Story Framing

Has your news been framed?

In order to quickly and efficiently process large amounts of information and make sense of complex stories journalists use frames. News frames guide journalists in deciding which details of a story to select and emphasize and which to leave out or de-emphasize. Frames are usually implicit rather than explicit.

One of the most common frames is conflict. In the conflict frame reporters structure their stories around a conflict that is often portrayed as being inherent in the issue being discussed. Other standard frames for news stories include: the consensus frame which emphasizes general agreement; the reaction frame which features the reactions of one or more important people involved in the story; the wrongdoing exposed frame in which corruption or injustice is revealed; and the straight news account frame in which the reporter primarily asks the standard who, what, when, where and how questions.

While it may seem that stories lend themselves naturally to one or another frame it is worth imagining alternative frames which might have been used in the stories we read. For example, if the politicians in Washington all support going to war but a significant percentage of the general populace are ambivalent or opposed to such an action, a reporter could frame the article with a consensus frame, focusing on the agreement between Republicans and Democrats. Alternatively that reporter could give the story a conflict frame focusing on the difference of opinion between politicians and the citizens opposed to the war. The picture that emerges is likely to be quite different depending on the frame chosen.

Finally, it is worth noting that there are often frames within frames. For example, when the overall frame is conflict, an internal frame may be a multisided conflict or, alternatively, two-sided conflict.


Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following example on Story Framing:

  • What is the frame used in this story?
  • Why do you think the frame was chosen?
  • Were there alternative frames which would have served equally well or better?
  • Many have argued that a genius of the American political system is that it tends to promote compromise and avoid the extremes of left and right. Do you view Mr. Bush's role in the affirmative action debate more positively when the story is framed with Mr. Bush taking a middle ground between promoters and opponents of affirmative action or when he is presented as an affirmative action opponent taking on its supporters?

Story Framing Analysis:

The frames news organizations use are not fixed. They can shift or change over time. The frame many news organizations used in their coverage of charges of police brutality changed after the videotaped beating of Rodney King was televised across the nation. Similarly the frame used to view protestors against the war in Vietnam changed as the war dragged on and the opposition to it grew. The Bakke decision, which is the precedent under review in the Supreme Court had a different frame when it was decided than it does today.

The task of the consumer of news is to identify the frame being used in a particular story and then asking if the frame fits. A frame, well used, can help us understand complex events and issues. Conversely a poorly chosen frame can distort and misrepresent those events and issues.

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