Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Framing and News Angles: What is Bias?

Note: The following blog post is a very condensed version of a section from a think piece I wrote about a year ago combined with some information from an article I was going to contribute to another site. I ended up saving stuff such as this for Relatively Journalizing and just now discovered the file again. I have made my best attempt to keep as much information in this post as possible while also shortening it as much as I feel I can.

BY JOSHUA DELUNG

It’s more difficult each day to find truly unbiased news sources, according to the Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting Web site. Corporate ownership, big-name advertisers and comfortable political affiliations influence news frames, making the media increasingly less diverse. Some call the blogosphere the failed Fourth Estate, but perhaps the Internet does provide some opportunity to check and balance media. Both communication scholars and media professionals are coming to the realization that perhaps bloggers provide a system of checks and balances over the watchdogs. As is the tagline for the upcoming film based on the graphic novel, The Watchmen, "Who watches the Watchmen?" Maybe the bloggers do.

However, the validity of blogging sometimes raises issues with audiences, and the medium itself has yet to enter the mainstream for some demographics. The debates about influences on reporters, citizen journalists and bloggers will go on, but one undeniable truth is that bias exists, regardless of the source. All communication is in some way inherently persuasive. In fact, the Rhetorica Network goes so far as to say there is no such thing as an objective point of view. The following quote says it best:

No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in context, through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated historically, politically, economically and socially. This state of affairs is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies the collective influences of the entire context of a message.

Scholars of the media often talk about framing in regard to certain biases that are present. To paraphrase Robert Entman, framing takes place when some issues or attributes are emphasized more than others, giving some frames more salience in the media. Many scholars in the field liken frames to news angles. This discussion lends itself to bringing a third word into the discussion of frames and angles — bias.

So are frames in news, news angles, and bias in the media all the same thing, or are they separate? And is bias really a bad thing? The Rhetorica Network’s site on media bias offers an anecdote about how politicians are biased overtly, while journalists are biased, but not overtly so. In the long run, both professions are honorable and “practiced, for the most part, by people trying to the right thing.” The Web site author writes definitively that biases in the media are the same as frames.

In other words, there is evidence to prove both arguments that the media are liberally or conservatively biased, but to ask such as question is to ask the wrong question.
Instead, the author identifies a non-exhaustive list of nine frames journalists may use to construct narratives from sometimes-ambivalent events:

  1. commercial bias (delivering a good product to readers/viewers)
  2. temporal bias (timeliness)
  3. visual bias (visual elements get more attention)
  4. bad news bias (good news is boring)
  5. narrative bias (seeking out drama for good stories)
  6. status quo bias (current governmental systems work)
  7. fairness bias (depicts politics especially as a contest by always seeking reactions from opposing sides for sake of fairness)
  8. expediency bias (deadline-driven field, there is competition among journalists to scoop others)
  9. glory bias (journalists assert themselves into stories, especially with local television news — this is also known as metacommunication, or media covering media).
What can be determined from this discussion is that bias is always present. We, as human beings, are always framing issues. However, in the case of many journalists this bias may occur subconsciously. As mentioned before, the bias of a journalist is not overt — he or she brings personal experiences, beliefs, attitudes and values to any story. Therefore, even though a journalist may attempt to provide equal space or time to both sides of an issue and be unbiased, even the news angle or tone of the story is influenced by inherent biases.

To accuse media professionals of purposefully injecting bias into their stories is irresponsible and untrue in most cases (speaking of true journalists, not pundits). Of course, corporate and political influences in some larger media organizations are obviously present (i.e., Fox News Channel). But at the individual journalistic level, especially for local journalists, the biases are more often subconscious.

