Media Framing And Construction Of Reality Media Essay

Over the twentieth century, the dominant position among scholars was that media and journalism should be governed by the values of detachment and objectivity, and so they could be credible (Schudson, 1990 cited in Watkins, 2001: 83). Nevertheless, this notion has been challenged by the researchers of critical studies of news media who have developed the view that media are not ‘passive mirrors of society’ (Gitlin, 2003: 49), but, on the contrary, they play active and significant role in the social construction of reality (Kruse, 2001: 68). In other words, media do not just report news, but they socially construct them, namely they give a specific meaning to these events (Kruse, 2001: 67-68).

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The theory of social constructionism, which supports that what we know about world and ourselves is the result of social processes (Cromby and Nightingale, 1999: 4 cited in Johnson-Cartee, 2005: 2), has affected media studies to a significant extent. In this context, plenty of scholars (Brodyn and Page, 1975; Kraus and Davis, 1976; McCombs, 1979 cited in Johnson-Cartee, 2005: 2) believe that media ‘provide us with the mosaics from which we build our own perceptions’ and accordingly, they might have significant effects on public and society. According to McQuail (1994), the whole study of mass communication has been founded on the assertion that media have important effects. However, the concept of media effects was not always the same, as there were significant variations from period to period and among different scholars. Additionally, there are studies that did not identify any significant media effect at all (Kingdon, 1984; Pritchard and Berkowitz, 1993; Walker, 1977; Wanta and Foote, 1994 cited in Walgrave et al. 2008: 817).

The social construction of news is achieved through the development and employment of frames (Kruse, 2001: 68). Gamson and Modigliani (1987: 143) have defined the frame as ‘a central theme, an organizing idea or a story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events, weaving a connection between them’. As for the employment of frames by media, Entman (1993: 52) has stated that adopting certain frames means that media select some ‘aspects of perceived reality and make them more salient, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and treatment recommendation for the item described’.

As far as protest coverage is concerned, the literature shows that when media portray demonstrations and other protest events, they indeed employ certain frames (Brasted, 2005). The types of frames that are used and the factors that determine and influence the selection of these frames are described below. As far as the effects of protest coverage are concerned, there are studies that demonstrate that media portrayal of protests has significant effects on audience (McLeod, 1995; McLeod and Detenber, 1999). According to these studies, different frames of protest stories and different levels of intensity with which they are presented are likely to affect how audience perceives protest issues. However, according to Detenber et al (2007), these effects are weaker when media cover more familiar to the audience issues, because of pre-existing knowledge of public. Affecting the perceptions of audience, media coverage of protests may have an influence on the success of the movement itself, as well. For instance, a positive coverage may encourage the involvement of people, while a negative coverage may lead to opposite results and may undermine a social movement (Entman and Rojecki, 1993). However, certain conditions may be required so that media mobilize people. According to Walgrave and Manssens (2000), media are more likely to mobilize public, if they are not polarized and have high rates of trust among the audience. In addition, in cases of simple and non-political causes and goals, media can achieve people’s mobilization (Walgrave and Manssens, 2000).

2.2 Relationship between media and social movements

Over the last decades, significant studies have been conducted on the coverage of protest events by mass media. Based mainly on content or discourse analyses, scholars tried to describe how media portrayed various protest events and explain why specific patterns were used in the coverage. However, the relevant literature is mostly based on USA and UK studies and it is something that we have to take into account as in diverse settings the results may be different. It is important to consider the differences of Greek setting in terms of the media system and the political culture, as well as the particularities of the case that is under examination.

Firstly, in order to approach the issue of protest coverage, it is basic to examine the literature about the relationship between media and social movements, in general. Although the case that is under examination, namely the December 2008 protest events in Greece, cannot be simply included in typical cases of social movements (protests were not organized by specific social movement organizations with clear and specific agenda, like in cases of anti-war or labour protests), the examination of the relevant literature is considered helpful. Baylor (1996) has supported that media and social movements have interdependent relationship. That is to say, on the one hand social movements need media and publicity to communicate their goals, to inform and motivate the public, as well as to gain supporters (Baylor, 1996). On the other hand, media search for copy and they are interested about stories that provide drama, conflict, action, colourful copy and photo opportunities, (Baylor, 1996). Social movements and the actions that they choose to adopt, like demonstrations, provide that kind of stories.

