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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 of Health 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 and Mass 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 Social Psychology, 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.
A 40-page guide to help journalists, photojournalists and editors report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves.
This documentary, available online and on DVD, features a wide range of Australian journalists their recounting experiences covering traumatic stories.
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The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.