Michael Parenti in his article Methods of Media Manipulation describes several types of manipulation used to “faithfully reflect the dominant ideology, seldom straying into territory that might cause discomfort to those who hold political and economic power, including those who own the media or advertise in it” (1997, p. 5):
- suppression by omission
- attack and destroy target
- face-value transmission
- false balancing
These are clearly unethical practices in journalism. Multiple studies cited in Journalism Ethics in a Global Communication Era: The Framing Journalism Perspective describe the consequences of such practices: ” . . . people rarely learned much from news and what they learned was quickly forgotten . . .[and] . . . News failed to adequately inform the public on most issues even during political campaigns when more people paid attention to news and had greater concern about politics” (Davis & Kent, 2013, p. 71). Just a quick glimpse into what is featured on TV, radio, newspapers and streaming in social media feeds paints an even more appalling picture in real time of what this looks like.
Why is the media covering stories and reporting in a fashion that foments discord and discontent? Why do journalists take an insular stance to what should be a crucial role of investigating and reporting on the mosaic of people, places and institutions that comprise a democratic society?
Davis & Kent put forth the notion that journalists hold tight to the belief that: “Journalism . . . is a Fourth Estate, . . . [and] . . . must remain completely independent of all other institutions so that it can serve the public as an objective observer of politics, business, religion, medicine, law, and education . . . Many journalists were surprised in 2007 when James Fallows, a prominent journalist, argued that news media were undermining democracy,” (p. 72).
Perhaps, Fallow’s criticism should not come as a great surprise.
In Ethical Orientations of Journalists Around the Globe: Implications From a Cross-National Survey,the authors note that the social transaction theory has been studied for decades, but very rarely applied to the field of journalism. The reality, according to their findings, is that ” . . .journalists’ ethical outlooks are . . . related to the larger structural system in which they operate . . . [and] . . . on the way journalists around the globe approach ethical dilemmas” (Plaisance, et al., 2007, p. 654).
The researchers urge examination of “truth-telling, no harm to the innocent, empowerment and human dignity . . . (p. 654), dovetailing with Davis & Kent’s position that “Framing theory and research directly challenge the notion that news stories can and should be objective . . . there is no objective social reality that can be described using traditional reporting practices . . . the social world is constructed and this construction is constantly being negotiated,” (p. 73).
Is objective framing possible – or even desirable?
On the face of it, it would seem that framing is necessary and inescapable. Journalists — indeed, all of us — live within systems in which we both observe and participate. This makes objectivity impractical, and virtually impossible to achieve. And, so perhaps we have found the flaw in the Fourth Estate’s insular approach to reporting, a flaw that is seemingly paving the path to an undermined democracy. It doesn’t do to frame one’s messages in solitude.
Parenti’s earlier description of framing was a recognition of the tactic as manipulation, calling it the “most effective propaganda . . . bending the truth rather than breaking it,” (1997, p. 6). The damage that occurs because of this truth-bending is rapidly apparent to any person taking the time to compare versions and perspectives of life’s happenings.
In the article What Caused the Irish Potato Famine? by Mark Thornton, the duplicity that still accompanies the “framing” of this piece of history is appalling, as the English government continues to try and justify their policies and actions in maintaining hegemony over the Irish people. The truth is slowly coming out. Memorialized in many different ways, the story serves as a new way frame the devastation of poverty.
Davis & Kent do mention the troubling concern that those who attempt to take on the status quo by reframing the information are likely to be “. . . criticized as troublemakers, radicals or even traitors . . . [making it] . . . especially difficult and unlikely for journalists to offer frames that effectively contradict or question the status quo during times of crisis or controversy,” (p. 74).
Their suggestion for ways to address these troubles is to take a public relations and marketing approach, asking citizens to provide feedback on how framing is perceived and used, and to provide alternate frames more in line with local issues and events (p. 77). However, just in my own anecdotal research and conversations, I would say that citizens feel just as constrained and threatened by the same troubles professional journalists face for speaking outside the accepted box, disturbing the status quo, and may be reticent to share those views.
So, where does that leave professional communicators? I’m a big advocate of tending to your own backyard and getting straight with yourself before you take on the wider concerns. Determine your ethical frame and then start practicing it in your daily walk of life first.