July 13, 1998

Framing the News

Overview

A Study of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Princeton Survey Research Associates

What are the narrative techniques journalists use to frame the news?

Do some stories contain discernible underlying messages?

Do these journalistic conventions of storytelling represent a set of professional predilections or biases, which contend with ideology and other personal perspectives in determining the nature of news?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is embarked on a multi-year study to try to answer these questions. Over the next year, it intends to examine what major biases exist in the press, and to try to quantify to what extent ideological bias exists.

As a first step, the Project, along with professor Jay Rosen of New York University and Princeton Survey Research Associates, developed a pilot study to identify various narrative story telling frames employed in presenting the news.

This pilot study — focusing mostly on framing — was meant primarily as a learning device to aid in developing the larger bias study. Yet it did yield some interesting findings that are the basis of this report. Among them:

  • Straight news accounts, the inverted pyramid narrative frame, accounted for a surprisingly small number of front page stories–only 16%–suggesting the press is becoming increasingly thematic and interpretative in the way it presents news.
  • In contrast, the press shows a decided tendency to present the news through a combative lens. Three narrative frames — conflict, winners and losers and revealing wrongdoing — accounted for 30% of all stories, twice the number of straight news accounts. The penchant for framing stories around these combative elements is even more pronounced at the top of the front page and is truer still when it comes to describing the actions or statements of government officials.Although newspapers increasingly talk about the need to explain and interpret, the findings suggest they do less of it than might be expected. Explanatory frames­those that reveal how things work, how they fit into larger trends, or historical context­accounted for only 12% of all stories. The findings also confirm a presumption on the part of journalists that readers don’t care much about policy or its impact. Policy stories accounted for only 8% of the pieces on the front page.
  • Local papers tend to rely on traditional straight news accounts and try to explain how things work more. National papers are more interpretative and try to put news into a larger perspective.
  • Increasingly, news originates from decisions made in the newsroom rather than by events from the outside. While statements by government officials represented the most common trigger for front page news, the next three most common were all newsroom initiated–a decision by news organizations to show enterprise, to analyze and interpret, or to preview what comes next.
  • The press is not simply negative or cynical. In those stories deemed to contain some kind of underlying message, optimism was actually the most common theme (as in suggesting perseverance pays off). But when stories were triggered by journalists’ own enterprise, the message became more distrustful.

In preparation for the larger study, this prologue study analyzed front page content of seven newspapers for two months, beginning January 1, 1999 through February 28,1999. It looked at three papers categorized as national: the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. It looked at four papers categorized as local or regional: the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Idaho Statesman in Boise, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

It tried to capture four central elements of how journalists present the news:

  1. Topic: What story topics were played on page one.
  • Trigger: What triggered the news organization to cover the story. In other words, what made the event or issue news in the first place? Was a poll released? Was a bill passed? Did an official hold a press conference?
  • Frame: What narrative device or approach was used by journalists in composing the story. For example, was the story built around the conflict inherent in an issue? Was the story built around the points of agreement among stakeholders in an issue?
  • Underlying Message: This code tried to identify any underlying social or folkloric messages evoked in the story, consciously or unconsciously. Is the government inefficient? Are politicians in it mostly for power? Is the little guy usually right? This code of enduring message was developed in part to test the question of whether the press has certain unconscious social, cultural or even political biases, such as toward establishmentarianism, negativism, etc. These are biases or predilections that go beyond narrative story telling which journalists might more readily acknowledge as a more necessary way of ordering the news to make it interesting.