News and events

Framing the news – the linguistics techniques employed

Dawn Archer was a Professor of Pragmatics and Corpus Linguistics and was also the Research Lead for UCLan Linguistics in School of Languages Literature & International Studies. Dawn is a graduate of Lancaster University where she earned her first degree in History and English Language, her MA in Stylistics, and her PhD in Linguistics. She is currently developing an MSc in Emotion Awareness, and Credibility and Deception detection, which will bring together linguistics and psychology-based research for the first time and see UCLan liaise with external agencies such as the Emotional Intelligence Academy and UK Police Negotiators.


Following, Dawn’s Inaugural Professorial Lecture, which explored some current news stories – some light-hearted, others more serious – and identified the linguistic techniques employed to frame the issues raised. A number of pertinent questions – including whether we’re as free to make up our own minds in regard to these issues as we might believe, or whether our views of the world are – in many ways – subtly shaped by others were also covered. Mike Holmes, Head of Graduate Research School, and Alison Naylor joined Dawn in her office in Harrington Building to find out more.

Dawn Archer

Your inaugural professorial lecture was about “Framing the News”. Can you explain the concept of framing?

I wanted to show how power and talk combine by exploring the linguistic features of how language is used within, for example, the news media: not just to represent something that has happened but also to shape our perceptions in respect to how it might have happened and why. In essence, then, I’m interested in how you can achieve framing linguistically. And using the news as an example of framing shows people how they are being - if we want to be positive - influenced by how a news item is written and - if we want to be more critical - how they are being manipulated into thinking the world operates in a certain way.

So could you give us an example of where something has been ‘framed’ in a newspaper, to give a particular slant?

Consider celebrity coverage. We all tend to pick up on certain things about a celebrity. The question is: are we interested in those things about them and that is why the journalist writes about them in this way, or do we end up thinking about those things because the media has decided to tell us about the celebrities in this particular way? This can be light hearted. But it can have serious consequences too. The coverage of Jade Goody when she was in Celebrity Big Brother, for example, was quite negative; but by the time people realised that she was suffering from cancer most of the coverage became more positive. I’m particularly interested in coverage that changes our perception of a topic (or person), and the potential ethical consequences which arise from the use of framing in this way. A recent serious example is the framing of Jimmy Saville. Even though some people knew about his “darker side”, at the point of his funeral, Saville was framed as a fantastic person who did lots of charitable work.

In stark contrast to this, more recent coverage has framed Saville as a paedophile who preyed upon vulnerable people. In my classes, we look at how framing affects our perceptions of things such as obesity and disability such that we can either be influenced to perceive things in negative ways or to perceive things in positive ways.

So is ‘framing’ the proper name for ‘spin’?

That’s a good question. Spin is part of framing but I don’t think framing is always spin. A good way to understand framing is to think in terms of a picture frame. When mounting a photograph you might decide which bit of the photograph you want to frame and therefore that gets your focus.

The frame structures something for you and gets you to see what the creator wants you to see; it draws your attention. Even a student, thinking about the outline for an assignment, is using framing techniques - to decide what goes in, why it goes in, and how they want to develop a narrative. One part of framing, then, is being strategic with what we include and what we exclude and all of us use that in some capacity or other. Another aspect is when we strategically manipulate people to only see a certain aspect of an issue. We foreground that aspect but background or completely omit other aspects. I think that is spin. So does spin involve framing? Absolutely. But I think that framing is much bigger than spin. And does it also become propaganda? Yes

The extreme end of it?

Absolutely! I’m working with Chris Williams on children’s textbooks. Until recently, we’ve been focussing on Russian textbooks: specifically, we’ve looked at how these history texts are written in a certain way, usually for political purposes, so that they give a particular understanding of how history has unfolded over time. Interestingly, following the breakup of the USSR into a number of independent states, various ethnic groups are re-writing their own history. Some are taking the Putin and Medvedev line that Russia has always been very supportive of its ethnic minorities. Other states are beginning to write different histories. Both are examples of when framing merges into propaganda / using language for ideological ends. When we look at obesity, in class, we ask whether the frames suggest it’s a problem that is down to the individual to solve, or whether it’s framed to suggest that society has a part to play in both the problem and its potential solution(s).

You could look at crime the same way: if we decide to make people into monsters it’s quite easy to think ‘humans can’t do this’, and avoid dealing with the consequences of when some humans treat other humans badly.

If we frame it in a different way and make it a societal problem, we have to think about how we solve the issues this raises. As such, how you choose to frame something is always ideological to a certain degree.

In the training that I do for some of our research students, I give the example of a newspaper headline which reads “Scientists have proven that GM crops are safe for humans” but if you dig down into it, they haven’t proven that at all. What they have done is tested GM crops on a sample of people and shown that GM crops were not harmful to that sample.

I gave a very similar story as the first story in the inaugural lecture. The title claims that “Drinking tea raises cancer risk”. But by the time you get to the bottom of the article, it’s only a very small percentage of a small percentage of people that suggests such a link. Does the news do this quite a lot?
Yes; and the reason they do it relates to the notion of newsworthiness. Journalists know that negativity and attention-grabbing headlines help sell newspapers. And while it’s right to hope that the true facts of a story are reported somewhere within the text, this isn’t always the case. In addition, people are not usually critical readers. Many people absorb the news when they are doing other things in which case they are not cognitively thinking about what they are being told – and end up making assumptions which, some of the time, are based on less than the full facts.