This whole issue is a somewhat puzzling one — how can we have objective media when all messages are framed at some level? Is a news angle taken by a journalist and a frame the same thing? Though many communication scholars who discuss framing theory say yes, I would disagree to a certain level. News angles, it seems more appropriate to say, are a sort of mini-frames. Frames seem to be identified as broadly defined packages such as economic, political, global, religious, conservative and liberal. Framing, as discussed in contemporary literature is closely related, if not the same thing as, bias. Bias in this sense does not mean unfairness, but rather it refers to inserting some sort of frame, whether deliberately or unknowingly. All news has some sort of bias — all news is framed to create a certain reality for an audience.

I would argue, though, that news angles come after frames have already been established. Editors and other influencers define frames intentionally by assigning stories and hinting at appropriate tones of coverage. Perhaps industry and/or societal norms or personal experiences influence editors and reporters to cover some stories in different ways or to give them more salience. Personal identification with a specific issue (say, civil rights for blacks, the evangelic movement for someone who is an evangelical, or perhaps a victim of a natural disaster who covers something such as Hurricane Katrina) causes one to interpret that issue differently and give it more salience, even at a subconscious level.

In my own early reporting experience, when I began writing a story, I thought very little about the frames involved. Even when the assignment came not from an idea I’d pitched but instead from my editor, I don’t give much thought as to why the story was assigned or where the idea came from — I just wrote it because that was my job. You see, before the story ever gets to a reporter, it’s been framed — consciously and subconsciously — by those higher on the totem pole than the reporter. Then, my own personal experiences influenced the story and did more framing, though perhaps more at an attribute level. Finally, we come to the news angle.

Editors do not always tell reporters exactly what angle to take on a story — in fact, finding a good angle to tell the right story is looked upon as a good trait in a reporter. So, when it comes time to decide the news angle, how do journalists do it, and what differentiates an angle from a frame?

In journalism schools, journalists are taught to think about news angles in terms of news values such as proximity and human interest. Framesetting affects news values and perspectives, as purported by Sean Aday. Perhaps there are predefined frames journalists are influenced by that tell them what human interest means, but the actual angle they decide to take within that human interest frame is more intricate.

One example that comes to mind is a story I wrote about a new free clinic opening. The human-interest frame was of course already in place because I would cover people in poverty who benefited from the opening of a free clinic. Though the human-interest frame was an obvious one for this story, I would describe the news angle I chose for the story as a combination of need/justification for the clinic and a narrative about one person who took advantage of the clinic. I used lots of statistics about the county affected and its poverty-stricken residents combined with a story about the hardships faced by one woman.

Another example of how I believe frames and angles differ comes from a feature story I wrote about a local historical society and its museum. My editor originally framed the story as a feature about the group and the exhibits at the museum. However, I took a storytelling angle on the article and began telling the story of the town’s Civil War history and tied in historical artifacts from the museum and locations in the town as I went along with the chronological story.

Good journalists are innovative and find interesting news angles within the frames with which they are given to work. However, it is the frames from corporations, politicians, personal beliefs, inherent experiences and public relations that most greatly influence the bias we find in the media. Taking an interesting news angle is not bias — it’s good journalism. What we as scholars and media professionals must do is try to identify possible frames (biases) as we cover issues and events, be mindful of what inherent feelings within us could add to these biases, and strive to objectively report the news fairly.

As media consolidation lessens competition and decreases the amount of flexibility journalists have in telling their stories because of the personal interests of conglomerate owners, we will observe pivotal moments in journalism where the symbiosis between public relations practitioners and journalists becomes even more solidified. We already see the lines blurred between so-called professional journalists and those Web journalists known as bloggers. No matter the challenges and changes journalists face, though, they must always remember their role as the Fourth Estate — to tell the truth, no matter what politician or CEO it may make uncomfortable. And should they fail to do that, perhaps it will be the blogosphere's moment to rise to the occasion.

Further reading:

1. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) Web site at www.fair.org
2. Rhetorica Network Web site at www.rhetorica.net/bias
3. Entman, R. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication. 43(4), pp. 51-58.
4. Burns, L. S. (2002). Understanding journalism. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
5. Aday, S. (2006). The framesetting effects of news: An experimental test of advocacy versus objectivist. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 83(4), pp. 767-784

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