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The Manipulative Effect of Framed Political News

The process of framing consists of “highlighting certain aspects of an event or policy” (Gross, 2008, p. 170). The sociologist, cultural theorist, and political activist Hall (1980) explained that events have to be turned into stories to be told and explained. With this in mind, in the profession of journalism, every piece of news needs to be framed in order to be told and explained in an efficient way to the audience. However, today's news events are often extremely framed (Igartua, 2011). This is particularly problematic in the political context. One example can be the news reports about the protest of the 9th October 2021 in Roma, Italy, against national covid restrictions (Monaco, 2021). Despite sixty thousand people gathered to sit in, the main news programs concentrated on the fact that twelve people with fascist ideologies got arrested because they behaved and acted violently (De Luca, 2021a). The choice of the media to exclusively focus on this violent event made many people associate anti-covid restrictions protests with fascism (De Luca, 2021b). This example shows how sometimes news media’s frame on political issues is more problematic than useful because it affects public opinion on important societal issues so strongly that it becomes a method of manipulation.

Igartua (2011), professor of media psychology at the University of Salamanca, explains in his research that people decide whether a new product is interesting or not based on marginal elements that are of secondary importance to the central topic; therefore, the way in which a story is framed and told strongly affects the audience's perception of the topic. The professor explains that one of the causes for this is that very often news reception happens in a situation of low motivation (Igartua, 2011). This means that often information is processed automatically and superficially. A similar point is also supported by Gross (2008), a media and public affairs professor. In the study she carried out, the audience has been proven to develop different opinions based on whether the news event was told including either a black or white woman (Gross, 2008). The study concerned a news article about a woman being sentenced because she helped her boyfriend deal drugs. Gross (2008) demonstrates that when the woman in the story was white the readers felt anger toward her. Differently, the readers' emotional reaction included disgust when the woman was described as being black (Gross, 2008). Some studies have also proven that the strong effects of framing techniques get reduced by people's beliefs or knowledge on the topic, and their preference for a specific political party (Shen, 2004; Kinder & Sanders, 1990). Nevertheless, all these studies confirm the very strong power that small details can have on the development of the audience's opinion if they are included or excluded from a story. This does not apply only to news storytelling, but also to visual proofs such as photographs. In 2018, Prince William was photographed on the day the Royal Family presented their third child to the world (Mckay, 2018). Tabloids published a picture where it looked like he was showing his middle finger to the public. Other pictures taken at the same moment showed that it was just a matter of point of view because Prince William was actually showing three fingers to address his third child [Figure 1].

Figure 1: Kate Middleton and Prince William presented the third royal baby to the world. (Mckay, 2018)

In addition to Gross (2008), Nabi (2007), a professor specializing in mass media effects and health communication, studied the power of framing in producing cognitive responses and different emotional reactions. The professors explain that this aspect makes framing even more problematic because emotions play an essential role in affecting our behaviour and opinions (Nabi, 2007; Gross, 2008). Brader (2005), who is a professor in the department of political science at the University of Michigan, explains in his article that emotions have the power to promote needed behavioural responses. For this reason, politicians in election campaigns always appeal to emotions, whether they are positive or negative (Brader, 2005). This is because different emotions like empathy and anger have been proven to have strong mobilizational effects, while enthusiasm solidifies already existing preferences (Pfattheicher et al. 2020; Nabi 2007; Brader 2005). This is worrying because it demonstrates that by evoking certain emotions people can be manipulated easily to take a specific political side (Brader, 2005). As a result, as Brader (2005) explains with his example of election campaigns, the constant use of frames and its consequent manipulation of emotions could jeopardize the conscience vote of citizens. In the case of the protest on the 9th of October 2021 in Roma, the media’s framing choices to focus on the actions of some aggressive people spread misunderstanding and created polarization on the covid restrictions topic amongst citizens (De Luca, 2021b) [Figure 2]. In this way, framing becomes a way to manipulate people's opinions rather than being a tool to explain complex issues.

Figure 2: Protest against Covid restrictions in Piazza del Popolo, Roma. (Ansa, 2021)

In one study by Pantti (2010), a specialist in media and communication studies, the journalists who participated in the research did not see how the management of emotions through framing is a problem. The researcher argues that emotions are a useful tool to reveal reality and to ease the understanding of news (Pantti et al., 2010). As a matter of fact, emotions are always involved in political news reports, not only because they motivate the participation of citizens in public life, but also because they simplify the understanding of complex political issues (Pantti et al., 2010). However, when the emotions evoked are not spontaneous but planned and designed to obtain a determined mobilization, they do not help people to understand the reality around them; they help them understand what media, or a political party in the case of an election campaign, want them to perceive (Brader, 2005) [Figure 3]. Consequently, in order to fulfil their role as impartial representatives of the public, journalists should try to avoid manipulation of emotions and not deprive people of their right to develop their own political opinion without media interference.

Figure 3: Media Control. (Garzon, n.d.)

Despite the many factors that shape people's opinions and thoughts in addition to media, framing political issues is problematic because it manipulates public opinion and does not orientate citizens towards a better understanding of the topics (Brader 2005). The extreme influence of framing is also provided by the fact that people receive news in an automatic way (Igartua, 2011). This process is problematic because it evokes pre-established emotions in the audience that are very powerful and shape behaviours and opinions (Brader 2005). As a consequence, through framing and the manipulation of emotions media do not respect the right of citizens to receive unbiased and objective information to develop their knowledge (Brader 2005).

Bibliographical References

Brader, T. (2005). Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motivate and Persuade Voters by Appealing to Emotions. American Journal of Political Science, 49(2), 388–405.

De Luca, R. (2021a, August 30). In tutta Italia continuano le manifestazioni contro il Green Pass. L’INDIPENDENTE.

De Luca, R. (2021b, September 2). Dalla derisione alla criminalizzazione: Come i media distorcono il movimento No Green Pass. L’INDIPENDENTE.

Gross, K. (2008). Framing Persuasive Appeals: Episodic and Thematic Framing, Emotional Response, and Policy Opinion. Political Psychology, 29(2), 169–192.

Hall, S. “Encoding/Decoding.” In: Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-1979. London: Routledge, 1980: pp. 117-127.

Igartua, J. J., Moral, F. y Fernández, I. (2011). Cognitive, attitudinal and emotional effects of the news frame and group cues on processing news about immigration. Journal of Media Psychology, 23(4), 174-185.

Kinder, D. R., & Sanders, L. M. (1990). Mimicking political debate with survey questions: the case of white opinion on affirmative action for blacks. Social Cognition, 8, 73–103.

Monaco, L. (2021, October 9). Manifestazione no Green Pass, protestano in 10 mila. Scontri e cariche contro la polizia. Forza Nuova: ‘Stasera ci prendiamo Roma’. la Repubblica.

Nabi, R. L. (2007). Emotion and persuasion: A social-cognitive perspective. In D. R. Roskos Ewoldsen & J. L. Monahan (Eds.), Communication and social cognition. Theories and methods (pp. 377-398). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pantti, M. (2010). The value of emotion: An examination of television journalists’ notions on emotionality. European Journal of Communication, 25(2), 168-181.

Pfattheicher, S., Nockur, L., Böhm, R., Sassenrath, C., & Petersen, M. B. (2020). The Emotional Path to Action: Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Psychological Science, 31(11), 1363–1373.

Shen, F. (2004). Effects of news frames and schemas on individual’s issue interpretations and attitudes. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 81(2), 400–416.

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Lucia Cisterni

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