How the Media Frames Political Issues

By Scott London

This review essay looks at how the media — particularly television news — shapes political attitudes and behavior. It examines the difference between "episodic" and "thematic" frames, the media's role as political "agenda-setter," the question of "establishment bias," the so-called objectivity ethic, the public's waning confidence in the press, the political consequences of news, and a handful of other questions that all of us — professional journalists and news consumers alike — need to think about and come to terms with in our increasingly news-obsessed and media-saturated culture. The piece was written in January 1993.

In the ever-expanding body of media effects research, relatively little attention has been paid to how news is framed, and still less has been written on the political consequences of media frames. A frame is the central organizing idea for making sense of relevant events and suggesting what is at issue. News and information has no intrinsic value unless embedded in a meaningful context which organizes and lends it coherence. News stories can be understood as narratives, which include information and factual elements, to be sure, but also carry an implicit message. The medium, in the case of news coverage, is the ultimate message. As James Britton writes:

Experience is kaleidoscopic: the experience of every moment is unique and unrepeatable. Until we can group items in it on the basis of their similarity we can set up no expectations, make no predictions: lacking these we can make nothing of the present moment.

To identify frames, the informational content of news reports is less important than the interpretive commentary that attends it. While this is true of journalism in general, it is especially evident in television news which is replete with metaphors, catchphrases, and other symbolic devices that provide a shorthand way of suggesting the underlying storyline. These devices provide the rhetorical bridge by which discrete bits of information are given a context and relationship to one another.

Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA, has pioneered the research in the framing effects of news coverage on public opinion and political choice. He explains that viewers are "sensitive to contextual cues when they reason about national affairs. Their explanations of issues like terrorism or poverty are critically dependent upon the particular reference points furnished in media presentations."

The frames for a given story are seldom conscientiously chosen but represent instead the effort of the journalist or sponsor to convey a story in a direct and meaningful way. As such, news frames are frequently drawn from, and reflective of, shared cultural narratives and myths and resonate with the larger social themes to which journalists tend to be acutely sensitive.


In his book Is Anyone Responsible?, Shanto Iyengar evaluates the framing effects of television news on political issues. Through a series of laboratory experiments (reports of which constitute the core of the book), he finds that the framing of issues by television news shapes the way the public understands the causes of and the solutions to central political problems.

Since electoral accountability is the foundation of representative democracy, the public must be able to establish who is responsible for social problems, Iyengar argues. Yet the news media systematically filter the issues and deflect blame from the establishment by framing the news as "only a passing parade of specific events, a 'context of no context.'"

Television news is routinely reported in the form of specific events or particular cases — Iyengar calls this "episodic" news framing — as distinct from "thematic" coverage which places political issues and events in some general context. "Episodic framing," he says, "depicts concrete events that illustrate issues, while thematic framing presents collective or general evidence." Iyengar found that subjects shown episodic reports were less likely to consider society responsible for the event, and subjects shown thematic reports were less likely to consider individuals responsible. In one of the clearest demonstrations of this phenomenon, subjects who viewed stories about poverty that featured homeless or unemployed people (episodic framing) were much more likely to blame poverty on individual failings, such as laziness or low education, than were those who instead watched stories about high national rates of unemployment or poverty (thematic framing). Viewers of the thematic frames were more likely to attribute the causes and solutions to governmental policies and other factors beyond the victim's control.

The preponderance of episodic frames in television news coverage provides a distorted portrayal of "recurring issues as unrelated events," according to Iyengar. This "prevents the public from cumulating the evidence toward any logical, ultimate consequence." Moreover, the practice simplifies "complex issues to the level of anecdotal evidence" and "encourages reasoning by resemblance — people settle upon causes and treatments that 'fit' the observed problems."

These assertions present a veritable challenge to standard journalistic procedure. Since the early part of this century when the ethic of objectivity began to dominate news reportage, journalists have used the individual frame to dramatize a story. The general presumption was that personalized news stories were not only more accessible and "newsworthy" but that this form of "muckraking" spurred governmental and social service agencies to action by arousing public support on behalf of the disadvantaged. Yet Iyengar suggests that the opposite is in fact the case. He adds, however, that the effects of his experiments tend to vary widely, depending on the subject matter of the news.


