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Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy

Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy

by Robert M. Entman

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To succeed in foreign policy, U.S. presidents have to sell their versions or framings of political events to the news media and to the public. But since the end of the Cold War, journalists have increasingly resisted presidential views, even offering their own spin on events. What, then, determines whether the media will accept or reject the White House perspective?


To succeed in foreign policy, U.S. presidents have to sell their versions or framings of political events to the news media and to the public. But since the end of the Cold War, journalists have increasingly resisted presidential views, even offering their own spin on events. What, then, determines whether the media will accept or reject the White House perspective? And what consequences does this new media environment have for policymaking and public opinion?

To answer these questions, Robert M. Entman develops a powerful new model of how media framing works—a model that allows him to explain why the media cheered American victories over small-time dictators in Grenada and Panama but barely noticed the success of far more difficult missions in Haiti and Kosovo. Discussing the practical implications of his model, Entman also suggests ways to more effectively encourage the exchange of ideas between the government and the media and between the media and the public. His book will be an essential guide for political scientists, students of the media, and anyone interested in the increasingly influential role of the media in foreign policy.

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University of Chicago Press
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Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion
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Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy

By Robert M. Entman

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 Robert M. Entman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226210723



On the morning after the terrorist assaults of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke. "The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war," he said. "This will require our country to unite in steadfast determination and resolve.. . . This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail." In these remarks and many others, Bush defined a problem in simple and emotional terms as an act of war and identified its clear cause as an enemy that was evil. Bush and other officials used these same words many times after 9/11; he invoked evil five times and war twelve times in his 2002 State of the Union speech.

Repeating these terms helped frame September 11th to "unite" the country behind the Bush administration's interpretation and response to the attacks and to exclude other understandings. By conveying an unambiguous and emotionally compelling frame, Bush promoted assent from Congress and the media-and overwhelming public approval. Calling the post-9/11 policy a "war" on terrorism was a contestable but effective political choice. Among other things, President Bush did not do what presidents normally do when the country goes to war: for instance, call for sacrifices from the civilian population, propose tax increases to cover new expenditures, or bolster the Veterans Administration. Indeed he did the very opposite, urging Americans to consume more, asking Congress to cut taxes and VA services. In essence Bush's framing strategy, if successful, would yield the best of both political worlds: the advantage of the heightened deference that accrues to presidents in wartime without the drawback of forcing alteration in the administration's domestic agendas or imposing unpopular costs on the average American.

The success of the White House approach is evident in the comments of CBS news anchor Dan Rather, a week after the attacks: "George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where." The seventy-year-old Rather even said he would willingly don a uniform-and presumably engage in combat himself. His remarks embody the patriotic fervor that swept through the media in the wake of the terrorist attacks as framed by Bush's fiery rhetoric. Whatever his feelings, Rather would have been unlikely to align himself so unabashedly with a president's policy in normal times.

The media are not always as cooperative with the White House as Dan Rather and others were in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. Scholars have devoted a significant amount of attention to the connection between what the media report and what government wants them to report. Ideally, a free press balances official views with a more impartial perspective that allows the public to deliberate independently on the government's decisions. But in practice, the relationship between governing elites and news organizations is less distant and more cooperative than the ideal envisions, especially in foreign affairs. The question is really one of degree: just how close is the association? Does it become cozier in some conditions than in others? How exactly is this connection reflected in the news? And what are the effects on foreign policy and democratic accountability? These are the subjects of this book.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, may have "changed everything," as a cliche of the time had it, but at least on first impression, one thing it did not change was the news media's traditional promotion of patriotic rallies around presidents when America appears under attack. Reflecting the surge of outrage and nationalistic fervor, the news made little room for any but official, government-sanctioned interpretations. Even the mildest dissent was immediately condemned. It would be unrealistic to expect much else in light of the stunning, unprecedented, and heinous nature of the violence. But other aspects of the coverage are noteworthy for those interested in how the media's role may have changed since the Soviet Union crumbled and collapsed and the Cold War ended. For within just a few weeks of September 11, once the emotional reaction had receded a bit and discussion of exactly what to do became the order of the day, journalistic deference to the White House began ever so slightly to recede. Not that dissent achieved anything like the visibility and memorability of the patriotic rhetoric and symbols pervading both news and popular culture. Still, even the overwhelmingly popular war on the Taliban government of Afghanistan did not escape critical appraisal in the media, and, more tellingly, after the Taliban fell, the president's attempt to shift the focus of American military power to Iraq met significant resistance.

