Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Journalists should know their frames

By Edgar Simpson
As many others have said, words matter. The readings for this week all deal with how reporters and editors frame their stories through the use of words and pictures to label people.

As Walter Lippmann pointed out more than 100 years ago, meaning is determined through the “pictures in our heads.” Words evoke images that then become part of the stereotypes we use to make sense of the world.

This is a natural process, neither inherently evil nor inherently good. When we see a building filled with books, we may assume it to be a library, though our lived experience may well inform us that the building is actually a warehouse, recycling center or used book store.

The problem isn’t stereotypes as a sense-making system, but rather what stereotypes are deployed. Life magazine, for instance, though known for its dramatic Civil Rights coverage also perpetuated negative African-American stereotypes by showing photos in the 1950s of Southern African-Americans eating watermelon and picking cotton, despite the fact the vast majority of blacks were employed in urban settings far removed from antebellum sharecropping and plantations.

Journalists do have a responsibility to understand the words and images they use to tell a story. The case of illegal immigration, as spelled out in the American Journalism Review article, is more difficult than the issue of portraying poverty. Poor can be empirically defined, at least as far as government assistance and other programs are concerned. The facts are readily available on demographics, income, etc., and journalists have a responsibility to find and accurately reflect those facts.

In the case of the framing of illegal immigrants, the issue is more textured. “Undocumented” implies the absence of paperwork that, if present, would satisfy some legal requirement. This clearly is not the case for many people. Yet, “illegal immigrant” implies a certain guilt, regardless of particular circumstance and fact. The resolution, which is not easy, is for journalists to pause long enough to find out the situations involving individuals and then to accurately reflect those.

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