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November 12, 2003

'Framing' Terrorism

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


A recent study on how the news media report on terrorism may have some interesting implications about how NPR has handled this complex and emotional issue.

The study is Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government and the Public, edited by Pippa Norris, Montague Kern and Marion Just, and published by Routledge.

It is the result of a conference held at the Kennedy School of Government in August 2002. It examines, among other things, how journalists report on terrorism.

The study concludes that while journalists report terrorism by "framing" the story around "empathy" and "suffering," many readers, viewers and listeners are frustrated because they expect the reporting to be "framed" around "justice."

It's worth looking more closely at some of the assertions in the study.

What is Terrorism?

First, the editors start with a useful and direct definition of terrorism:

Terrorism... is the systematic use of coercive intimidation against civilians for political goals. Reporting terrorism, whether the destruction of 9/11, suicide bombers in the second Intifada, or violence in Chechnya -- raises significant questions about how far news coverage can meet journalistic standards of 'balance', 'truth' and 'objectivity' in cases of extreme political conflict (p. 6).

The editors refine the definition:

  • Terrorism as a political act is a primary means of expression and not a last resort (p. 7).
  • The targets of terrorist coercion are the civilian population (p. 7).
  • In conventional acts of war... many civilians are accidentally hurt, but this differs from violent acts that are intentionally directed against the general public (p. 7).
  • The goals of terrorism are always political (p. 7).
  • The role of the media is central in conveying the impact of terrorism (p. 9).


  • How and Why Do Journalists 'Frame' the Story?

    The editors point out the journalists regularly employ news "frames" that simplify, prioritize and structure the narrative sequence of events when reporting on terrorism. News frames, says the study, "bundle key concepts, stock phrases and iconic images to reinforce certain common ways of interpreting developments... Without knowing much, if anything, about the particular people, groups, issues or even places involved, the terrorist and the anti-terrorist frames allows us to quickly sort out, interpret, categorize and evaluate these conflicts." (p. 13)

    The result, according to the study, is that the choice of a news frame has a direct influence on public opinion especially where there are competing perspectives from the terrorists and the anti-terrorists. Journalists attempt to get beyond these perspectives by trying to "balance" contrasting viewpoints while avoiding direct expressions of sympathy with one side or the other. (Some NPR listeners would disagree with this...)

    But according to the study, usually the audience sees through (or claims to see through) the journalists' attempts at balance.

    'Framing' the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict in 'TV' Terms

    One chapter should be of interest to many NPR listeners who have been critical of NPR's coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    The authors are two professors from Hebrew University, Tamar Liebes and Anat First. They conclude that television journalism still -- consciously or not -- defines the story for the rest of the media.

    TV, say the professors, remains the most powerful medium for framing and defining the way in which other reporting -- on radio and in print -- report the story. Because TV, especially CNN, is so ubiquitous in all newsrooms, its influence predominates when it should be used only as one of a number of sources.

    Liebes and First compare the way the media reported two events: the death of a Palestinian boy caught in a crossfire in Gaza on Sept. 30, 2000 and the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a mob in Ramallah a few weeks later on Oct. 12, 2000.

    They conclude that the international press coverage was far more compelling and emotional in the first story than in the second.

    Their reasons are complex but in the final analysis they say television caught the whole event of the Palestinian boy's death in a way that it did not report the killing of the Israelis.

    There were logistical reasons why this happened: the camera shots in Gaza stayed focused on the boy for an uninterrupted period of time; the cameraman in Ramallah arrived only after the killings had begun. Moreover, he was intimidated and pressured by the crowd to stop filming.

    In Gaza, this gave a consistent emotional narrative to the Palestinian boy's death that could not be given to the killing of the Israelis in Ramallah.

    In short, the unmediated witnessing of the death of the boy by television appeared to journalists to be inherently more "truthful" in TV terms than the death of the two Israelis.

    The authors don't phrase it this way, but this appears to me to be an example of "pack" journalism that often happens on big stories. Journalists collectively and subconsciously determine the big story, and they tend to stay with that perspective. But claiming that "CNN made me do it" is hardly a valid excuse.

    Choosing Between 'Empathy' or 'Justice?'

    The other more powerful (in my opinion) reason was that journalists had already "framed" the Palestinian's death as being in keeping with a tradition of story telling that prefers the "politics of pity/empathy" rather than the "politics of justice" -- the latter being the preferred "frame" of non-journalists who are on one side or the other. The powerful television pictures only served to reinforce the narrative device that journalists prefer.

    According to the politics of empathy, the urgency of the action to bring about an end to the suffering overcomes considerations of justice. Justice will enforce its rights only in a world that has driven out suffering. (p. 62).

    Under that definition of empathy, a Palestinian boy was inherently "more innocent" than were the two soldiers -- who as adults and in uniform appeared implicitly "less innocent."

    Liebes and First say that in many newscasts around the world, when the death of the boy was shown, the newscasters would warn their viewers of what they were about to see:

    At high moments, (the newscasters') voices are choked with tears, signaling that even tough professionals well trained in neutral and polished reporting, for whom showing gory atrocities is routine, are capable of breaking the conventions and allowing their humanity to take over. What we share as human beings -- pity toward human suffering, and rage toward whomever is responsible -- are stronger than any commitment to the conventions of news reporting (p. 64).

    Framing Terrorism uses a fair amount of academic methodology and language (e.g., agenda-setting, cognitive priming, evaluation) that tend to obscure some of the important messages. But jargon aside, the language should not dissuade non-academics from plowing through.

    In the next column, a look at the dilemma many news organizations -- including NPR -- face in light of this study on "framing."

    Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or by email at ombudsman@npr.org.

    Jeffrey Dvorkin 
    NPR Ombudsman 



       
       
       
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