Shanto Iyengar looks at why we think what we do about politics in Is Anyone Responsible? But the theories and premises of his research are derived in large part from his 1987 book News That Matters (co-authored with Donald Kinder). In the book, he examines how we think about politics, suggesting that television determines what we believe to be important issues largely by paying attention to some problems and ignoring or paying minimal attention to others. "Our evidence implies an American public with a limited memory for last month's news and a recurrent vulnerability to today's," Iyengar and Kinder write. "When television news focuses on a problem, the public's priorities are altered, and altered again as television news moves on to something new."

The idea of the media as agenda-setter was hardly new. In the late 1960s, Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw began studying the agenda-setting capacity of the news media in American presidential elections. They were especially interested in the question of information transmission — what people actually learn from news stories, rather than attitudinal changes, the subject of earlier research. Their research precipitated a stream of empirical studies that underscored the media's critical role as vehicles of political information.

In their 1977 book, The Emergence of American Political Issues, McCombs and Shaw argued that the most important effect of the mass media was "its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us." The news media "may not be successful in telling us what to think," the authors declared, "but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about."

McCombs and Shaw also note that the media's tendency to structure voters' perceptions of political reality in effect constitutes a bias: "to a considerable degree the art of politics in a democracy is the art of determining which issue dimensions are of major interest to the public or can be made salient in order to win public support."

The presidential observer Theodore White arrived at the same conclusion in his landmark book, The Making of a President: "The power of the press in America is a primordial one. It sets the agenda of public discussion; and this sweeping political power is unrestrained by any law. It determines what people will talk and think about — an authority that in other nations is reserved for tyrants, priests, parties and mandarins."


Iyengar's contention that the media, through episodic news framing, deflect accountability from elected officials, and that their coverage in fact propagates the status quo is widely substantiated by other scholars.

In an insightful piece in the May/June 1991 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, James Boylan reflects on "voter alienation and the challenge it poses to the press." He writes that "information, the raw material of news, usually turns out to be the peculiar property of those in power and their attendant experts and publicists." The conclusion he draws from this is that "political reporting, like other reporting, is defined largely by its sources."

President Johnson once quipped that "Reporters are puppets. They simply respond to the pull of the most powerful strings." The point echoes Walter Lippmann's classic analysis of the press, Public Opinion, in which he raised difficult questions about adequacy and the purity of media information. If the information we are getting is tainted, he asked, are we capable of performing our duty as democratic citizens?

The press ... is too frail to carry the whole burden of popular sovereignty, to supply spontaneously the truth which democrats hoped was inborn. And when we expect it to supply such a body of truth we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news.

In their oft-quoted book Media Power Politcs (1981), David Paletz and Robert Entman argue that "by granting elites substantial control over the content, emphases, and flow of public opinion, media practices diminish the public's power." What this means, they concluded, was that "the mass media are often the unwitting handmaidens of the powerful."

This same conclusion is drawn by New York University's Robert Karl Manoff in the March/April 1987 issue of Center Magazine. He maintains that one of the major problems of today's journalism is that the press is allied with the state. "The press," he writes, "is actually a handmaiden of power and American politics." It reports governmental conflict only when conflict exists within the state itself. Journalists and officials share a "managerial ethos" in which both agree that national security, for instance, is best handled without the public's knowledge.

Arthur J. Heise, associate professor at Florida International University in Miami, sees the role of the media as a "public management function," one he sees as essential to a healthy democracy. The erosion of public confidence in government can be at least partially attributed to the media's failure "in its role as a free and independent press . . . to live up to its constitutional responsibilities. Many in the news media could agree, at least in large measure, that they are not covering the affairs of the state as fully, as penetratingly and as aggressively as they might."

