Imagine waking up one day and reading an article with the headline ‘Obama invites 14 year old bomb-maker to the white house’. You would probably be shocked and think why on god’s green earth would the president of the United States invite someone that develops bombs? This is headline is not a joke because the Dutch newspaper variant of Metro published it on September 16th. The funny thing here is that this 14 year old boy did not make a bomb but one of this teachers confused a homemade clock with the bomb. While it is known for some time that this boy did not make a bomb, news agencies such as RTL Nieuws still enjoy framing this kid as a weapons of destruction engineer. The same kid is also named ‘clock-boy’ by news agencies such as NOS, making him seem much more innocent than the way he was framed by Metro.
Framing is actually a quite funny word because it is very ambiguous. When looking up the definitions of ‘framing’ you might get results as ‘to form or make’, ‘to incriminate’ and ‘construct’. In the case of the news article provided by Metro, you would say that this way of framing is borderline incriminating since the boy in question is being presented as someone who makes bombs, but in the case of the NOS-article the same boy is being framed as a talented craftsman since he has met the president. So what is framing actually?
Framing & framing effects
Framing is described in the literature as highlighting some aspects of a certain story or event while (purposely) neglecting others (Borah, 2013). Borah explains that this might lead to individuals interpreting certain events or stories differently since only one part of the story/event receives attention. In the case of the the boy who made a clock that looked like bomb, this would mean that people would assume he is bomb-maker by only reading the headline. Scheufele and Tweksbury (2007) also explain that the way a message is being framed influences the way people understand the message (like in image (1)). Framing is not uniquely found in news articles. Levin, Schneider and Gaeth (1998) state that framing effects can be found in bargaining behaviours, medical and clinical decisions and consumer choices. The way a message is framed (positive or negative) may influence the decisions we make. Tversky and Kahneman (1981) have demonstrated with their ‘asian disease problem’-experiment that people often choose riskier options when a particular case is being presented in a negative way. When the same message is framed with positive terms, people often avoid risk. In addition, De Vreese (2005) states that framing can have consequences on an individual and societal level. Take the example of the boy with his clock again. The name of the boy is Ahmad Mohammad and he is muslim. If the boy is being framed as a ‘bomb-maker’ then a person’s attitude may become not only negative towards the boy but also a religion or ethnicity. De Vreese also states that millions of people read news articles everyday and these framing practices are not without consequences. They may affect attitudes and even behaviours.
So does framing affect everyone? Whether framing affects a person may also be determined by a person’s natural orientation towards cognitive effortful stimuli. Smith and Levin (1996) have demonstrated that people that have a need for cognition (a preference towards cognitive effortful and challenging stimuli) are far less affected by framing than people who are not in high need for cognition. Smith and Levin explain that people who like to think about complex problems and evaluate information carefully are not affected by framing effects. In addition, a level of involvement in an issue may also reduce the chances of attitude change due to framing because you are well informed about the topic in question.
Something to think about
Framing is a well applied technique in news articles. They may affect attitudes and behaviours and may shape a person’s opinion about a certain subject. Framing can have negative consequences and show one side of a story but framing is not only what we see in certain news stories. You can frame a message in a certain way to console people or to stay optimistic (like a doctor would do) or you can apply framing strategies in marketing to boost your sales. Either way, care must be taken when framing messages because it may affect people’s lives. In the case of the boy with his clock it can not only paint a negative picture for him as a person but also his ethnicity and religion.
My final message here is that framing is not only leaving out information or highlighting a certain aspect of a story or event. We sometimes need things to be framed differently in order to stay positive or get people to do something. I do have to add that extreme cases of framing (or incriminating) have no place in journalism and that it is still the job of journalists to stay as objective as possible.