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The Classic Theories

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Scheufele and Tewksbury, “Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models”
  • Singer, Jane, “Stepping back from the gate: Online newspaper editors….”
  • McCombs, Max, “The Agenda-setting function of the press”
  • Capella and Jamieson, “Framing the news”

Student’s note: While it’s been helpful to learn the terminology and application of agenda-setting, priming (which I still don’t completely understand) and framing, my most valuable lesson this week was to not wait so long to read the material and write the paper. The following essay is a lot more about turning in the assignment than reflection. 

In a somewhat ironic turn of rhetoric, the very meaning of the word “framing,” used by media scholars and critics such as Duffy to argue that journalism is an inherently subjective act, turns out to be a subjective term, itself. Its definition is infinitely broad or unrealistically narrow, part and parcel of agenda-setting or a distinct tool, empirically proven or merely a theory, depending on whom you ask.

In “The Agenda-Setting Function of the Press,” for example, after detailing agenda-setting theory and research that documents the correlation of topical press coverage with those topics’ prominence in public opinions, Maxwell McCombs summarily brushes framing under the agenda-setting umbrella. He equates framing to what he calls an “agenda of attributes” — in other words, a roster of characteristics the press assigns to the objects on which it reports. McCombs also calls out official sources as the originators of much of the press’s agenda. He connects the dots in a way that reveals how certain agenda attributes designed by the objects themselves will no doubt surface in reporting when the objects of the press are also the source of the press’s agenda. When it comes to influencing public policy, therefore, the press tends to have the greatest impact when it operates outside of the official agenda and instead creates its own.

In “Framing the News,” however, Capella and Jamieson make the case for framing as its own rhetorical device, distinct from agenda setting. They narrow the definition: “(N)ews frames are those rhetorical and stylistic choices, reliably identified in news, that alter the interpretations of the topics treated and are a consistent part of the news environment.” It is through framing, they argue, that context is lent to a news story in a way that can either be efficient or misleading for the reader. But framing, they are careful to say, is not all. Readers bring their own sets of values and their own perspectives to the news they consume, and some will be more susceptible than others to the values implied by any given frame.

Enter the Journal of Communication, which in its 2007 special issue attempted to wrangle such disparate interpretations of the words “framing, agenda-setting, and priming” in order to establish a common frame of reference in which all related scholarship could be conducted. The opening article, “Framing, Agenda-Setting and Priming,” defines the three models as distinct, but sometimes overlapping, devices with specific cognitive and impressionistic impacts. “The primary difference on the psychological level between agenda-setting and priming, on the one hand, and framing, on the other hand, is therefore the difference between whether we think about an issue and how we think about it.”

One critical consideration this article introduces to our reading this week is the distinction between how readers process information about people versus information about issues. The former tends to elicit social judgments based on traits (attributes), while the latter tends to retain facts geared more toward a paradigm of problems and solutions.

“Stepping Back from the Gate” takes a real bird’s eye view of the entire situation, framing its analysis, so to speak, around how the traditional gatekeeping role of journalism is being influenced by online technologies that trend toward reader interactivity. Singer concludes that such interactivity can complement the traditional role of journalism without requiring journalists to entirely cede their gatekeeping mission.

Whatever it’s called, the act of selecting topics to cover, choosing details to include in that coverage, and determining the perspectives from which to cover it is like any other tool. It can be useful when applied correctly and with the right intentions, and it can cause real damage when wielded inappropriately.

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