Today’s “Mass Com Monday” post takes a look at the idea of how the choices journalists make in their work can shape the way we see a person, an event or a concept. Broadly speaking, the idea of inclusion or exclusion of content to paint a specific picture is known as framing, a theory most journalism students learn about.
For example, let’s look at like Sunday’s Broncos/Commanders game: The Broncos led 21-3 early in the game. The Commanders scored enough points to take a 35-24 lead. The Broncos then scored twice to make the final score 35-33, after they failed in an attempt at a two-point conversion with no time left on the clock.
This could be framed as an epic comeback if you want to look at it from the point of view of the Commanders. It could be framed as an epic collapse if you looked at it from the Broncos side of the deal. You could also frame it based on the final play (Commanders held on to win/Broncos failed to complete the job and lost).
Framing isn’t always about picking a side, but in most cases, it’s about how the media can shape our view of thing, including bigger topics like race, gender and other social issues. Let’s look at one example of that:
In a long social media thread a friend had running about the trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a commenter noted how the Washington Post chose to lead a story on the prosecution’s most important witness:
Two women WaPo reporters crafted this lede:
AUSTIN — The star witness swept into the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, red coat and flashy Balenciaga-emblazoned handbag tucked under her arms, her white sheath, red lipstick and signature platinum pixie all a dramatic contrast from the somber-suited individuals who have testified for the past week in the historic impeachment trial of state Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The star witness was Laura Olson, person who prosecutors said had an extended affair with Paxton. What she would bring to the table in terms of supporting the case against Paxton was unclear and eventually she was cut loose from having to testify.
What is clear, based on the thread and a general reading of how Olson has been portrayed, is that there is a heavy emphasis on her appearance. Her fashion and her physical being (sweeping in, being flashy etc.) are front and center.
It’s fair to say that this kind of framing wouldn’t be something you’d see in a description of a man in a situation like this.
Or as I put it, I’d hate to see how these esteemed journalists would have described me in that situation:
“The star witness awkwardly shuffled into court with the confidence of a drunk doing a field sobriety test, clad in a wardrobe likely abandoned outside a Goodwill by a homeless elf, his head shaped like a decaying russet potato with a horse shoe of graying mane around a shiny bald top that gave him the look of a cue ball wearing a hula skirt, a dramatic contrast to the other witnesses who clearly own mirrors and possess a sense of dignity…”
The authors also make some interesting choices on what to include, such as this tidbit about her shoes:
Olson arrived with her attorney in the morning, entering the Capitol rotunda and ducking into a restroom where she traded red, kitten-heel mules for tan pumps.
Wait! WAIT! Who is the fashion designer associated with these amazing pieces of footware? Were they Manolos? Louboutins? And did she go into a stall or was this done near the sink? Come ON, Washington Post! Are you committed to serious journalistic digging or not here?
And let’s look at how the authors framed her compare to how they framed Paxton in the realm of non-essential clauses: (I bolded certain spots for emphasis and clarity.)
Paxton, a three-term incumbent reelected last year, has been among the state’s most prominent allies of former president Donald Trump.
According to her LinkedIn profile, which she took down earlier this year, the four-times-divorced mother of two previously worked as district director for Sen. Donna Campbell (R) in San Antonio.
(Question: How many kids does Ken Paxton have? You wouldn’t know from this story. Or this one. Or this one. Or a dozen others. That said, he has four kids and two grandkids, in case you think that matters.)
And then toss this in:
Paxton has not been seen in the Senate chamber since he entered a not guilty plea on day one, though his wife of more than 35 years, Sen. Angela Paxton, has been ever-present.
The picture being painted here is this: Married, thrice-elected civil servant is accused of philandering with a mother of two who apparently can’t keep a man.
This is not the only article that focuses more on what Olson looks like than what she might have to say in Paxton’s impeachment trial. Here’s one where they really dig into the clothing choice, as well as the way her high heels click-clack around the Capitol. Maybe that’s why she made the strategic move to the tan pumps…
One other thing that came up in this discussion of the Olson/Paxton situation was how Olson was described as a “mistress.” The question came up: “Is there even a male equivalent for this term, which seems to admonish her as a man-stealing home-wrecker?” As much as we had trying to make a term (“man-stress” and “side-weiner” were two I particularly enjoyed contributing), we couldn’t find one. That says something about the framing and the English language…
The point is, when we see content like this, we have our views on people like Olson shaped in one way while we have our views of people like Paxton shaped another. That’s not to say a story should never describe someone’s appearance or clothing or that all people should be treated exactly the same. What this is saying is to examine how we treat people in the media and if there is inequitable treatment based that unfairly shifts the frame.
In writing, we talked about this before on the blog, and these lessons merit a second look. As consumers, however, it really pays to pay attention to these issues as well and how they frame our views.
EXERCISE TIME: Read some stories on topics that interest you and look for specific frames that you think shape how a reader would perceive a person, event or outcome. Also keep an eye out for stories that frame individuals based on issues of race, gender, social status, sexual orientation or other similar elements. What do these frames present and do you feel they are fair?
Also, can you imagine framing people of a different group in a similar way? For example, would a man’s clothing be described in as intricate detail as a woman’s was in an article? Or would a story on a rich person focus as much on their single-parent household as a story on a poorer person does? Are there words that apply only to one group and not another, like the term “mistress?”