One of the things I often see in the news is the use of statistics or figures, numbers. So I suppose things like that – ‘drinking tea (or whatever it is) doubles your chance of contracting cancer’ and you think ‘my goodness’, then you realise the chances of getting cancer from that source is 1 in 10,000 or 1 in a 100,000.
In this example you also read that it’s actually about prostate cancer and so is talking about men: meaning we women can carry on drinking lots of tea! It’s also talking about a percentage of the population who are already at risk of prostate cancer - the elderly or middle aged men - and so, if we’re to read this story critically, we soon realise that it’s talking about a very small percentage of a small percentage. This isn’t all that newsworthy. In fact, by the time you’ve read the article properly you probably won’t change your behaviour. One of the things that frequently happens alongside framing is repetition of a story. We know from research that if you repeat things it influences you; you start to believe and buy into that particular frame. So back to propaganda and ideology, if something is said enough people then believe it to represent the truth. For me, that is when it becomes particularly problematic.

Here you are getting into the area of ethics and how ethical it is to use some of these framing techniques?

When I’m teaching framing, I devote the last class to a discussion about the ethics of framing the news. One of my concerns as a tutor is that I empower people to think about why they have the beliefs they do. I’m not trying to say framing is wrong. Rather, I’m advocating that we use framing responsibly. We all frame. As soon as you want to get something passed upwards in your organisation, you will think how to write it in such a way that it will be taken seriously.

We all do it but it is the ethics of when we are doing it, when we are choosing to hide things from others, when are we choosing to potentially misrepresent something that could be dangerous; when are we using it against ethnic groups, when are we using it to dictate what government should pay for and what they shouldn’t pay for. At that point I want the students to start thinking about how much is achieved through the language choices people or organisations are making – including themselves.

In terms of your research, you have given the example of the textbooks in ex-Soviet Republics and how those are changing. Are there ethical considerations there?

The reason we (Chris Williams, History) are working across disciplines is so that we can potentially think about those kinds of ethical consequences. It’s easy to point to places like Russia and say well of course history is reframed there. But we’re also looking at British texts, because we do the same.
There are consequences when telling our children about the relationships between England and Ireland, for example. Your historical perspective may depend upon which side of the Irish Sea you live. As there are ethical consequences, it’s important that young people are able to think about what is written for them and to ask whether there is another perspective to consider.

I also look at what happens in courtrooms. I’m interested in what the lawyers do in courtrooms, when their job is to frame people; not literally in a negative sense but to make a story, make a case that is believable. Our adversarial system is based on trying to arrive at the truth by two opposing sides presenting stories that somehow account for the evidence; at which point, a jury has to decide which story is the most credible. Sometimes that means getting to the truth. Sometimes it leads to miscarriages of justice. Lawyers are manipulating language in order to foreground certain things and background others and that will involve character assassination achieved via the use of framing techniques, for example.

Can you ever say something or write something without framing it?

If we accept that frames are not always manipulation we are always using frames. The danger is that somebody reads this and what they interpret we are saying is that we’re always being manipulated. Some people would argue that is the case, of course, but I think it’s best to think of frames as a structural device first – remember the picture frame idea? If you want to focus on one particular thing and you’ve got a limited number of words to say it, there will be a lot of things that are cut out and, in effect, you are structurally framing something. You say what you can say in the time that you have available. Are we always using framing? Yes. However we are not necessarily trying to adversely manipulate somebody - which is the extreme form of framing. Are frames always there? Yes. Are they always conscious? Probably not! I think a lot of what we do we do unconsciously because we’ve learned that this is the way we do things.

Could I just take another example which is poetry? Is it really an extreme form of framing? You are trying to express emotion. Yes. With poetry and other forms of creative language, deliberate choices are being made. And, often, the aim is to try and evoke some kind of emotional or aesthetic response. I’m not sure that we’d want to begin to teach framing as part of a poetry class though!

Probably not!

But in terms of can we explain poetry using the framing idea – yes, we can explain it that way.

Do you find that technology has an impact on the ability for people to frame? Is it someone’s perspective – for example anything that is on the internet

I am not going to believe but something that I hear on a BBC news item, well I have got to believe it.

In my inaugural lecture there was a journalist who commented that everything I was saying about framing is what the tabloids do. I tried to explain to him that I hadn’t just talked about the tabloids, in the inaugural lecture, but had used examples from the broad sheets, the BBC, and other websites. My worry is that we assume that some organisations, such as the BBC, and some quality newspapers always tell the truth. Like any organisation, it’s important to watch what they are not telling you because there is more to every story. Simply put, they – like us – are all framing their content. It might be their truth – or our truth – but we need to look to see if there’s a different perspective. This is because alongside absolute truth are people’s versions of the truth. One of the things that I’ve developed is the notion of a reality paradigm. You see life through your reality paradigm and some of the time that will shape what you understand someone is saying. You might think that you understand what they mean completely but they might be trying to say something different; and because of your filters you can only hear it from your perspective.