An overview of current scholarship regarding how different, contextual approaches to reporting news influence consumers’ knowledge, perceptions and opinions, and the implications for researchers and for journalists.
The manner in which a story is told may greatly affect the way media consumers perceive events in the world. Every journalistic choice, from the types of sources used to the perspective taken (victim, perpetrator or bystander) helps determine the “prominent themes or meanings within or perceived from a news story as a whole” (Dorfman, Thorson, & Stevens, 2001).
Some scholars believe that the perspective taken in a story has profound effects on consumers’ views of the world; others argue that it only affects consumers when the media cues correspond with the public’s existing schemas or interpretations (Kim, Scheufele, & Shanahan, 2002). However, the research about trauma-related news is scant. Given that debate, this fact sheet reviews current scholarship and studies regarding what we know and don’t know about how various approaches to reporting news (e.g. contextual vs. episodic perspectives) influence consumers’ knowledge, perceptions, and opinions.
Contextual News Coverage: The Public Health Model of Reporting
The public health model of reporting promotes incorporating broader contextual and statistical information into single-event stories. This approach gives attention to “interactions among the victim, the agent of injury or death, and the environment” (Thorson, Dorfman, & Stevens, 2003).
Use of the public health model to frame news stories may shift the consumer’s perception of crime and violence from a sense of risky, random inevitabilities to a focus on base rates, risk factors, and potential prevention strategies (Thorson, Dorfman, & Stevens, 2003). Such a frame is posited to promote greater public awareness of the context for crime and violence (i.e. when, where, and how it is likely to happen) and, in turn, increase support for public health and preventative measures.
Does providing context influence consumers?
A study involving 89 college students comparing public health framing to traditional episodic framing showed that readers of the public health frame placed more responsibility on society’s role/social conditions in crime and violence problems (Coleman & Thorson, 2002).
Readers of traditionally framed news stories expressed greater pessimism than readers of the public health stories and believed more strongly that crime is random.
A subsequent study involving 129 college students also compared public health framing to traditional framing. Findings showed that the public health frame was related to decreased negative thoughts (i.e. blame and criticism) toward individuals within a story, and greater support for preventative measures at a societal level before resorting to punitive measures at a societal level (Coleman & Thorson, 2002).
Readers of the public health frame also showed greater factual knowledge than readers of a traditionally framed story.
Despite potential gains in knowledge acquisition and positive perceptions, readers may prefer traditionally written stories that lack such contextual information. In this study readers expressed less interest in public health news stories compared to traditional stories.
Research using fake scenarios of earthquake damage showed that attributions of blame and judgments of preventability are influenced by the information and context provided in a disaster report (McClure, Allen & Walkey, 2001).
Scenarios provided a sample of college students with varied amounts of distinctive information (i.e. how a certain building compares to other buildings in an earthquake) and consensus information (i.e. how that building compared to similar buildings in previous earthquakes). In each case, distinctive information led to stronger attributions of blame for the damage to building design than descriptions with general damage information. The attributions of blame were so strong, that many people chose building design as the sole causal factor for resulting damage over the more complete explanation of building design plus the earthquake.
Damage was judged as more preventable in scenarios when information high in distinctiveness, high in consensus, or both was provided. In fact, consumers often infer the counterpart to the type of information provided. If given distinctiveness data, consumers assume high consensus as well.
Public policy reports
News frames subtly affected decision making about a public policy matter (capping tuition) in 153 college students that were presented with the same story using different frames: conflict frame, human interest frame, personal consequence frame (Price, Tewksbury, & Powers, 1997).
Participants reading the personal consequence frame and the conflict frame showed higher mean levels of support for limiting tuition on campus, compared to participants reading the human interest frame or control material.
Participants reading the conflict frame rated their feelings toward administration significantly lower (less positive) than the other participants.
In both trauma-focused and non-trauma-focused stories, framing affected readers’ attributions regarding blame and public policy response. Further, more knowledge was retained with public health frames.
implications for trauma-related news
Framing and perspective certainly matter. The framing of news stories has been shown to influence readers’ attributions of responsibility, general attitudes, and knowledge level pertaining to crime, disaster, and public policy issues. Specifically, one study suggests that the public health model of reporting was related to readers’ decreased blame and criticism toward individuals and increased blame and criticism toward social conditions pertaining to crime and violence (Coleman & Thorson, 2002). The same study suggested readers retained greater amounts of factual knowledge when presented with the public health frame as opposed to a traditional frame. However, in the one study to assess interest, readers reported less interest in stories written in the public health frame compared to traditional stories. More research is needed on these phenomena. If studies continue to show that consumers prefer traditional news stories, progress toward an inclusive, contextual approach may be thwarted by lack of public demand. However, if research supports reader acceptance of a public health model, then consumers may become better informed and less fearful of reality as they learn of the context and consequences of events in the world.
implications for researchers
We know that many news stories lack contextual information for single events (see “How News is Framed”), but we lack rigorous research about the effects of this.
