Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On media framing and priming

I was reading this article which discusses how the media frames information regarding environmental issues and then how they prime their audience. The study published in Latin Journal of Social Communication wanted to know how the media would portray a 2007 environmental summit held in Bali. News outlets focused primarily on the discussion of highly provocative events, like natural disasters increasing along with abstract/vague solutions like economically or politically fixing the problem. According to one researcher, even though everyday activities comprise 20% of the problem, media outlets refrained from framing the summit on how individual behavior exacerbates the problem.

Media bias is not new. In a meta-analysis of 77 studies involving 15,000 participants, researchers found a strong tendency for poor body image based on viewing ultra-thin women on television. The results showed women were more likely to modify their eating and dieting habits in order to achieve what they felt was the "norm" or "ideal" look. What is interesting about this study isn't the results but the persistent notion people retain that what we see on television does not affect our behavior or perceptions. From the researcher: "Grabe believes many people still resist the idea that a societal influence, like the media, can have a real impact on how women view themselves."

This relates to dogs in the most obvious way, I think. If you ever read articles on pit bulls, invariably anti-dog (they claim anti-pit bull) folks will always chime in with "There's no media bias and you are absolutely stir-crazy for thinking that, you conspiracy theorist, you". Always. There is only two studies, so far as I know, that tackles the issue of media framing and dogs and, of course, I cannot find it for the life of me. One is out of New Zealand, the other Australia. So you're just going to have to take my word on it (and if you can find me the studies, you win). The results were that severity of the reported bites were about the same for all breeds, but that the media reports tended to identify "severe biters" as pit bulls even with evidence to the contrary.

While less scientific, I can come up with two cases of over-reporting. In Lorain, Ohio, 70 dog bites in a year were reported, five from pit bulls - only ones that were reported. In Victorville, CA, the 1st pit bull bite in three years was also the only dog bite reported - the other 70 dog bites never warranted a news byte (the attack involved one dog who bit a 15-yr-old twice on the arm).

This isn't rocket science, people. When you have a city with 100 dog bites a year, where people are bitten severely in some of those cases, and when the ONLY dog bite that is reported is the "pit bull attack", you have a clear case of the media choosing to frame an issue a certain way. And when it comes to "dangerous dogs", the media has primed its audience to associate "pit bull" with "dangerous" and then frames the issue of dangerous dogs as a breed issue.

And this isn't just true in Victorville and Lorain. Look at any major city - many of them will have news stories where they happily flaunt dog bite statistics, sometimes even with details on severity. Then go through their archives. See if you can find out about the Labrador Retriever who broke a kid's hand or the Beagle who bit out an eye. You might find them if the Lab is owned by the Chief of Police wanting to ban pit bulls or the Beagle was adopted out three times by a local shelter. Most likely, though, you won't hear about either. Instead you'll hear about the pit bull who was allowed near a baby. Seriously, the subheading reads "Couple in Pawtucket had dog near baby". Or maybe you'll play musical news titles, like in this story where a dog goes from mastiff mix to st. bernard mix to pit bull in three seconds flat. Or maybe you'll read how a pit bull scratching a child turns into a full blown attack.

You can even do a side-by-side comparison of dog attack titles and stories, like in this case where a husky attack is compared to a pit bull attack. The result? All the news titles for the husky title omit the breed. Only one omits the breed in the pit bull case. They're both similar stories of loose dogs attacking a child with the sibling then bravely stepping in to interfere...yet one warrants mention of breed, one doesn't.

I can't make this stuff up. Time and time again, the editors of newspapers and tv news outlets make choices in what they report and how it will be portrayed. Anyone who thinks the media is blameless in the furor over pit bulls is living in a glass bubble on Saturn's moon, Titan. And while I'm fine with fairness in reporting (ha), it seems disengenuous to argue such a thing when you report a pit bull pinning a dog to the ground (seriously) but won't report any other dog bite.

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