July 13, 1998

Framing the News

Frame

Frame

The findings suggest that the notion that the press builds most stories around just a couple of story telling frames, such as conflict, is untrue. Newspapers, at least in their front pages, employ a variety of frames, and no one of them dominates.

The study identified thirteen possible frames for news stories to test our hypotheses on what we think journalists commonly use. The frames were:

 

  • Straight news account: No dominant narrative frame other than outlining the basic who, what, when where, why and how

  • Conflict Story: A focus on conflict inherent to the situation or brewing among the players
  • Consensus Story: An emphasis on the points of agreement around an issue or event
  • Conjecture Story: A focus around conjecture or speculation of what is to come Process
  • Story: An explanation of the process of something or how something works Historical
  • Outlook: How the current news fits into history
  • Horse Race: Who is winning and who is losing
  • Trend Story: The news as an ongoing trend
  • Policy Explored: A focus on exploring policy and its impact
  • Reaction Story: A response or reaction from one of the major players
  • Reality Check: A close look into the veracity of a statement made or information given
  • Wrongdoing Exposed: The uncovering of wrongdoing or injustice
  • Personality Profile: A profile of the newsmaker

The most commonly employed narrative frame is a straight news account (the inverted pyramid). These are stories in which no particular narrative element dominates other than presenting who, what, when, where, why and how­as in a story about a day in the war in Kosovo that takes account of various stray events that occurred that day. It is a fact-based approach to presenting the news, organized only in some random descending evaluation of importance. This straight news frame accounted for 16%, or just under one in five, front page stories.

However, this traditional straight news frame might be considered rather small, if one notes that the other frames all involve some level of interpretativeness.

Moreover, if one begins to group similar or related frames, certain patterns begin to emerge.

For instance, three frames we might call combative, (building stories around conflict, horse race handicapping and revealing wrongdoing or injustice) when added together did account for a sizable number of all front page stories, 30%.

A fourth frame, in which the press provides a reality check or pulls back the curtain to reveal that something is not quite what it was stated to be, comprised another 7% of stories. If one believes that this reality check or ironic frame is similar and might be grouped with conflict, horse race and wrongdoing, it would raise the total of these frame to close to four out of every ten stories.

Similarly, three frames that might be grouped as explanatory because they explained how something works, its history, or placed it in the context of an ongoing trend, together accounted for 12% of stories.

Stories built around exploring policy amounted to 8% of stories.

Stories that spun the news forward and were built around speculation or conjecture about the future amounted to another 9% of stories.

Building stories around personality amounted to 7%.

Finding the points of agreement or common ground accounted for just 6% of stories.

Stories that were constructed around official responses to an earlier event made up 4% of stories.

In short, the press has taken on a decidedly interpretative cast in its presentation of the news. Building stories around conflict, winners and losers and revealing either injustice or irony has become the most common way of framing the news.

The fact based approach, through straight news accounts or the classic second-day response story, accounts for about half as many stories as the combative mode.

Building stories around explanation–of how something worked, how it relates to a larger trend or how it evolved to this point–is another common set of frames, but at 12% is perhaps far less common than might be anticipated given how often journalists now argue that the contemporary role of print is to offer analysis and explanation.

Building stories around the points of agreement where actual policy making or problem solving likely will occur is relegated to only a small portion of front page news, less than one in ten of all stories. This is true even though, in the case of say the Clinton impeachment, the Senate vote pending through the period of the study was never in doubt and the points of agreement on this overwhelmed the areas of dispute.