Can framing research be translated into innovation in journalism practice?

Gavin Adamson, Ryerson University

Abstract

This paper describes theories and approaches to framing research and relates them to its field of inquiry, the practice of journalism. It describes some identified challenges in communications and media effects research about framing that undermine its validity. The paper discusses some potential approaches and methods to address those gaps with reference to a review of two years of framing literature from Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2014. The focus of the discussion is whether this research program can be made of practical value to the field of journalism, and to suggest methods by which the research might inspire innovation in that field.

Author

Gavin Adamson (gavin.adamson@ryerson.ca) is an assistant professor at Ryerson University, 350 Victoria St., Toronto, Ont. M5B 2K3. His research focuses on digital journalism and mental health news.

Background

A United States survey in 2012 showed that the number of citizens who believed news coverage was politically biased had risen to 37 per cent, up from 31 per cent in 2008 (Pew Research Center, 2012). No equivalent Canadian study exists but an association has been made in this country between a healthy democracy and the plurality of positions and arguments represented in the news media. Government concern about concentrated media ownership and its effect on the variety of opinion and voices, for example, has been the subject of two government reports (Jackson, 1999). Two news outlets recently responded to public and internal industry criticism about potential conflicts of interest that their journalists had with sources by firing them (Gallant, 2015; Global News Staff, 2015). Actions like these show that the journalism field values audience trust along with a public perception that it can tell stories fairly. Can the journalism field, then, make use of a well-developed academic research agenda designed to identify and measure media bias?

Framing research

Media effects research studies the impact news media can have on the audience and, ultimately, public policy. Part of its methodology is known as framing analysis, a measurement of media bias in a broad sense of the term. A frame is usually defined as the act of selection, by the news media, of perceived reality “in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (Entman, 2010; 1993). Hardly a communications journal today is published that does not include a framing study and it is a growing area of research (D’Angelo & Kuypers, 2010). The theory originates in psychology and anthropology and it has been applied in many ways, across a variety of research disciplines including health, sociology, economics, and linguistics, to show problems with representation and a lack of plurality of voices in the media (Van Gorp, 2007). In one clear example, a researcher showed that local newspaper coverage about the petrochemical industry in Spain tended to be framed in the news as a local economic driver, while environmental or concerns were secondary (Castello, 2010). The implication is that this approach to coverage affects audience understanding about the issue and it can ultimately affect public perception and government policy. Generally, theorists agree that frames work in the memory to allow individuals to classify and process information efficiently in a social context, but thereafter they diverge on various points (D’Angelo, 2002; B. T. Scheufele & Scheufele, 2010). D’Angelo described framing analysis as a research “program” that benefitted from a variety of constructionist, critical, and cognitive theories, often overlapping and sometimes conflicting (2002). Some are interested in analyzing the moment that individuals interact with news media and how the frames affect their attitudes and emotional state. Other researchers are interested in studying frames at the social level with different assumptions about whether frames pervade culturally, within journalistic norms, or in combination with other actors, such as politicians, lobbyists, and others (D’Angelo, 2002; Scheufele & Scheufele 2010; Entman et al, 2010; Matthes & Kohring, 2008). The analysis of textual media, often with the use of manual coding, is a characteristic of the research field. Arguably, the result is a still an “unruly mélange” of theory and approaches (Entman et al., 2010).

Sourcing and framing

Some framing studies have tried to understand journalism processes, especially when those studies include reporters’ sources as objects of analysis. A recent development in the framing analysis literature called for more “theorizing and theory-building research on source selection, source use and source impact” (Strömbäck et al., 2013, p. 14). Scholars use no single definition for sources but Rauhala et al. defined it as “those who supply the content for stories, provide context to a narrative, offer opinions, and give witness accounts” (2011). Sourcing is one of the elemental actions in journalism practice, as described by textbooks on the subject (Franklin and Carlson, 2010). Experts in professional practice judge the first sources that are either quoted or paraphrased in journalism articles to exert an especially strong influence on the reader (Friend, Challenger & McAdams, 2003; Rauhala et al., 2011; Russial, 2004). Dimitrova et al. and others (Bennett, 1990; Reich, 2006, 2011) have widely acknowledged that “news sources are crucial in shaping the news” (p. 65). Theorists have identified sources as a key element in the construction of frames (Van Gorp, 2009; Scheufele, 2000; Gans, 1979) and that journalists impose thematic structures on the stories by linking observations and causal effects to a direct quote of a source (Pan & Kosicki, 1993). Bennett theorized that journalists in the United States quote official political sources frequently as part of their jobs in holding the government to account when Congress is in debate (1990). He wrote that this “indexing” of the news with sources could apply to other news subjects. Van Gorp methodically described the deductive process for evaluating frames and suggested “an additional coefficient that can be used to calculate indexes is the source of the framing devices” (2010, p. 102).

In support of this research, a study was conducted of 40 journals containing framing analysis between January 31, 2012, and December 31, 2014. The method comprised searching the Ryerson University Library and Archives for peer-reviewed articles published between those dates with the search terms “frames” and “framing,” with no limitations on the types of journal articles. They included communications, health, media studies, sports management, and policy studies journals. Of the 40 articles found in the search, 26 included sourcing as a consideration. The coding was a simple “yes” or “no” determination about whether sourcing was an element in the framing research. If articles contained sources as an element, it was noted how they were operationalized within their framing approach and what precedent theoretical work they quoted.