Limitations to the current research
To date the studies appear to capture slightly different information about various frames, creating confusion about what is needed to improve news delivery.
More experimental studies, like the ones presentation above, are needed concerning contextual news framing effects on readers.
Only college samples were used in experimental studies, which may not generalize to the public at large.
Studies thus far have relied on self-report measures for feelings and knowledge about news reports.
A unified approach to research would allow researchers to focus on similar aspects and replicate each other’s work before drawing specific conclusions. Including measures other than self-report would add convergent validity to findings. Furthermore, future studies should focus on identifying consumer effects in greater detail (e.g. are levels of fear and perceptions of risk directly affected by contextual information?), and identifying how known effects differ based on the individual media consumer.
The public health model of reporting is promising, but further testing is needed to draw specific conclusions. Future directions should include replicating and extending the studies on the public health model reported here, using solid methodology and asking such questions as: if consumers indeed find the public health model to be less interesting than traditionally frames stories, will they still attend to the added information, or will they selectively ignore context?
Implications for journalists and editors
Several articles reviewed in this fact sheet suggest that reporting provocative aspects of traumatic events, while neglecting contextual information, may lead to unnecessary fear in the general public, along with inaccurate perceptions of the events portrayed. Thorson, Dorfman, & Stevens (2003) argue that if media portray crime and violence as issues of public health, then consumers of news media might develop a more accurate conceptual understanding of their underlying causes and improve prevention and response tactics accordingly.
Reporters and editors should recognize such possibilities and consider the motives for particular styles of reporting. If future research reveals that context and framing profoundly influence the accuracy with which consumers perceive and retain public information, then journalists will face several ethical and professional decisions about what kind of coverage fulfills the mission of the news. Such ethical and professional dilemmas may be magnified if researchers find that readers indeed find contextualized stories less appealing than traditional stories (as one study currently suggests). If both aspects of framing are confirmed, the dilemma becomes whether it really matters how informative, accurate, and influential the public health model can be, if consumers still seek out traditionally written stories. At such a point, the potential ill effects of traditionally written stories would need to be considered and balanced with the need to capture consumer attention.
The issue of reader responses to various news presentations is a critical area for journalists and editors to understand as they seek ways to improve coverage of traumatic events.
Coleman, R., & Thorson, E. (2002). The effects of news stories that put crime and violence into context: Testing the public health model of reporting. Journal ofHealth Communication, 7, 401-425.
Dimitrova, D. V. (2005). Framing of the Iraq War in the online New York Times. Paper presented to the Newspaper Division, AEJMC 2005: San Antonio.
Kim, S. H., Scheufele, D. A., & Shanahan, J. (2002). Think about it this way: Attribute agenda-setting function of the press and the public’s evaluation of a local issue. Journalism andMass Communication Quarterly, 79, 7-25.
McClure, J., Allen, M. W., & Walkey, F. (2001). Countering fatalism: Causal information in news reports affects judgments about earthquake damage. Basic and Applied SocialPsychology, 23, 109-121.
Price, V., Tewksbury, D., Powers, E. (1997). Switching trains of thought: The impact of news frames on readers’ cognitive responses. Communication Research, 24, 481-506.
Stevens, J. E. (1998). Reporting on violence: News ideas for television, print, and web. Berkeley Media Studies Group. Berkeley, CA.
Thorson, E., Dorfman, L., & Stevens, J. (2003). Reporting crime and violence from a public health perspective. Journal of the Institute of Justice and International Studies, 2, 53-66.
Sara Tiegreen is a clinical psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, NC. She worked with Elana Newman as a graduate student at the University of Tulsa and currently assesses and treats military veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Elana Newman, McFarlin Professor of Psychology at the University of Tulsa, has conducted research on a variety of topics regarding the psychological and physical response to traumatic life events, assessment of PTSD in children and adults, journalism and trauma, and understanding the impact of participating in trauma-related research from the trauma survivor's perspective.