However, it has been supported that this and this relationship can be sometimes symbiotic and other times antagonistic, because media and movements need each other, but for different reasons (Gitlin, 2003). Gitlin’s study (2003) demonstrated that this relationship has undergone many changes. Sometimes, media might ignore a movement or might conflict with it, and other times, they might present it in a patterned way, or even cooperate with it (Gitlin, 2003). Many factors explain why media treat social movements and protest events in a specific way and they are analyzed below.

The interaction between movements and media has also been considered asymmetric, which means that the relationship is not equal and generally, media are much more powerful than movements (Gamson and Wolfsfeld, 1993). For instance, the fact that a demonstration without media coverage is considered non-event, reveals the great power and supremacy of media nowadays (Gamson andWolfsfeld, 1993). Social movements do not have the power to control the media process, so even if they gain media coverage, they do not have much power over how media will represent their agendas (Brasted, 2005). In many cases, media coverage can result in distortion of movement agendas and goals (Baylor, 1996).

Generally, critical media scholars share the view that media tend to marginalize or trivialize critical social movements and suppress critical voices, while social movement organizations do not have the power to ensure useful news access (Gitlin, 2003). This approach to movement-media relationship is highly connected with hegemonic thesis, introduced by Gramsci (1971 cited in Carragee, 1993: 330), according to which dominant classes struggle to preserve their ideological hegemony within the capitalist system and media’s role in the maintenance of legitimacy of existing political, social and economic order is considered of high importance. This thesis has affected media scholars significantly, and until now, there are studies that show that media tend to delegitimize voices that challenge capitalist system and the leadership of dominant groups.

Media hegemonic model has met a lot of criticism. Carragee (1993) tried to evaluate the debates around the media hegemony thesis and gave an overview of the main critiques around the issue. According to him , the basic challenging views of the model can be divided into two categories; according to liberal-pluralist perspective, media hegemony thesis is cancelled by the existence of diverse and opposing discourses in news content; according to neo-conservative approach, the model is questioned by the fact that there are oppositional and critical to political and market order, media. Hallin (1986 and 1984 cited in Carragee, 1993: 341), tried to refute the latter argument, demonstrating that for instance, media coverage of Vietnam War started to become critical, only when political elites in America stopped to indicate their consent.

Finally, as for media-movement relationship, Barker-Plummer (1996) claimed that today this relationship has become much more complex and proposed the dialogic model instead of hegemonic. According to Barker-Plummer (1996), social movements are dynamic and not stable identities and they are characterized by contextual changes that hegemony model does not take into account. Movements and media interact each other and their discourses can affect each other as well (Barker-Plummer, 1996). Therefore, we cannot assure that media will always marginalize social movements.

2.3 Protest coverage

As has already been mentioned, media adopt certain frames, when they report news stories. The selection of specific frames and patterns of coverage is influenced by numerous factors. As far as the protest reporting is concerned, it has been supported that media coverage is subject to selection and description bias (Smith et al., 2001). This means that media do not cover all protests that take place but they select to report some of them, besides they select to describe the selected events in a specific way. According to Smith et al. (2001), media cover only a small proportion of protests. Furthermore, their study demonstrates that even if a protest event receives media attention, media usually neutralize or distort its agenda and goals (Smith, et al. 2001). A plenty of researchers (Shoemaker, 1984; Beamish, Molotch, and Flacks, 1995; Husting, 1999; McLeod and Hertog, 1999) have showed that media commonly choose to cover protests in ways that marginalize the events, their participants and their causes. Particularly in cases in which protesters deviate from the norms and values of society and challenge the status quo, media try to delegitimize them (Shoemaker, 1984; McLeod and Hertog, 1992). There are various devices and techniques that are used for the marginalization of protest events (see below).

