Journalism 2: Framing the Discussion

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

One of the things the radical right has excelled at is framing discussion of the issues that divide us in words of their choosing. One of the things the mass media have been terrible at is refusing to allow one side of these issues to frame the discussion. There are precious few journalists these days with the intellectual integrity to do much more than repeat what they hear from the loudest, easiest-to-quote voices, and those voices most often come from the far right.

We choose a frame to display a picture to its best advantage. Similarly, we sometimes do another kind of framing – picking our words to minimize hurt or discomfort. “He passed away” feels less stark and permanent than “he died.” We’re not deceiving anyone when we do this; we’re trying to be gentle.

But sometimes framing comes within a hair of lying. This is what the right-wing radicals have made into an art form, and what the rest of us have let them get away with. Journalists in particular should be wary of adopting anyone else’s framing, lest they let themselves be used to advance a particular point of view.

When the Bush administration started capturing people it considered hostile to US interests, there was a discussion – mentioned briefly In one NPR news report I heard – about what to call them. To say they were prisoners, it was said, risked having to accord them the rights and protections granted prisoners of war by the Geneva Conventions, the international agreement that the US first signed in 1882, and to which we’ve been a party ever since. The Bush Administration didn’t want to honor the Conventions on the treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war (Bush’s legal counsel called the Conventions “quaint”), so someone came up with the word “detainee.”

Most native speakers of American English understand “detain” to have a temporary quality. You may be stopped by a police officer who’s writing you a ticket for speeding. You are not arrested, you are not the officer’s prisoner. You will soon be on your way again. If this makes you late for a meeting, you may call ahead on your cell phone to say you’ve been detained and will be a few minutes late. Everyone understands the hold-up is of short duration.

But the US’s detainees have been imprisoned for as much as seven years, until recently (when a judge or two decided to stand up on their hind legs and assert the law) without rights and without hope. These are prisoners, not detainees. But reporters adopted the government’s term without question. I’ve even heard people in the Obama administration use it, so successful were the Bush people in framing the imprisonment of people who, in our system, are supposed to be presumed to be innocent and allowed to defend themselves in court.

Calling them detainees also allowed government operatives to torture them; you can’t do that to prisoners of war. We have, in past wars, condemned the Germans, the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Vietnamese for doing exactly what we’ve done to prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. [If you follow the link to Guantanamo, notice how Wikipedia refers to the prison there as a “detention center” and the prisoners as “unlawful combatants,” even though no court has found them either unlawful or combatants. Can you guess who wrote this Wikipedia entry?) But the rules are different for detainees, because we say so and nobody with a voice that can carry objects. Journalists – reporters for print and television and the web – have a voice that can carry.

Consider how “global warming” morphed into “climate change.” That wasn’t an accident; it was the result of an anti-science, pro-industry government turning a scary concept (we’ve all seen pictures of polar bears falling into the sea as glaciers melt) into something that might just be beneficial. The media fell for it, making it harder for those who want to decrease harmful emissions or get funding to build systems that will slow a dangerous environmental process.

When the richest of the rich, and those who kowtow to them, wanted to repeal the tax on large inheritances (in 2009 estates under $3,500,000 are exempt from taxation) the right-wing renamed the estate tax as the death tax. Nothing is certain but death and taxes. The reframers put the two dread ideas together and glossed over the fact that only the really rich would be affected. Now, they want you to believe, no matter how little you have, must pay a tax even when you die. Who wouldn’t be opposed to a death tax?

Similarly, the contribution employees and their employers pay in equal amounts to Social Security and Medicare got reframed as the payroll tax. Forget the fact that if you live into your sixties you’ll start getting back more per month than you ever contributed to Social Security and Medicare. The framers want you to think that you’re being robbed, that you have to give away money for the privilege of being on someone’s payroll.

And in each of these cases, the media have adopted the right-wing framing, making it easier for the former government to get its way. I blame the previous administration for 1984-style thought control, but I blame the media more for letting them get away with it.

I have a file full of other examples, but I’m sure you get the point. When you hear a journalist using an unfamiliar term, ask yourself – ask the journalist – what concept that term replaces. Ask yourself – and the journalist – why the new term is preferable, who prefers it, and on what grounds.

Journalists (although some would like you to forget this) are human beings. They have their failings, their prejudices, their misconceptions. Be wary of a journalist who claims to be objective. We all, journalist or not, see things on first look through the filter of our personal biases. What sets a real journalist apart from a hack is the ability to take a second look, to recognize those biases and put them aside, to tell the story as fairly and even-handedly as possible.

In most cases, even-handedness means telling both sides of the story. But it shouldn’t always mean giving both sides equal time. Nobody expects a reporter covering the sentencing hearing for a convicted pedophile to lay out the argument in favor of pedophilia.

Similarly we shouldn’t accept a rationale for torture to take up much time in a report on documented incontestable torture.

Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth as they have found it on investigation. They have a responsibility to identify the sources of their information, including identifying the sources’ biases and affiliations that are relevant to the point of view they represent.

If they don’t do that, they don’t deserve our respect, or the time it takes to listen to or read what they say.

If the subject of framing intrigues you, get your hands on a copy of George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant. It’s one of those books I wish I’d written.

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3 Responses to “Journalism 2: Framing the Discussion”

  1. [...] Cary placed an interesting blog post on Journalism 2: Framing the DiscussionHere’s a brief overviewOne of the things the radical right has excelled at is framing discussion of the issues that divide us in words of their choosing. [...]

  2. [...] Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff, or my post “Framing the Discussion,” here. Share and [...]

  3. [...] of debate. The handbook addresses this. I’ve been hoping someone would pick up on the work of George Lakoff, whose book Don’t Think of an Elephant, is one I wish I’d written. Eric Haas worked [...]

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