An overview of how news stories, traumatic and otherwise, are "framed," finding a general absence of context and recommending avenues for future research.
Journalists must constantly decide which facts to include or emphasize, whom to use as sources, and what is really “at issue” (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989) in reporting a story. These choices combine to create a frame that both supports the story (like the frame of a house) and defines what belongs inside (like a picture frame), and thereby signals what news consumers should find important. Broadly speaking, news frames can be classified as predominantly “episodic” or “thematic” (Iyengar, 1993, p. 369). Episodic frames focus on the immediate event or incident and give little or no context about underlying issues or context. Thematic frames focus on the big picture, for instance, by providing statistics, expert analysis or other information to help the public view the event in a broader context. This fact sheet reviews current scholarship and studies on how trauma-related news is framed. For related research on how framing impacts public perceptions, please see "The Effect of News Frames."
Lack of context is common and problematic
Many news stories feature provocative or salient aspects of an event, ignoring overarching patterns or risk factors for particular events (e.g. Blood, Putnis, & Pirkis, 2002).
In the Australian press, news stories that featured a link between mental illness and violence tended to explain the events using highly descriptive and figurative language. Blood and colleagues (2002) argue that such language tends to create a more sensationalized news frame that detracts from important information related to the story (i.e. mental illness interacting with environmental stress), and draws attention to an isolated incident of violence out of context. For this particular line of stories, such sensational framing may suggest a norm of unpredictable behavior by the mentally ill, when that isn’t typically the case (Blood, Putnis, & Pirkis, 2002).
Examining stories in a 12-month period, using criteria from the Commonwealth Government’s media resource kit, Achieving the Balance (Penrose-Wall, Baume, & Martin, 1999), Blood, Putnis, and Pirkis (2002) classified approximately 29% of the headlines and story contents pertaining to mental illness as “unnecessarily dramatic or contain(ing) sensational language.” In addition, manyof those stories were sourced to police, coroner, or court records, which provide episodic information. Without additional sources, the stories tended to lack contextual information.
A content analysis of “NBC Nightly News” coverage of the 1985 TWA Hostage Crisis focused on the event with limited attention toward historical and cultural interpretations of the situation. Without a broader contextual framework, Atwater (1987) concludes that coverage continually portrayed the event as unpredictable and random, rather than foreseeable and clearly planned.
In a content analysis of newspaper coverage of domestic violence fatalities occurring in 1998 in Washington State (Bullock & Cubert, 2002), episodic framing techniques misrepresented the facts and social issues connected to domestic violence.
A “just the facts” approach was used for 58.3% of the stories that relied on police as the sole source.
99.6% of the stories contained information cited as factual that was not attributed to a source.
The nature of the relationship between the victim and perpetrator was omitted in 70% of the articles, which consequently left out contextual information pertaining to potential patterns of abuse that may have occurred prior to homicide.
Ninety percent of the articles presented the cases as single murders (isolated incidents), rather than placing domestic violence in a broader context as a pervasive problem throughout society.
According to Bullock & Cubert (2002), “Several stories” (the precise number unspecified)portrayed the murderers as different from the rest of society (e.g. minority culture, criminals/troublemakers, nonsocial). The authors argue that such skewed portrayal promotes stereotypes and the notion that perpetrators are deviant and thus easily identifiable, when in fact domestic violence occurs frequently and in all cultures and settings.
Bullock & Cubert (2002) noted that articles (number and type unspecified) written about one domestic violence murder involving high-status community members, placed a skewed focus on the perpetrator, rather than providing equal information or presenting the perpetrator and victim as a couple (i.e. “Doctor’s Wife Slain” with particular focus on the tragedy of a well-respected doctor suddenly “snapping.”)
Newspapers generally do not provide context and statistical information:
A study of eight daily newspapers of metropolitan cities found that only 1/3 of the local crime news was presented with contextual information regarding the crimes (Artwick & Gordon, 1998).
A content analysis of the New York Times online homepage coverage of the 2003 Iraq War found that episodic (discrete) frames, stories that focused on exemplar/isolated incidents, were most common (Dimitrova, 2005).