In order to understand how media bias affects the selection and portrayal of news stories, and specifically protest stories, we should examine the basic factors that influence media framing. Smith et al. (2001) have emphasized the role of institutional logic of media organizations in adoption of frames. Analytically, the routine nature of newsgathering (namely, whether the events can be integrated into media organizational routines) and the reliance on official sources affect media selection and description of events (Baylor, 1996). The main reason why they use official sources extensively is the fact that these sources provide news stories with credibility and legitimacy, as well enhance the objectivity of news, or at least they create this illusion (McLeod and Hertog, 1999). Also, it has to do with issues of cost as well, because if media rely on sources that are considered credible, they do not need to invest much money for searching information (Herman and Chomsky, 1994). When officials, institutions, government, and other authorities like police are the dominant sources, then official definitions are highlighted (McLeod and Hertog, 1999).

An idea that has influenced significantly the area of news production is the propaganda model, developed by Herman and Chomsky (1994), which has received hostile criticism, though. According to this model (Herman and Chomsky, 1994), the choice and the content of news are affected by a series of filters. Analytically, media ownership and their profit orientation, their close ties with political and economic elites, their dependence on advertising as a basic income source, as well as the heavy reliance of media on official sources influence what and how it will be reported (Herman and Chomsky, 1994). Herman and Chomsky (1994) paid particular attention to the role of money and power in the construction of news. In cases of protest coverage, these filters could play important role. Similarly, Smith et al (2001) have supported that media, as integral part of capitalist system, work in favour of powerful economic and political interests and they select and interpret the events in such a way as to reproduce ideas that support the broader power relationships of society. Accordingly, media are unlikely to cover sympathetically movements and protests that challenge the interests of the elites (Lee and Solomon, 1990). These ideas are highly connected with the hegemonic thesis that was described above.

As far as the debates over Chomsky and Herman’s ideas are concerned, Hallin (1994) has demonstrated that propaganda model contains failures. That is to say, according to him (Hallin, 1994), the model does not take into account other forces that could work in different direction from that of the described filters, for instance journalistic professionalism and objectivity. However, it is important to mention that according to Hallin and Mancini (2004), journalism in Greece is characterized by low levels of professionalization, besides it is common for Greek journalists to express their views and their comments along with the presentation of facts, and so it is difficult to discern their opinions from the facts.

Additionally, propaganda model has been criticized for taking ruling class interests for granted and considering them homogenous (Knight cited in Klaehn, 2003: 363). This means, that media do not take diverse interests and conflicts, which might exist among elites, into consideration. In response to that, Herman and Chomsky (1988) have stated that media present elite controversy and debates, but only when elites disagree on specific tactics and not on fundamental ideas. Based on these ideas, the indication of literature (Boyle et al. 2004) that media are more likely to marginalize deviant protest groups that criticize the foundations of capitalism than groups with less radical goals seems rational. Other scholars have challenged propaganda model, claiming that media are pluralistic (Doyle, Elliot, and Tindall, 1997), while Hacket (1991 cited in Klaehn, 2003: 366) have demonstrated that media, under certain conditions, can express oppositional and different views. For instance, if a view challenges individual state policies and does not suggest significant and wide alternatives, then it can be expressed by the media (Hackett, 1991: 281 cited in Klaehn, 2003: 366). So, Hackett seems to agree with Chomsky and Herman on that media do not express discourses that challenge the fundamental principles of capitalism.

Although Chomsky and Herman’s ideas were an area of great debate among scholars, literature shows that a great number of media scholars share the opinion that media play a central role in the maintenance of social order. McFarlane and Hay (2003) have claimed that media act as gatekeepers and supporter of the existing power structures. According to McLeod and Hertog (1999), media, are important agents of social control and thus, they convey social control messages, through which they reinforce the norms and mainstream values of society while they isolate and damn deviant actions and viewpoints. Various studies (Entman and Rojecki, 1993; Smith et al. 2001) have demonstrated that media tend to marginalize groups, actions, and viewpoints that challenge and criticize the existing power structures and political and social order. As a result, media will ignore or they will unfavourably cover protests with goals and agendas that challenge and criticize the economic system on which media rely heavily, as well as ideas that can destabilize market and capitalist order (Smith et al. 2001).