Had the "war on terrorism" provided as unifying a framework as the Cold War mindset once did, particularly in its earliest years-had news organizations lapped up the White House line as fervently as their predecessors during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s-America might well have been waging unilateral war against Saddam Hussein by autumn 2002, and with massive public support. Instead, by that time, President Bush's attempt to weave a seamless connection between Osama bin Laden, the new demon, and the familiar villainy of Saddam Hussein had run into objections and questions from leaders across the political spectrum; dissenters included prominent Republicans, Democrats, reporters, and editorial writers. The resistance in the summer of 2002 forced Bush to change course. He rejected calls from administration hawks to wage war unilaterally and quickly, and instead sought approval from the Congress and the United Nations. The point is not that the media alone compelled the president to adjust his stance-media choices are rarely if ever sufficient in themselves to alter public policy. Top public officials inside and outside the administration exert more decisive influence over the president. But that influence is conditioned in part by how fully the media cooperate with the administration, as against its opponents. Arguably, had the major news organizations ignored or trivialized the opposition to immediate war against Iraq, the political environment might have remained sufficiently acquiescent for Bush to pursue the original plans. Republican hawks lent credence to this analysis: they charged that leading media had deliberately played up the internal GOP dissent to advance their own liberal, dovish agenda. Whatever the merit of that specific charge, this book seeks to demonstrate that the media are now indeed forces presidents must reckon with, even in foreign policy, even when proposing military operations that, like Afghanistan and Iraq, turn out to yield predictable and popular early success.

The public naturally desired protection against a terrifying global conspiracy whose shadowy agents, having established a strong presence in the United States, posed a direct, palpable threat to security on American soil far outweighing any domestic danger ever posed by the "international communist conspiracy." If Edelman was right to argue that the public turns to presidents for symbolic reassurance in the face of catastrophic threat, then the media's failure to provide unalloyed support for the leader in this time suggests something new. Whatever else the events of September 11th may have transformed, however, it was not the catalyst for this particular development on the part of the media, which had been in transition for some time, arguably ever since the disastrous U.S. involvement in Vietnam. That national tragedy undermined Americans' sense of their nation as invincible and righteous, and spawned a degree of uncertainty and conflict among leaders that has persisted since the fading of the Cold War. What September 11th did accomplish was to highlight the uncertainties, and to reveal that despite America's status as the sole superpower, it is not invulnerable. Understanding the nature, evolution, and extent of the new, less dependably deferential role for media in the context of this new, still-evolving international system is the central purpose of this book.

Hegemony and Indexing

Political communication scholars have developed two major approaches to understanding the government-media nexus in foreign policy: hegemony and indexing. Both perceive the media as too subservient to government, and both endorse more democracy in foreign policy. Hegemony theorists believe that government officials keep the information available to the public within such narrow ideological boundaries that democratic deliberation and influence are all but impossible. Although these scholars acknowledge that leaders sometimes conflict with each other, they stress elites' agreement on first principles, a harmony that impedes the flow of independent information and consistently (although not inevitably) produces progovernment propaganda-and public consent or acquiescence to White House decisions.

In contrast, the indexing approach makes elite disagreement its centerpiece. It argues that the media "index" or reflect elite debate rather closely. If sufficiently vigorous disputes over the White House line erupt inside the foreign policy establishment, critical views appear in the news. In perhaps the most thorough exposition of indexing, Mermin summarizes its basic conclusion: "[T]he press . . . does not offer critical analysis of White House policy decisions unless actors inside the government (most often in Congress) have done so first. This means the media act, for the most part, as a vehicle for government officials to criticize each other." Thus, the media make "no independent contribution (except at the margins) to foreign policy debate." Contrary to the hegemony view, indexing theorists believe that when elites disagree about foreign policy, media reflect the discord in ways that may affect foreign policy, and that means their role, though still limited, transcends mere transmission of propaganda.

Although offering many insights, the hegemony and indexing models- based largely on events during the Cold War-do not fit with some of the findings discussed in this book. Not surprisingly, the models cannot fully account for changes in international politics and media behavior since the Soviet Union began withering away. It seems time, then, for a new model.

Framing and the Cascade Model

The White House, its supporters, and its critics peddle their messages to the press in hopes of gaining political leverage. The media's political influence arises from how they respond-from their ability to frame the news in ways that favor one side over another. In fact, I argue, that influence has been growing since before the certitudes of the Cold War began to fade. Under the pressure of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements and the Watergate scandals, government and governing processes opened up. Openness lent urgency to contests over the public framing of issues, clashes in which the president, though always the one to beat, is no sure winner. This book advances a model of cascading activation as a way to explain who wins. The model highlights what the hegemony model neglects: that the collapse of the Cold War consensus has meant differences among elites are no longer the exception but the rule. Patriotic deference to the president does not come automatically or last indefinitely, and hegemonic control is a tenuous feature of some but not all foreign policy news. And although indexing convincingly emphasizes elite opposition as a vital determinant of whether the news will deviate from the White House line, it does not explain fully why leaders sometimes contest the president's frame and other times keep quiet, or just how much elite dissent will arise, or what it will focus on. Nor do previous models delineate comprehensively the public's role in the larger system of communication linking presidents, elites outside the administration (including foreign leaders), journalists, news texts, and citizens. Building particularly on the work of Hallin, Bennett, and Mermin, this book offers some initial answers in the form of the cascading activation model.

