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Media Framing and Public Reaction

By Abel Merawi

Media FramingNovember 15, 2021 (Ezega.com) – Facts are not always factual; they twist and shift with a vantage point. The literary genius, Adam Reta, employs a shift in point of view by narrative a sympathetic tell of reality through one character, which then shifts to another character’s utterly depiction of the same reality. This helps readers, at least me, to know that narrative angles distort reality. Furthermore, the same historical event as narrated from opposing sides speak of the same facts but end up with stark differences. Here, we see the power of narrative frames in distorting and changing facts. As our central focus is the media, let us use the reporting of a hypothetical protest to show how the media can manipulate facts to gain the desired public reaction.

Imagine watching the news on TV about a protest gone awry. Media Frame 1: We see the protestor throwing stones at the police and destroying property. Media Frame 2: We see the police brutally beat up peaceful protestors who exercised their rights. Media Frame 3: We see both protestors and the riot police exchanging blows. Media Frame 4: we see a distant image of the protest with the reporter doing all the narration, objectively or subjectively. There are plenty more ways of reporting and the only reliable fact is that a protest that ended violently has taken place. But the public reaction is controlled by the narrative angle or through media framing.

When we see the emergence of mass media, we observe the indispensable role it had played to prevent or expose the tyranny of politics. In America, we find the comparatively greater contribution of Thomas Jefferson in protecting democracy through press freedom. He argued, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” He believed that the press could protect democracy by voicing truth over politics. However, it was not long before he saw the press too could be corrupt and become dishonest. This was when Jefferson remarked that the benefits of the people are lost when the press represents ‘such abandoned prostitution to falsehood.’ When this happens, the media no longer serves the people; it rather acts as a rival power that competes with the government to control the public.

Currently, the media with integrity is the exception rather than the rule. Oftentimes, we find the media either dishonestly serving the state or its own political agenda. I am primarily concerned about the current role of the media, which frames stories in a manipulative manner so as to sway public opinion. This is just another version of what Noam Chomsky discussed in Manufacturing Consent. Initially, I planned to do so by naming unprofessional media and journalists, but I thought I can do even better by showing general patterns of unprincipled and unethical workings of the media. Only then will the reader make the connection whenever any media is engaged in public manipulations. Accordingly, we will shed light on media framing in relation to embedded reporting; omission and distortion of facts; timing of reports; selective public grievances and condemnations; and labeling.

Media framing works like a picture in a frame – the frame restricts our vision by omitting the ambiance that provides full expression to what is in the frame. Embedded reporting is one of the ways in which the media frames the story by sticking to what is dictated by those who provide it access. For instance, dictators may grant access to reporters, but only after restricting access to areas that contradict the reputable image they want to portray. In times of war, access is given to occupied areas when the occupier presets the setting and the interviewees. To report under such framed conditions is more damaging than the failure to report the news because the media becomes a propaganda agent for the powerful.

Another manifestation of media framing is the omission and distortion of facts. When media transmit a documentary or news of events, especially of war, they tend to choose a point of view and tone, just as a fiction writer. Then, they discard or distort the facts that contradict their angle. In Frames of War, Judith Butler explains, “The question for war photography thus concerns not only what it shows, but also how it shows what it shows. The "how" not only organizes the image but works to organize our perception and thinking as well.” So the public reaction is controlled by the media framing when initial causes of conflict are ignored, when victims are selected only from one side, when sound effects arouse sympathy for one and anger for the other, and when all is done to control ‘how’ facts are depicted.  

Mendacity or deception becomes the guiding principle of the media also with the timing of reporting. When news aims at the public reaction it cares not about truth per se, but about ‘when’ the truth can serve the propaganda. Currently, the media chooses silence when innocent people are massacred and whole areas pillaged. But eventually the dead reemerge as news or documentary when a certain political advantage is discovered. The truth is told only to shift blame or play innocent, and finally, when social media and public outrage threatens the powerful. To propagandize the death of people is no less criminal.  

The combined effect of media framing is finally revealed in selective public grievances and condemnations. This means, the death of some people is publicly mourned, but the death of others cannot be mourned as the media fails to witness and report it. Condemnation of the criminal emanates from our moral judgment only after the loss is identified, so the unreported fade from public memory. Even worse, condemnation leads to seeking vengeance, and so when the politics and media frame the story, the public justifies any inhumane act taken in the name of justice.

The worst part of media framing is that it conceals facts from the public. Hanna Arendt writes in Truth and Politics how facts and events are more fragile and irretrievable once lost. Rational thought can never remain lost because they result from the creative mental process. However, facts and events are the outcomes of indeterminable human facts that shape our social and political life. This is why the distortion and suppression of facts are intolerable; it strips the world of historical explanation on how the world became what it is. For instance, when the fact of slavery is denied, you cannot explain how African Americans got there in the first place. Or when you omit the genocide committed on aboriginals, you may assume the US or Australia was always the land of Europeans. This is why media framing is a heinous crime on identity, which finds meaning in memory and history. Moreover, our notions of humanity, justice, equality, and all virtues are based on facts and historical events. Thus, distortion of facts distorts our virtues and our sense of justice.

As the media manufactures consent thusly, our sentiments become prescribed, our reactions become suggestive of the political stand, and our humanity becomes truncated. Faced with such overwhelming media manipulation, we must explore ways of maintaining our integrity. As individuals and as the public, we can escape manipulation by giving up the illusions. As we condemn others and preserve a moral purity to our side, we easily accept false narrations of the media. To protect our innocence, we narrow our vision and grant injustice. I will leave you with the precautionary words of James Baldwin from Notes of a Native Son: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

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Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Vice in the name of Virtue

Dream of a Reality

Human Wave Attacks

The Bridge Between Love and Hate

Identity Frames and Humane Response to Suffering

The Plurality of Identity

Necrophilia – The Affliction in Servants of Death

Public Trust in Social Media

Even Monkeys Can Use Smart Techs

Invisible Citizens

Adwa – Triumph of Unassailable Humanity

Democracy and Democratic Institutions

Democracy and Democratic People

Paideia or Deep Education

Educational Purpose: Good Citizenry Vs Rational Autonomy

Crowd Leaders as National Enemies of Ethiopia

Ethiopia Under the Threat of Crowd Mentality

Conformist Realism in Ethnic Federalism

Alternatives to National Identity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part II: A National Stand for Unity

Ethiopia in Conflict - Part I: EPRDF and the Creation of Ethnic Division

Forms of Human Violence (Part II)

Forms of Human Violence (Part I)

The ‘Having’ Mentality

Group Narcissism

Segregated Justice

Creativity

Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage

Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview

Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia

The Underestimated Human Ignorance

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)

Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)

Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality

Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

The System and the 'Criminal'

Trust as an Economic Force

Do You Trust the Government?

Our Online World

Fame Mistaken for Expertise

The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society

Adwa

The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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