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Sarah Palin’s frames (and I’m not talking about eyeglasses)

February 28, 2009
Sarah Palins frames

Sarah Palin's frames

A vast amount of communication research exists on news “frames.” News frames are the ways that the news media construct stories so that they fall within certain cultural touchstones or create narratives that we can relate to. They can also be a device that newsmakers or stakeholders use to try to shape narratives.

George Lakoff is a name known to virtually every communication researcher even though he is a linguistics professor, not a communication academician. He is called the father of framing because of his ideas about the way we make political decisions based on how candidates fit into our notions of family and other long-held beliefs or internal narratives. Lakoff says that cognitive science shows that we respond to the stories buried in our unconscious, trying to match those stories with the facts and events we encounter in the outside world. We interpret the facts and events according to our frames, not necessarily the truth of the situation.

Media fit into this idea because reporters and editors, as storytellers dealing with complex issues and events, work in frames as a way to relate to readers — not necessarily consciously, mind you. But news stories often fit frames we’re all familiar with — the good guy always wins, the underdog comes out on top, the beauty and the beast, power corrupts, etc. Stereotypes and prejudices can be reinforced through frames, which is why reporters today get a lot of training in diversity issues and why they are sometimes accused of being elitist. The mainstream media are dominated by white, well-educated, middle-class men, so that is often the perspective that seeps through.

Anything considered a “media uproar” is usually a battle over framing. An event occurs and then journalists, newsmakers, news commentators, now bloggers, etc., start throwing things on the wall to see if they stick. What sticks are usually the frames that end up becoming “fact” — or the-way-we-view-that-development-from-here-to-eternity.

For example: The Camelot of the Kennedy administration, Gerald Ford’s clumsiness, Al Gore’s wonkiness, the liberal media, regulation is bad, anti-abortion equals right-to-life, etc.

I was trying to explain the notion of framing to undergraduates in my Understanding Media class at American University, and I asked the students what frames fit President Bush and the United States as a whole. They agreed that Bush is seen as “a tough guy,” a Texan, a man’s man, and interestingly, his frames coincided a lot with those of the nation. One student summed it up by describing Bush’s stand on many issues as a “bad ass” frame, meaning that he — and by inference, the United States — doesn’t take any guff from anyone.

Then the discussion went rather naturally to the topic of the GOP vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. I was a bit surprised to learn that many in the class of 40 thought she had been pretty severely mistreated by the media.

“How is she being framed?” I asked.  They saw only one frame of Sarah Palin — that of an unfortunate citizen being ground alive in the media machine.

I was surprised because of all the positive press Palin was getting and because she had given the McCain campaign a huge boost.

I said to the class, “Let’s look at the frames that might fit.”

Playing Sarah Palin (and not nearly as well as Tina Fey), I drew a frame around myself in the air and then pretended to step through it. “I’m an unknown person thrust into the media spotlight,” I said, looking like a deer in headlights.

Then, I drew another frame and took another step. “I’m a babe.” (That was a stretch.)

Another frame and another step: “I’m a Mom.”

Another frame: “I’m a strong woman who is breaking through the glass ceiling, but not one of those feminists.”

Another: “Like TV women everywhere, I’m slightly ditzy but cute when I get mad.”

Another: “I’m a bad ass (who shoots wild animals).

Perhaps Sarah Palin fits them all. And, that might be one answer to the question of why she is a compelling figure to the public and to the media. Maybe it boils down to a kind of framing formula for media frenzy:

— 1 frame equals perhaps one reporter milling around

— 2 frames means numerous reporters are meandering about, with a possible stakeout

— 3 frames means a live shot

— 4 frames – breaking news crawl

— 5 frames – full-force frenzy

Sarah Palin fits more frames than a good war. May the best frame win.

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