However, it is important to mention that nowadays there is a significant trend toward rising of protests and generally of unconventional forms of political engagement (Milne, 2005). This trend can be attributed to the fact that more and more citizens are questioning government policies and elites, as well as to the decrease of participation in ordinary forms of politics, like elections (Dalton, 2004) and to the decline of political attachment (Whiteley, 2003). So, it has been supported that protests have partly become an accepted form of political involvement (Milne, 2005). That might have some effects on media coverage of these events. Milne (2005) has supported that sometimes media, and specifically print media (due to fact that they have been facing problems of reduced circulation numbers and facing a strong competition from internet), can have a positive attitude towards these unconventional forms of political involvement. Additionally, according to Milne (2005), newspapers can use social movements and protest events as a tool to undermine some politicians or political parties, and therefore they may cover them positively. For instance, a newspaper, which is affiliated with a party that is in opposition, might support a demonstration that challenges the government and its policies. Consequently, in these cases media seem to be pluralistic and not hegemonic. Yet, it is important to examine whether media cover positively groups that challenge fundamental principles of the capitalist system, or they just question specific policies and tactics. Generally, literature has demonstrated that media have never supported radical protest groups that called into question the capitalism itself.

Finally, it is important to take into account the particularities of Greek media system, because they might influence the way that media cover events like demonstrations. According to Hallin and Mancini (2004), media system in Greece belongs to the Mediterranean or Polarized model. That is to say, it is characterized by high political parallelism and low professionalization (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). Papathanasopoulos (2001) has claimed that despite the commercialization and market-orientation of Greek media, (the majority of media are private-owned, apart from the public broadcaster, ERT), their political instrumentalization is still dominant, that is to say there are outside political actors that control them. However, he has highlighted that nowadays media owners are much more powerful than politicians are, using media as a tool for political profits (Papathanassopoulos, 2001). So, Greek media cannot be considered neutral, but on the contrary, ‘unabashedly partisan, sensational and political’ (Zaharopoulos and Paraschos, 1993: 96).

2.4 Marginalization techniques

As has already been mentioned, in many cases literature shows that media tend to cover negatively and marginalize protest events. The devices and techniques, which are usually employed for that purpose are described analytically below.

Tone of headlines and articles

Firstly, through the tone of headlines and the nature of articles, journalist can express their support or criticism against a protest group (Boyle at al. 2004). A protest story is covered negatively, when headlines pay particular attention to violent actions, to conflicts between protesters and police, as well as to arrests (McLeod and Hertog, 1999). Negative nature of a protest article can be indicated through many ways, for instance by focusing on cases of legal violations by the protest group and by emphasizing negative actions of protesters and more extreme aspects of them (McLeod and Hertog, 1992). According to Husting (1999), media commonly use the ”us versus them” scenario in the coverage of radical protests. In other words, on the one side it is the society, the public opinion, all of us and on the other side the protesters, ”them”.

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Furthermore, according to McLeod and Hertog (1999), journalists tend to use the episodic framing when they cover groups that deviate from the status quo, namely they focus on events and actions of protesters (e.g. violent acts, arrests, destructions) instead of presenting the issues raised by the group, like their agenda and their goals. The use of episodic frames contributes to the marginalization of protests because this way, protesters are performed just as acting and their acts are not linked with any cause, or any political context (Boyle et al. 2004: 49). It is important to mention that there are two important reasons that can explain why media choose that type of coverage. Firstly, because of pressure that deadlines and other limitations of media organization exert, there is not much time for reporters to investigate and analyze complicated issues that have to do with the goals of protesters and it is easier to focus on events (Boyle et al. 2004). Furthermore, protest events and actions are interesting and good news, for instance violent events and property destructions interest journalists significantly (Boyle et al. 2004).

Story framing

Mcleod and Hertog (1999) have identified several types of frames that tend to marginalize protest events and their participants. Firstly, the violent crime story is the most frequent frame and focuses on the violent acts of protesters. Journalists tend to highlight clashes between police and protesters and generally, they focus on the extreme aspects of the protest group; the ignorance of peaceful actions is also common phenomenon (McLeod, 1995). Secondly, the property crime story emphasizes the property destructions, for instances cases of vandalism (burning cars and buildings, breaking shop windows etc.). There is also the Riot frame that is quite similar to the above-mentioned frames and present protests as riots without any political context. An additional frame that marginalizes protests is the carnival frame, which represents protesters as performers within a spectacle who act without any political cause. Furthermore, the freak show frame focuses on appearance and other odd characteristics of protesters, like piercing, nudity etc. By making comments about the appearance, media manage to trivialize the goals and the political framework of protesters (Gitlin, 2003). There is also the Romper Room frame that presents protesters as engaging in immature and childish actions and the moral decay that presents protest events as an indication of the general decay of society. Lastly, the storm watch frame highlights the fact that protest groups may threaten the mainstream society significantly. What is interesting and at the same time contradictory is the fact that on the one hand, media seek to diminish the effectiveness of protest groups, but on the other hand, they exaggerate the threats that these groups may pose to society (McLeod, 1995).

