July 13, 1998

Framing the News

Triggers Associated with Messages

Examining what triggers were most often associated with particular messages suggests some tendencies among journalists. As might be expected, messages were more likely to appear in stories triggered by journalistic enterprise, or analysis and interpretation. Over half (52%) of all the stories that contained underlying messages stemmed from these triggers. And while optimistic messages were likely to arise from these triggers, the messages most often look skeptically or pessimistically at society.

Nearly half of all anti-establishment messages were developed from enterprising triggers (31%) or analysis and interpretation (16%). More than a third of messages with a bias toward the little guy or the underdog appeared in stories triggered by enterprise (23%) or analysis (13%). Similarly, a third of distrustful messages came from one of these two triggers. So did four-in-ten messages with a nostalgic overtone.

Looked at another way, over half (57%) of all stories triggered by journalists themselves (either analysis or enterprise) and carrying an enduring message, contained a tone of discontent. Only a quarter of the messages were optimistic in nature.

These findings suggest that when a story originates from a journalist's own initiative, he or she may be coloring the information provided with a subtle and even unconscious personal or professional perspective. And the messages are fairly predictable, laced with a sense of discontent about the way things are going. These preliminary findings will be explored further in the large study and will be enhanced by a refined set of message categories that can be more effectively coded.

But even these preliminary findings suggest that journalists may have a set of subtle cultural inclinations or perspectives that influence how the news is presented.