Framing: A Comparison of the New York Term Paper

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¶ … Framing: A Comparison of the New York Times and the People's Daily Coverage of Sino-U.S. Spy Plane Collision of April 1, 2001

It was April 1st, 2001 in the South China Sea. The unprecedented collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane triggered a month-long political and diplomatic standoff between two countries. Both parties paid a price for their mutual misperceptions and misjudgments during an intense process of blame game and linguistic diplomacy. One month later, the once-heated debates and patriotic zeal on both sides faded away, leaving only a heroic story with two different versions, but more importantly, a news frame in people's memory. When a country's mainstream media presents such events in a biased manner, the people of that nation are denied the objective news reporting that is required for an informed citizenry in a modern society. To determine to what extent, if any, the events of September 1, 2001 were reported in an nonobjective fashion by the mainstream press in China and the United States, this study examines the coverage provided by the People's Daily and the New York Times according to their respective content. An analysis of the statistical data will be followed by a discussion of the findings, and a summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.

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According to a report from the International Journal on World Peace (2001), "On April 1, during what the U.S. described as a routine surveillance flight through international air space, a Chinese fighter jet and the American EP3E Aries II surveillance plane collided with one another, causing serious damage to the American plane and fatal damage to the Chinese fighter jet" (China-Us Relations, 2001, p. 99). Not surprisingly, the Chinese and American versions of the events were similar, yet different on key points; in fact, after the incident, the only thing the two sides could agree on initially was the fact that after the collision, the fighter jet and its pilot disappeared into the South China Sea and the American plane and its crew of 24 made a successful landing on the Chinese island of Hainan (China-Us Relations, 2001).

Term Paper on Framing: A Comparison of the New York Assignment

Media Response. From the very beginning of the incident, the mass media on both sides, taking advantage of the lack of direct communication between two governments, played a major role as vital catalysts, active participants and sometimes designers of public diplomacy. Whether serving as government watchdog, or the ruling party's mouthpiece, the mass media show their influential power in current international conflict and foreign politics. From this viewpoint, the selection of news events is not merely a reflexive action, but rather the socially determined construction of reality. This perspective suggests that journalistic choices are intentional and not merely the effects of certain causes resulting from inherent news values.

Viewed separately, the mass media on both sides seemed to be describing two different occurrences. Perhaps the Chinese pilot misjudged the distance, perhaps the American pilot rocked his wings, or perhaps air turbulence caused the collision. However, what really happened that morning paled in comparison to crucial questions such as in what frame the journalists view it, in what frame the editors understand it, and finally in what frame the audience interprets it. All in all, the media frame matters.

To facilitate the research on print media (especially newspapers), the framing functions were categorized into three dimensions: visual framing, contextual framing and operational framing, which are defined below.

Visual Framing: According to David D. Perlmutter (1998), the mainstream media provides (or at least serves as a conduit for) the pictures that are associated with a story. "Ascribing metonymy to a news photograph -- for example, 'This was the scene that summed up Africa's problems' -- is the most potentially powerful visual framing device" (p. 7). Likewise, Gaye Tuchman characterizes the visual frame as reducing the range of possible meanings of any event into industrially acceptable categories: "The [visual] frame organizes everyday reality and the news frame is part and parcel of everyday reality." Visual framing, therefore, provides a powerful framework in which the media can impose meaning "as well as psychological stimuli for audiences to process" (Perlmutter, 1998, p. 7). The maxim about a picture being worth a thousand words holds true, according to this author. The selection of which visual images will (or will not) appear, and which stories they will accompany, can therefore affect the reader's perception of the event and the principals involved in profound ways.

Contextual Framing: In their book, Collective Memory of Political Events: Social Psychological Perspectives (1997), Dario Paez, James W. Pennebaker, and Bernard Rime note that the majority of major historical events involve a highly complex web of causes, consequences, and corollaries. "Perhaps inevitably," they write, "collective memory will reduce these to fairly simple explanations" (p. 290). Through a careful selection of which causal nexus to emphasize, people can perceive an event in a particular context that can make the memory serve the group's self-image. According to Paez et al., "Whatever the motives and intentions of the people who start the distortions, one must also recognize the important role played by the people who listen, accept, and pass along these biased views" (p. 292). Because everyone uses a unique set of views, perceptions, beliefs, values and preconceptions about the world around them, people naturally tend to reject what conflicts with their existing paradigms and look for those things that reinforce their belief systems. Paez et al. point out that, "People want to think well of their social group, and so even if they are equally exposed to truthful and flattering versions of the past, they may find it easier to understand, remember, and repeat the flattering ones" (p. 292). Therefore, the contextual framing of an event will communicate the most flattering aspects for whatever side is making the claim, while the opposition will likely adopt a comparable, but diametrically opposite, contextual framing of the event simply because it is in their nature to do so.

Operational Framing: According to Mark Allen Peterson, the mandate for journalists today is to "get" the story from sources with diverse, sometime inimical interests. "Most news stories are negotiated in defined social contexts among many different actors, including sources, journalists, editors and press agents" (Peterson, 2001, p. 201). This level of media coverage should be the goal of all responsible journalism; operational framing would provide a comprehensive and balanced analysis of the event without resorting to jingoism or appeals to emotion. For the purposes of this analysis, articles that included graphics that communicated information only (such as maps and graphs of economic data) were excluded from the visual framing indicator.

Clearly, then, a universal theory by definition must apply to various circumstances, various cultures and various societies. Framing, as a mass communication paradigm that was first raised by American scholars and widely examined in American media practices, has an apparent "made-in-USA" label (Entman, 1991 & 1993; Gitlin, 1980; Goffman, 1974; Rachlin, 1988; Scheufele, 1999 & 2000; Tuchman, 1972). An important question is whether this theory is applicable to a media system with a different cultural background, historical heritage and political system? Framing research focuses on the professional techniques that influence people's minds in a controversial situation. Nothing is controversial than a dramatically unfolded and dramatically wrapped-up international conflict between two politically and ideologically different countries.

The collision in the mid-air between China-U.S. fighter jets eventually made this collision-in-the-media comparative study possible and timely. In fact, the New York Times prefaced its series of articles on this event: "Collision with China:..."


For the Bush administration, this diplomatic standoff with his newly defined "strategic competitor" provided a crucial test to his widely-doubted ability and experience in handling foreign affairs. The result of Bush's debut in international stage could shape the domestic public opinion and world view after the election controversy.

For China's part, even before this tragic incident, the Chinese people and its leaders had already felt the hostile rhetoric from the newly elected Bush, and painfully refreshed and reinforced their memories about the embassy bombing in Yugoslavia two years ago. Moreover, such a direct military conflict between two nuclear powers has never occurred since the end of the Cold War.

From a political importance perspective, the mainstream media on both sides should focus on one location during that time span - Hainan Island. The New York Times and the People's Daily would have come up to a similar judgment regarding the political importance of every step of this event. As a result, the visual framing strategy utilized by the two newspapers would reflect this tendency.


Contextual framing works through deliberately choosing opinion-loaded words or authoritative sources to define responsibility and moral basis. For example: How to name an event (accident or incident)? How to characterize the involved action (spy mission or reconnaissance routine)? How to treat the actors in the event (spy, detainee, hero or Top- gun)? And where they search for the facts (own government or the other side)? The… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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