Understanding Frames

The first step in building the cascade model is to develop a clearer conceptual grasp of framing. Although this concept has become more of a unifying thread in political communication research, it has been vulnerable to criticism as an imprecise catch all that means slightly different things to each researcher employing it. A review and synthesis of the research literature yields the following stab at a standard definition of framing: selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/ or solution.

This study explores two classes of framing, substantive and procedural. Substantive frames perform at least two of the following basic functions in covering political events, issues, and actors:

o Defining effects or conditions as problematic

o Identifying causes

o Conveying a moral judgment

o Endorsing remedies or improvements

For September 11th, the problematic effect was of course thousands of civilian deaths from an act of war against America; the cause, the Taliban government of Afghanistan, its de facto leaders, Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden, and the latter's al-Qaeda terrorist network; the moral judgment, condemnation of these agents as evil; and the initial remedy, war against Afghanistan. All four of these framing functions hold together in a kind of cultural logic, each helping to sustain the others with the connections among them cemented more by custom and convention than by the principles of syllogistic logic. In this book I emphasize the two most important framing functions: problem definition, which often virtually predetermines the rest of the frame, and remedy, because it directly promotes support (or opposition) to public policy.

Procedural frames have a narrower focus and function. Procedural framing suggests evaluations of political actors' legitimacy, based on their technique, success, and representativeness. Scholars of domestic politics have frequently observed that procedural-or "game" or "horserace"-framing occupies much of the news. The same holds for foreign news. As we will see in later chapters, procedural framing does little to motivate or equip the public to engage in political deliberation, although it can have other important political effects. The remainder of this chapter focuses on substantive framing.

The words and images that make up the frame can be distinguished from the rest of the news by their capacity to stimulate support or opposition to the sides in a political conflict. We can measure this capacity by cultural resonance and magnitude. Those frames that employ more culturally resonant terms have the greatest potential for influence. They use words and images highly salient in the culture, which is to say noticeable, understandable, memorable, and emotionally charged. Magnitude taps the prominence and repetition of the framing words and images. The more resonance and magnitude, the more likely the framing is to evoke similar thoughts and feelings in large portions of the audience. However, some highly resonant words or images may not need much repetition-say, airliners flying into the World Trade Center on September 11th. Their meaning was almost certainly understood and indelibly engraved into memory with one or two viewings.

Knowledge Networks And Spreading Activation

Scholars have used the term "frame" interchangeably with such closely related concepts as schemas, heuristics, and scripts. To clarify matters, this study applies the term "schemas" to interpretive processes that occur in the human mind, and applies "frames" to texts. Schemas are clusters or nodes of connected ideas and feelings stored in memory. These clusters neighbor each other psychologically and perhaps even physiologically, so are likely to be thought of together.

Kintsch suggests that schemas are connected in knowledge networks. A schema for September 11th might include the World Trade Center, airplane hijackers, Osama bin Laden, the New York fire department, and New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani (among others). A partial diagram of this event schema, occupying a small portion of a person's knowledge net, might look like figure 1.1. Each idea would have or quickly develop an emotional association-presumably, for Americans, positive feelings about the World Trade Center, the fire department, and Guiliani, but negative feelings toward the hijackers and Osama bin Laden. The new September 11th schema draws on the news coverage of the events of that day and on the existing knowledge network (for example, ideas about the Republican Party and foreigners) as well. Once the new schema is stored in long-term memory, all succeeding information about anyone of these ideas has the potential to bring to mind (online, into working memory) associated feelings and concepts from the knowledge network.

Lodge and Stroh observe that this process of bringing thoughts and feelings to mind works "through the mechanism of spreading activation." The idea of spreading activation plays a central part in the cascade model. Thus a new report showing a picture of Osama bin Laden will likely reactivate the audience's negative feelings and bring to mind conscious or unconscious memories of the burning World Trade Center, the heroes of the fire department, and so forth. The theory of spreading activation underlines the importance of the order in which information is presented. Early stimuli arising from new events and issues generally have primacy, since activation spreads out from the initial idea. There is thus a very practical reason for political leaders to worry, as did President Bush after September 11th, about imposing their own frames on an event from the start. A dominant frame in the earliest news coverage of an event can activate and spread congruent thoughts and feelings in individuals' knowledge networks, building a new event schema that guides responses to all future reports. First impressions maybe difficult to dislodge.

This discussion does not pretend to capture the eternal and fixed essence of political framing but is instead itself a heuristic, a shortcut guide to dealing with what might otherwise be the unmanageable complexity of news texts. The concepts and terminology proposed here constitute one attempt to reduce confusion and imprecision in the scholarly literature about the nature and functions of framing. It is not the only way to, as it were, frame framing. The appendix to this chapter provides further conceptual discussion of framing and schemas, with examples from the events of September 11, 2001.


Excerpted from Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy by Robert M. Entman Copyright © 2004 by Robert M. Entman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Robert M. Entman is a professor of communication and political science at North Carolina State University. He is coauthor of The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America, published by the University of Chicago Press and winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize and other awards.

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