Reliance on official sources

The reliance on official sources in the media coverage of protests contributes to the marginalization and delegitimization of the protest group, because official sources tend to support status quo and question the legitimacy of groups that challenge it (McLeod and Hertog, 1999). Furthermore, when media cover radical protests, they are unlikely to use members of the protest group as sources (Boyle et al, 2004). In this case, they are interested in dealing with actions, violence, and conflicts in order to delegitimate them, while they want to ignore issues raised by protesters (Boyle et al. 2004: 50). However, even if protesters are used as sources, then journalists usually paraphrase and distort their views, in order to delegitimize them (McLeod and Hertog, 1999: 319).

Invocation of public opinion

In cases of protests coverage, media invoke public opinion extensively in order to isolate and marginalize protest groups (McLeod Hertog, 1992). Media depiction of public opinion can take many forms. Journalists can make generalizations by providing general statements about public opinion, and showing that people are against protesters; phrases such as ”the national mood” or ”most people feel”, are common (McLeod and Hertog, 1992; McLeod and Hertog, 1999: 316). Another form of invocation of public opinion, but rarely used, is through opinion polls, (McLeod and Hertog, 1992; McLeod and Hertog, 1999). It has been claimed that if opinion polls demonstrate that the majority of people agree with the goals of protesters, then media may ignore or marginalize them (Entman and Rojecki, 1993).

What’s more, media commonly invoke social norms, in order to show that protest groups and their actions deviate from these norms (McLeod and Hertog, 1992; McLeod and Hertog, 1999). The communication of norm violations is achieved by focusing on violent behaviour of protesters, on their non-conventional or strange appearance etc. (McLeod and Hertog, 1992; McLeod and Hertog, 1999). Media may also focus on legal violations (McLeod and Hertog, 1999). That is to say, legal issues and violations are highlighted, and protesters are represented as criminals. Media can also invoke public opinion by using bystanders who are either indifferent to protests or hostile (McLeod and Hertog, 1999).

The application of the above-mentioned techniques depends mainly on the type and the goals of protests (Boyle et al, 2004). For instance, the extent to which a protest group challenges the status quo and the existing system determines whether and to what degree media will apply the marginalization devices in their coverage (McLeod and Hertog, 1999). It has been claimed that anti-war protests are more likely to receive negative and radical coverage than the labour or police protests, because anti-war protests call into question the social system (Boyle et al. 2004).

Finally, it is important to note an important contradiction. As has been mentioned above, media are based on official sources largely because the credibility and the status of those sources help journalist to be objective. The use of episodic framing can satisfy the same goal. That is to say, media report events and actions that indeed took place, without expressing their views, so they can support that they are objective. But, on the other hand, it has been demonstrated that framing in terms of events as well as adoption of official definitions contribute to the marginalization of protests, which means that finally media are not so objective.


In general, the main arguments about media coverage of protest events are highly connected with the hegemonic thesis that supports that media play an important role in the maintenance of status quo. Although this idea has received a lot of criticism, it has affected media studies to a significant extent. Several studies have demonstrated that media have a tendency to delegitimize and trivialize groups that challenge capitalist system and the leadership of dominant groups. In cases of protest events, literature showed that media tend to ignore them and generally cover a limited number of them, while even if a demonstration gain attention, media choose to describe it in negative way, trying to marginalize it. This is more common in cases of radical protests, namely when they have radical goals and agenda and challenge the foundations of capitalism. The marginalization is achieved with the employment of various devices and specific frames.

Nevertheless, the findings of the specific study demonstrated that, under certain circumstances, media can use a variety of frames and not only the negative ones and generally be more balanced, even if they cover some radical demonstrations. Particularities in terms of the nature of protest events, specific elements of media system, as well as some political circumstances can have significant influence on media portrayal of protests.



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