism built on the failure of our old cynicism and negativism, looking at the world and the news, almost naively, but constructively, as if things work the way they're supposed to -- and will if we together can only figure out how.
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