The problem may have less to do with the type or the quantity of coverage than with the fact that most of the time most of the media rely on information not ferreted out by investigative reporters but provided by government. This reliance on officially-provided information is such that journalists as prominent as Tom Wicker of the New York Times have described it as the "biggest weakness" of the American press"

In a provocative article titled "All the Congressmen's Men," the late Walter Karp, author of Liberty Under Siege: American Politics, 1976-1988, observed that "the press does not act, it is acted upon.... So passive is the press that even seemingly bold 'adversarial' stories often have the sanction of the highest officials." He quotes from a wealth of sources and presents ample evidence suggesting that the vaunted power of the press is no more than a "shabby fiction," and the political powers have in effect subjugated and distorted the media. "Our public realm lies steeped in twilight," he charges, "and we call that twilight news."

Karp, Heise, and Iyengar and Kinder all cite a landmark study conducted by media critic Leon V. Sigal who analyzed nearly 3,000 news stories that appeared in New York Times and Washington Post between 1949 and 1969. He found that nearly four out of five of the stories involved official sources.

The significance of media sources becomes immediately apparent in the context of media framing. As Iyengar writes in the September 1987 issue of American Political Science Review, "the invoking of different reference points triggers completely different strategies of choice or judgment."

Choices between risky prospects can be profoundly altered merely by altering the description of the alternatives. Framing the prospects in terms of possible losses, for example, induces risk-seeking behavior while describing the identical prospects in terms of potential gains makes people risk averse.


Objectivity has been the ruling principle in American journalism for the better part of the 20th century. The ethic emerged as a reaction to the sensationalism that pervaded the news industry a century ago. The objectivity standard called for more discipline on the part of reporters and editors because it required that each item be attributed to some authority or credible source. Objectivity increased the quantity of literal facts in the news, and it did much to strengthen the growing sense of discipline and ethics in journalism. (The ethic of objectivity is not to be mistaken for the "fairness" doctrine, however, which demands the presentation of opposing and/or balanced viewpoints.)

Yet a growing number of pieces have been written in recent years suggesting that the ideal of objectivity has, in the words of Ben Bagdikian, "exacted a high cost from journalism and from public policy." Social historian Michael Schudson points out that objectivity became a standard in journalism "precisely when the impossibility of overcoming subjectivity in presenting the news was widely accepted and ... precisely because subjectivity had come to be regarded as inevitable."

In a persuasive 1984 essay in The Quill, Theodore Glasser, professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, made the point that "objectivity precludes responsibility."

First ... objectivity in journalism is biased in favor of the status quo; it is inherently conservative to the extent that it encourages reporters to rely on what sociologist Alvin Gouldner so appropriately describes as the "managers of the status quo" — the prominent and the elite. Second, objective reporting is biased against independent thinking; it emasculates the intellect by treating it as a disinterested spectator. Finally, objective reporting is biased against the very idea of responsibility; the day's news is viewed as something journalists are compelled to report, not something they are responsible for creating. . . . What objectivity has brought about, in short, is a disregard for the consequences of newsmaking.


The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University recently published a report titled "Restoring the Bond: Connecting Campaign Coverage to Voters." One of the lessons learned from the 1988 presidential campaign, the report finds, is that journalists have contributed to the alienation and anger among voters. "If a single overriding theme emerges from this work, it is a concern that campaigns have become distant from the concerns of voters, that a 'disconnect' has developed between the electorate and their prospective leaders — and that journalism, rather than bridging the gap, has helped create and sustain it."

The Center's report also criticized the prevailing "insider" approach to campaign coverage; the media's focus on political strategy and advertising over substance; and the tendency for the production demands of television to determine the way candidates and issues are presented and discussed during presidential campaigns. "In practice," the report concludes, "this means that the public is losing its grip on the democratic process."

According to the arguments set forth by Shanto Iyengar, the breakdown of public confidence in media reportage is a result of the way campaigns are framed. "Nowhere is the debilitating influence of episodic framing on political accountability more apparent than in presidential election campaigns . . . [which] guarantee that coverage of the issues and the candidates' policy proposals will receive minimal attention."

There has been an effort, at least on the part of some journalists, to be more issue-specific during the 1992 campaigns, as witnessed by a wealth of articles and debates about how to improve public discourse. Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannet Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, suggests in his book Reshaping the Media that reporting standards are moving toward more analysis and thematic coverage:

There is more context today as we see coverage of national trends. We are also witnessing better efforts to connect fragments of news into patterns of continuity. This is the opposite of what Lord Tennyson described when he warned about "fragments of singular instance." Public affairs reporting in newspapers and in broadcasting is more conscious of time and of protracted governmental decisions. It now traces the long evolutionary flow in the decisions of government that do not often lend themselves to immediacy and the quick news fix, but need continuity and follow-up.


