Is News Story Structure a Framing Device?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

The devices used to frame are just as enigmatic as the framing effects that result. Although the structural elements of a news story, and the way in which they are ordered, can both function as framing devices (Tankard, 2001) (new window) and affect the frames that story conveys (van Dijk, 1988) (new window), little to no research has examined how journalists with differing levels of experience structure stories in traditional and online news contexts.

The lexical, grammatical and syntactical choices a journalist makes, such as writing a headline, lead or body of a news story, make up a schema that, while shaped by rules and conventions, can function as a framing device itself (van Dijk, 1988). The structural elements of a news story are not only framing devices, but also tools for journalists and editors to make their frames communicable. Many studies have shown the psychological relevance of framing, but few have looked at the seemingly minor structural choices journalists make under deadlines that may have comparable framing effects. While framing is often seen as a hegemonic and manipulative tool, a copy editor’s seemingly harmless shifting of paragraphs or removing of sentences can have a similar impact as a media mogul. However, both studies that explore the institutional, professional and cultural influences on news production and the journalistic routines and rules concerning gatekeeping consider the form, structure and style of news stories byproducts, not products of both macro or micro-sociological influences.

If news schemata are understood across media and levels of experience, they can be more efficiently communicated in the newsroom and taught in the classroom, facilitating the production of news, yet the few studies of the structural elements of news discourse are done by linguists and discourse analysts, not communications scholars (van Dijk, 1988). Although it cannot be considered independent of macro or micro-level sociological influences, I believe the communications discipline would do well to explore the effects of journalistic training on how framing devices within news stories are structured by comparing results from a writing test administered to journalism students, non-journalists and inexperienced and experienced journalists. Also, any analysis of news production becomes complicated in the ambiguously-sourced online news environment.

There are a number of online news venues that fundamentally change the traditional news story structure by loosening its governing rules. While some studies have shown that online news is considered less credible than traditional news, others (e.g., Marchionni and Thorson, 2010 (new window)) have shown the contextualized nature of online news to be more trustworthy than traditional news. Despite, and perhaps because of, this ambiguity, no extant research has considered the impact of the structure of traditional and online news story on framing and, more importantly, whether those with more journalistic training structure news stories differently in online and traditional media than journalism students and those with no journalistic training.

The representativeness heuristic of Tversky and Kahneman (new window) (1974) has been grossly underconsidered in the context of new media, which begs the question: Would this blog entry be perceived differently if it appeared in a print journal?