The prevailing frame for the complete period of time studied (March 20, 2003 to May 1, 2003) was an episodic frame of “violence of war” (87% of web pages). The second most common frame was also episodic: “military conflict frame” (79% of web pages).
Although episodic frames led the news coverage during the studied time period, thematic frames that placed single events within a broader context represented the 3rd most common frame. Specifically, the “rebuilding of Iraq” thematic frame was found on 66% of web pages during that time period.
Framing of war coverage became more thematic as the war continued, providing broader and more inclusive context to the news events. While early coverage highlighted military conflict and violence, later coverage included human interest and prognostic stories (consequences of war), such as looting in cities and issues in the rebuilding of Iraq.
The Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families commissioned a content analysis study of 12 major newspapers from across the United States for coverage of children’s issues for 3 months in 2001 (Kunkel, Smith, Suding, & Biely, 2002).
89% of news stories used an episodic (discrete) frame, while only 11% used a thematic frame (broader context of issues).
Stories of youth crime/violence and child abuse/neglect consistently failed to report relevant public policy and contextual information. Less than 1/20 stories in these categories provided information to relate “breaking news” to broader social patterns.
Overall, stories of teen childbearing (100%), child health insurance (100%), and child care (76%) showed more evenly balanced coverage and provided important contextual information compared to stories of youth crime/violence (24%) and child abuse/neglect (34%).
Lack of context exists for a number of other issues (non-crime/non-trauma-related), including physical health hazards:
Using the Lexis-Nexis database in 2000 to search approximately 152 United States newspaper articles on a specific health topic of lead dangers and poisoning, 1/3 to 1/2 of stories lacked context, stats, and prevention strategies in reports on such matters. Rather, most articles focused on isolated factors instead of providing a global view or context for the stories or solutions to the potential hazard (Brittle & Zint, 2003).
There is evidence, albeit limited, that both trauma-related and non-trauma-related news tends to lack context (e.g., ignoring overarching patterns of risk, historical and cultural interpretations of events, social patterns of violence, and links to broader social concerns).
Lack of context exists across various traumatic events portrayed in the news (e.g., violent crime, war, terrorism, etc.). No studies to date have made direct comparisons across traumatic events pertaining to context. Future studies should examine similarities and differences in coverage across differing events.
Studies use different definitions for various frames, creating confusion about what is needed to improve news delivery. It would be helpful to use common nomenclature in order to improve knowledge of news delivery.
Artwick, C. G., & Gordon, M. T. (1998). Portrayal of U.S. cities by daily newspapers. Newspaper Research Journal, Winter, 54-63.
Atwater, T. (1987). Terrorism on the evening news: An analysis of coverage of the TWA Hostage crisis on “NBC Nightly News.” Political Communication and Persuasion, 4, 17-24.
Blood, R. W., Putnis, P., & Pirkis, J. (2002). Mental-illness news as violence: A news frame analysis of the reporting and portrayal of mental health and illness in Australian media. Australian Journal of Communication, 29, 59-82.
Brittle, C., & Zint, M. (2003). Do newspapers lead with lead? A content analysis of how lead health risks to children are covered. Journal of Environmental Health, 65, 17-22.
Bullock, C. F., & Cubert, J. (2002). Coverage of domestic violence fatalities by newspapers in Washington state. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17, 475-497.
Dimitrova, D. V. (2005). Framing of the Iraq War in the online New York Times. Paperpresented to the Newspaper Division, AEJMC 2005: San Antonio.
Gamson, W. A., & Modigliani, A. (1989). Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.
Iyengar, S., & Simon, A. (1993). News coverage of the Gulf Crisis and public opinion: A study of agenda-setting, priming, and framing. Communication Research, 20, 365-383.
Kunkel, D., Smith, S., Suding, P., & Biely, E. (2002). Coverage in context: How thoroughly the news media report five key children’s issues. Commissioned by the Casey JournalismCenter on Children and Families. Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland: College Park.
Penrose-Wall, J., Baume, P., & Martin, G. (1999). Achieving the balance: A resource kit forAustralian media professionals for the reporting and portrayal of suicide and mental illnesses. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.
Stevens, J. E. (1998). Reporting on violence: News ideas for television, print, and web. Berkeley Media Studies Group. Berkeley, CA.
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.