Ultimately, however, there has been very little written about the political consequences of media reporting. The failure to see journalism as a democratic means rather than an end unto itself is perhaps symptomatic of the gulf between the press and the public. Surveying the available research on the political effects of mass media, Paul Burstein at the University of Washington points out that politics is only important insofar as "political actions have important consequences. Sociologists must know this, at some level, but when studying politics they assidiously avoid focusing on consequences."

Politics is routinely taken to mean campaigns, elections, and the affairs of big government. Exceedingly few sources refer to the media's role in facilitating public politics. If democracy requires more of us than the act of casting a vote, the media scarcely reflect that notion. As Christopher Lasch puts it:

What democracy requires is public debate, not information. . . . Unless information is generated by sustained public debate, most of it will be irrelevant at best, misleading and manipulative at worst. . . . Much of the press, in its eagerness to inform the public, has become a conduit for the equivalent of junk mail.

But critics of this claim, such as Paul Light, associate dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, maintain, that it is up to the citizens to determine the agenda.

The problem, of course, is on the consumer side of the ledger. Having more analysis, and the financial protection that might go with it, is hardly useful if voters choose to watch Geraldo, Oprah, Maury, Phil and Sally instead. . . . Much as we focus on the supply side of the equation, the problem with American politics appears to reside on the demand side, whether voters either want the information we elites value or not.

Even when the media does offer substance and analysis, it may still not offer citizens a basis for choice or action. Acting together requires dialogue,and that is something the news media rarely if ever provide or engender. As passive recipients of information, we are simply an audience to what Bill Moyers has called the "monologue of televisual images." In Images of Education, media critic George Kaplan sums up the problem:

Many of today's serious documentaries are thoughtful presentations that leave us informed and healthily curious. They refute the stereotyped contention that television has helped make us a less reflective people with shorter attention spans. As a general proposition, though, they do not impose moral and intellectual choices on us. They usually leave us unmoved and unchallenged.

In sum, journalists may take us seriously as news consumers but generally ignore our wider role as citizens. As a rule, they do not encourage communication, strengthen the public dialogue, or facilitate the formulation of common decisions. In fact, they may do just the opposite by routinely framing news in objective and episodic formats. And "even when the function of journalism is considered to be education," in James Boylan's words, "the public's role is still likely to be conceived as passive."

Works reviewed in this essay:

  • Ben H. Bagdikian. The Media Monopoly. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983)
  • Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy report: "Restoring the Bond: Connecting Campaign Coverage to Voters." November 1989
  • James Boylan. "Where Have all the People Gone?" Columbia Journalism Review, May-June 1991.
  • Everette E. Dennis. Reshaping the Media. (Newbury Park, CA, 1990)
  • Theodore Glasser. "Objectivity Precludes Responsibility." The Quill, Feb. 1984.
  • Shanto Iyengar. Is Anyone Responsible? (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991)
  • Shanto Iyengar. "Television News and Citizens' Explanations of National Issues." American Political Science Review, Sep. 1987.
  • Shanto Iyengar & Donald Kinder. News That Matters. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987)
  • George Kaplan. Images of Education. (NSPRA/IEL, 1992)
  • Walter Karp. "All the Congressmen's Men." Harper's Magazine, Jul. 1989.
  • Christopher Lasch. "Journalism, Publicity and the Lost Art of Argument." Gannet Center Journal, Spring 1990.
  • Maxwell E. McCombs & Donald L. Shaw. The Emergence of American Political Issues: The Agenda-Setting Function of the Press. (West Publishing Co., 1977)
  • David L. Paletz & Robert M. Entman. Media Power Politics. (New York: Free Press, 1981)
  • Michael Schudson. Discovering the News. (New York: Basic Books, 1978)

This literature review was written in 1993 as part of a background study prepared for the Kettering Foundation.