Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)
Framing Terrorism and Mass Media
A review of Teresa Sabada (2008). Framing: A Classification of News. Buenos Aires: La Cujía Ediciones
Maximiliano E. Korstanje
(Economics Department, University of Palermo, Argentina).
Translated by the author
The 21st century began with the hijacking of civil airplanes which were then crashed into the World Trade Centre (WTC) and the Pentagon. A fourth crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers confronted the hijackers. With this event it became evident that the most powerful of Western nations was as vulnerable to terrorist attack as were any of its developing neighbors to the south. This sudden event was immediately disseminated throughout the world via mass media. Continuing coverage in subsequent weeks contrasted images of the WTC in ruins with others such as the struggles for Palestinian independence. September 11, 2001 marks the day during which the security and risk boundaries between “First” and “Third” World blurred. Media coverage during this period contributed to a kind of reinforcement of prior existing negative stereotypes against Islamic cultures throughout Europe and America. In this context Sabada’s book provides a useful assessment of how journalism impacts upon mainstream constructions of “reality”.
The book is based on the premise that communication is a two-way process whereby recipients perceive and re-elaborate messages according to their needs and contexts. As such, Sabada is very interested in discussing the ways in which journalistic organizations disseminate the news. Specifically, she is interested in how the same “fact” can be interpreted in two completely different ways depending on the audience in question. Under the rubric of Framing Theory many Anglo American scholars have previously discussed to what extent mass media influences public opinion. However, little has been done with this approach in the Spanish speaking world. Sabada’s book finds its importance here in its effort to develop a qualitative and quantitative approach with which to investigate media framing.
Terrorism seizes upon violence as a way of garnering media attention and is a highly subject for media and its efforts to manage public opinion. The attacks of September 11 shifted not only the form of news coverage but also ironically served to work on behalf of the terrorist goal of perpetuating fear. Sabada argues that “reality” is largely based on what people believe to be real (here she draws on studies of social behaviour by Chicago School theorist W. I. Thomas). However, what role “reality” plays in the development of such social scientific approaches remains unaddressed. Out of the Chicago School emerged interpretative sociology and a series of associated sub-disciplines: ethno-methodology, phenomenology and Symbolic Interactionism which laid the foundations for the emergence of media framing theory.
With this historical background in mind, Sabada examines the arguments of Garfinkel, Goffman and Bateson precluding structural psychology’s pretensions which has historically emphasized the idea of a universal conscience. The main thesis and insight of this approach is that the meaning of events is oriented to a cognitive structure-of-mind which allows people to redirect (internally) similar events while discarding others in a non-linear manner. What took place in the evolution of framing theory were a series of subtle elaborations moving media analysis away from earlier (hypodermic) models of more direct and causal influence. Still, some scholars are convinced that journalism transforms reality in a frame wherein fundamental information is selected and voluntarily manipulated. Because of the professional (career) as well as the corporate interests at stake, mass media is understood to play a political role in society (e.g.: Chomsky). Recently, a wave of research has sought to understand how people select the information which is most useful for their own purposes.
Sabada argues that the process of framing encompasses three different stages: a) diagnosis, b) forecasting, and c) motivation. In general many unexpected events are censored by officials to protect public opinion and avoid any panic, riots and social disturbances. Sometimes journalists are obliged to remain silent when public security is at stake. At other times the media attempt to enhance social cohesion and the expense of a third party or outsider group. Usually this is carried out to the detriment of ethnic minorities, expatriates or other “out-group” members. From this point of view, solutions or alternative pathways are often proposed following “diagnosis’ in a second stage known as “forecasting”. Ultimately, in cases such as 9-11, what Sabada finds is that media produce a kind of synergy which produces citizen participation in a way that promotes the misunderstanding of the Other.
Underpinning these efforts is the widely accepted wisdom that media institutions should, in moments of instability, be practiced with responsibility. Sabada provides the example of the historical reaction of people in Spain after the 1977 assassination of Miguel Angel Blanco (National Deputy of the Popular Party. The Blanco shooting was deployed to reinforce popular solidarity against terrorism. Spaniards across the country were brought together, with the help of the media, to support radical (police and military) solutions to the Basque pro-independence movement.
Yet people in different countries may respond differently to similar events despite a similar handling of the events by the media. Sabada points to the similar coverage but very different popular response, to the attacks of 9-11 and those on the Madrid commuter trains. As it turned out it was much more difficult to create a unified and coherent frame for the attack in Madrid. In America, following 9-11, Washington found it much easier to manipulate media coverage of the event which led to a more singular voice in reply to the event. In Spain, by falling back on the old “blame the Basques” rhetoric backfired as no one really believed they were responsible. It seemed only the desperate act of a government facing an election in a few days and was generally understood as such. This is one of many such examples by Sabada in her book concerning the difficulties of setting the media agenda. The world outside of America is more complex than even Chomsky may be aware.
Sabada´s book insightfully describes, with many examples, how framing theory converges with media coverage of terrorism. She finds that a) symbols are social constructs utilized to depict realities which are beyond the possibilities of personal interaction; b) there exists a pre-symbolic reality characterized to be out of our capacity of comprehension; c) journalism is not able to observe the facts as a result of reality since it becomes only understandable whenever can be humanized, d) representation looks be a broader and complex issue rooted in evocation of our own imagination, e) Mass media makes affordable some realities which otherwise are abstract and remote for citizenship; f) Terrorism and Mass media coexist in a symbiotic liaison and g) Journalism works following mythical archetypes according to similar-related facts occurred in past.
This is a well written book in which Sabada brings forward a comparative approach for understanding the symbiosis between terrorism and journalism which finds it to be a very complex matter. It will be of interest to anthropologists, sociologists, historians, psychologists and journalists concerned with mass communication.
Maximiliano Korstanje is an anthropologist, doctoral student in Social Psychology, and a lecturer at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires, Argentina.