Many of the articles describe an over-reliance on “official” government and corporate sources that frame news stories in a way that supports existing power structures (Dimitrova et al, 2012; (Houston, Pfefferbaum, & Rosenholtz, 2012); Fahmy & Eakin, 2013; Bae & Lee, 2012; Stromback et al., 2013; (Lee & Basnyat, 2013; Mahfouz, 2013). This stance reflects the “propaganda model” described by Herman and Chomsky ([1988] 1994, p. 298) that “argues over-reliance on information from the powerful” assures hegemony in coverage (Entman, Matthes, & Pellicano, 2010). Two further practical statements often support their arguments. The concept of “information subsidies,” a phrase that Gandy coined (1980) was referenced several times (Lee & Basnyat, 2013; (Kiwanuka- Tondo, et al, 2012; Houston et al., 2012) in the articles. The research also describes the frequent use by journalists of press releases and other official statements from government and corporations in the shortened news cycle. The consequence is that those sources’ preferred frames see less interference from other voices. Similarly, one study (Kee, Ibrahim, Ahmad, & Khiang, 2012) described public relations and marketing firms as “frame sponsors,” a term first used by Gamson (1992) to impose a frame on news coverage for strategic, corporate reasons. Three recent health-related studies (McKeever, 2012; Lee 2014; Kang, 2013) showed that physician-led accounts dominated sourcing in their corpora. Few studies took a quantitative approach to both sources and frames and even fewer correlated sources specifically with frame types (Kang, 2013; Dimitrova & Stromback 2012.)

Challenges identified by previous literature

Questions about the validity of framing research could impede the adoption of its findings into the journalism field. For example, the judgment about what a frame is, and how a frame works in a text, can be a subjective (Van Gorp, 2009; Matthes & Kohring, 2008). Researchers have found that framing analysis is sometimes merely descriptive; researchers identify frames but the manner by which they are identified is not as clear. While some aforementioned work has been done in this regard, the antecedents of the identified frames, such as sources, are infrequently described (Matthes, 2009). Dimitrova et al. wrote of a specific gap in the research. “There is little research to date addressing how news framing changes with the use of different types of sources” (Dimitrova & Strömbäck, 2012). Some theorists have underlined the importance of considering multiple frames in framing analysis because the presence of even a secondary frame option for a reader could change the effect of first (Sniderman & Theriault, 2004; Chong & Druckman, 2007; Entman et al., 2010).

Discussion

The literature review of two years of framing literature underlines the variety of approaches and methodology employed by researchers involved in the framing research program, as it has been described. The review also showed that, although researchers have made some efforts to unify and validate the methodology, no single approach has emerged, or even several clear ones.

Although journalism sources are not always an element in the research (about 70% of it), this suggests a basic agreement that part of the judgment about framing is related to journalism work processes and the moment-to-moment routine in a newsroom. It seems plausible, therefore, that the journalism field could benefit from the methodology and results of some types of framing research.

A consistent, quantitative approach that takes into consideration the variety of sources that a reporter speaks to, or consults with, in the writing or production of a story could reveal gaps and imbalances in coverage.

Aggregated data from framing analysis performed methodically over time could provide a report card, effectively, on journalism practice. Understanding sourcing tendencies in coverage might inspire new approaches to certain subjects. A newsroom may be able to apply some findings practically. Such feedback could help establish a framework that would introduce some level of accountability to newsrooms.

The concept of indexing, which might apply more appropriately for some subject areas than others, deserves consideration. For example, an analysis of political coverage would be likely to identify many sources that relate to official governing parties and opposition ones. These divergent sources could be categorized, coded and analyzed statistically for relative frequency over time.

The analysis may need to be subject and time specific. As Bennett suggests, sourcing might be expected to tilt one way when Congress (or Parliament, in Canada) was in session but different ratios for source frequency might be expected at other times. An analysis might establish a baseline index for sourcing the governing party compared to an opposition party; it could provide a check and balance for the journalist. The same principle might apply to health-care coverage. Imagine an indexing of sources that might be in support of some types of care or treatments over others and try to find a balance over time that reflects a plurality of opinions.

Such an approach could also advance the methodology in communications research. The approach may not reflect all framing methodology or researcher concerns, but it may address some of the identified concerns about validity and researcher bias in the analysis and coding of articles.

The singular aim of quantitatively attempting to tie frames to sources — “frame sponsors” or “official sources”– could advance the communications research agenda too. Even a loose or moderate but consistent antecedent relationship between the determination of a frame and the sources contained could be considered a new finding.

The corollary would be valuable too: If the designation of frames could not be tied to a source, then, as some of the research above suggests, journalists might understand clearly that a frame was being introduced by the reporting itself. If journalists are more frequently frame setters in subject areas, that would be a significant finding.

The journalism field might also benefit from a deeper understanding about the impact that sourcing has on media effects,–and in this, the journalism field may share the same interests of communications researchers.

Stromback suggests more work needs to be done to understand the impact that a multiplicity of sources may have in a report. Is the first source, indeed, the most impactful from a media effects perspective? Can a progression of differing opinions through a report make a difference to media effects on the audience? For instance, one can imagine if a story communicates a frame by quoting a politician and a political analyst, each in the support of the same frame, then the frame will be more powerful compared to a single-source frame, or a text that presents a competing view of equal weight.

Two critical questions pervade: Exactly what kind of judgments about framing and sources could be translated into quantitative data that could be fed back into newsrooms as an accountability tool? Second, is the attempt to build methodical, quantitative rules about sources and how they build frames an attempt to reify a concept that is fundamentally too abstract and subjective?

It is worth trying to answer both of those questions. First, there may be innovation value for journalism by importing a quantifiable framing analysis into newsrooms as a sort of index to which they could be held accountable. But the attempt to achieve such an index may also help advance and clarify the communications research itself

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