Framing of stories is a central feature of communications

I’ve been reading with interest an agenda-driven book about the history of General Motors which blames a small group of American intellectuals with the demise of General Motors.

The book will, I imagine, bring immense satisfaction to its target audience. For such an audience, a balanced overview of the demise of General Motors rather than the vastly overstated argument that the book presents, would be awesomely boring.

The through-line guides the consumption of the communications product

Whatever text or performance an audience encounters, it has to be structured in such a way that consumers of the product are going to pay attention to it.

The above-noted book about the history (as viewed from the vantage point of a particular author) of General Motors features an effective through-line, by which I mean it has a clearly articulated structure that carries the reader forward. When there’s an effective through-line in place, the journey through the text, newscast, or podcast will be like a walk in the park. Especially for a general audience, you want to have an easy go of it.

Aside from being easy to follow, a communications product that works really well – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, or, indeed, occupies the borderland between fiction and nonfiction  – is going to excel at framing.

Framing is of interest when we think about how writers and speakers present the evidence on which their arguments are based. A key authority about framing is Erving Goffman.

Framing determines how a story is presented, as Gaye Tuchman notes

Another person who talks about framing is Gaye Tuchman, author of Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality (1978).

I was interested to read part of a review by Muriel G. Cantor of the above-noted book which appears in the journal Sociology of Work and Occupations, Vol. 7, No. 4, November 1980, pp. 503-06.

An excerpt from Cantor’s review (I have added paragraph breaks) reads:

Through participant observation in the four newsrooms, as well as interviews with print and television journalists, Gaye Tuchman presents a comprehensive study on news as a social activity and on reporters as workers. The result is a seminal work in the social construction of reality and the sociology of knowledge. Tuchman begins the book by telling us that news is a window on the world.

She looks at news as a frame (after Goffman), examining how that frame is constituted – in other words, how the organizations of newswork and of newsworkers are put together. News organizations both circulate and shape knowledge and ideology. The major power of the press and television is its role in the setting of political agendas. Those topics given the most coverage by news media are likely to be the topics readers and viewers identify as the most pressing.

For those who study the media, one problematic area of inquiry has been the selection of topics that the news organizations and reporters find important enough to print or broadcast. From the multitude of events and issues available, only a few can be reported. The question Tuchman asks is: Why are some events and issues newsworthy, and others not?

In addition, and, to Tuchman, more importantly, she asks how these events and issues are translated into constructed realities which give them public character. Her approach to news is to classify it with other kinds of stories such as fiction, college courses, and social science research. She assumes that stories are the product of both cultural resources and active negotiations.

News is produced, gathered and disseminated by professional workers performing their jobs in complex organizations. Decisions about what to present to the consumers are made in an environment where editor, publisher, and reporters actively interact, where news sources are likely to be those with power and influence in the larger society or community, and where norms have developed to give the total process an institutionalized and routinized character.

Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki also talk about framing

Another person who talks about framing is Robert M. Entman, author of The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America (2000). Andrew Rojecki is a contributor.

A blurb (I have added a paragraph break) reads:

Living in a segregated society, [W]hite Americans learn about African Americans not through personal relationships but through the images the media show them. The Black Image in the White Mind offers the most comprehensive look at the intricate racial patterns in the mass media and how they shape the ambivalent attitudes of Whites toward Blacks.

Using the media, and especially television, as barometers of race relations, Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki explore but then go beyond the treatment of African Americans on network and local news to incisively uncover the messages sent about race by the entertainment industry – from prime-time dramas and sitcoms to commercials and Hollywood movies.

While the authors find very little in the media that intentionally promotes racism, they find even less that advances racial harmony. They reveal instead a subtle pattern of images that, while making room for Blacks, implies a racial hierarchy with Whites on top and promotes a sense of difference and conflict. Commercials, for example, feature plenty of Black characters. But unlike Whites, they rarely speak to or touch one another. In prime time, the few Blacks who escape sitcom buffoonery rarely enjoy informal, friendly contact with White colleagues – perhaps reinforcing social distance in real life.

Entman and Rojecki interweave such astute observations with candid interviews of White Americans that make clear how these images of racial difference insinuate themselves into Whites’ thinking.

Despite its disturbing readings of television and film, the book’s cogent analyses and proposed policy guidelines offer hope that America’s powerful mediated racial separation can be successfully bridged.

“Entman and Rojecki look at how television news focuses on [B]lack poverty and crime out of proportion to the material reality of [B]lack lives, how [B]lack ‘experts’ are only interviewed for ‘[B]lack-themed’ issues and how ‘[B]lack politics’ are distorted in the news, and conclude that, while there are more images of African-Americans on television now than there were years ago, these images often don’t reflect a commitment to ‘racial comity’ or community-building between the races. Thoroughly researched and convincingly argued.” – Publishers Weekly

“Drawing on their own research and that of a wide array of other scholars, Entman and Rojecki present a great deal of provocative data showing a general tendency to devalue [B]lacks or force them into stock categories.” – Ben Yagoda, New Leader

Winner of the Frank Luther Mott Award for best book in Mass Communication and the Robert E. Lane Award for best book in political psychology.

Erving Goffman is a recognized authority on framing, even now

The go-to person about frames is Erving Goffman, author of Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974).

A blurb reads:

Erving Goffman, an American sociologist, received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He is known for his distinctive method of research and writing. He was concerned with defining and uncovering the rules that govern social behavior down to the minutest details. He contributed to interactionist theory by developing what he called the “dramaturgical approach,” according to which behavior is seen as a series of mini-dramas.

Goffman studied social interaction by observing it himself – no questionnaires, no research assistants, no experiments. The title of his first book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), became one of the themes of all of his subsequent research. He also observed and wrote about the social environment in which people live, as in his Total Institutions. He taught his version of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania; he died in 1983, the year in which he served as president of the American Sociological Association.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Goffman is variously described as a Canadian sociologist, an American sociologist, and a Canadian-American sociologist.

If you want to read a bit about his life story, the following post is among the most widely read posts at this website:

Erving Goffman began his graduate work in Chicago in 1945

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A June 14, 2021 New York Times book review, “Speaking Truth to Both the Right and the Left,” makes for a good read.

    The review by By Emily Bazelon features two books:

    America in Crisis and Renewal
    By George Packer
    A Defense of Truth
    By Jonathan Rauch

    An excerpt from the review reads:

    Packer spells out the problems he sees with abandoning the Enlightenment framework. Fixating on language alienates sympathetic outsiders. It’s hard to build a coalition while constantly correcting how people talk. Symbolic fights distract elites while doing nothing to address economic hardship. Just America may also find itself out of touch with people it claims to represent. The activist push to defund the police in many cities, for example, “was stopped by local Black citizens, who wanted better, not less, policing.”

    Packer is especially concerned about the academy and the media. Just America’s reigning focus on subjectivity and oppression of “the self and its pain — psychological trauma, harm from speech and texts,” he writes, has become “nearly ubiquitous in humanities and social science departments.” And some journalists are enforcing intellectual piety and purism, using “the power to shame, intimidate and ostracize, even turning it on their colleagues.”

    A previous post discusses Enlightenment thinking:

    Aspects of Enlightenment thinking are problematic – they give rise to real-world, dystopian science-fiction scenarios

    The gist of the post is that blind adherence to Enlightenment thinking will be unlikely to lead to good outcomes.


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