Teaching Students to Recognize Media Frames

This post is more about teaching than current political science research, but I think it describes a valuable assignment for professors in the social studies. Furthermore, it speaks to a recent viral tweet about ideological bias in the classroom.

A few weeks ago, the stare-down at the Lincoln Memorial showed us that media outlets can use several different narratives to report the same set of facts. While students usually have some training in recognizing fake news, recognizing the frames is a more subtle skill that takes more time to develop.

I required students to write a paper comparing and contrasting how two ideologically different publications reported on the same event. For example, they could contrast the framing of the migrant caravan in The Nation and the National Review. Professors can give students whatever choices or parameters they want; personally, I wanted them to read magazine and newspaper articles and op-eds rather than news from television media outlets. Students could look at differences in the types of evidence used, as well as differences in the word choice.

Some preparation is required in class, of course. First, I point out that even single words can tell different stories: people react differently to the “estate tax” and the “death tax,” “government assistance to the poor” and “welfare,” and “public funding” and “taxpayers’ money.” Second, I explain that facts can be assembled to highlight different moral considerations. I described the Illinois Nazi Party’s intention to march on Skokie in 1976, and asked students to quietly write a headline and byline. Some student headlines focused mainly on how the March would provoke violence or traumatize Holocaust survivors, while others considered whether preventing the March would violate the First Amendment rights of the Nazis.

Borrowing from a colleague at UCLA, I also taught students to look out for episodic framing and thematic framing. I show them these youtube videos on homelessness and ask if they can discern which is which. We then discuss if the framing affects public policy attitudes. Sure enough, some studies claim that episodic frames – which are more and more common – inhibits them from looking for institutional causes and solutions.

The results of the assignment were interesting. Many liberal students had never read publications like the now-defunct Weekly Standard before, and liked conservative positions even less after reading snarky conservatives describe their positions in their own words. Lilly Mason’s excellent Uncivil Agreement suggests that exposure to people of different persuasions can reduce hostilities, but when they are exposed to written material on the other side, it seems to harden their own. Some publications simply spoke past each other without really explaining how their evidence is at odds with the other evidence, or how different conclusions are drawn from the same data.

It was one of my most popular assignments, because students can dig deeper into a subject that already interests them. Despite being frustrated with the other side, they were glad to read something they would never read on their own initiative, and gain more confidence about what the other side is arguing. They cannot not accuse professors of limiting their exposure to one point of view. I also enjoyed grading this assignment, because I learned more about events I only skimmed, and framing from publications I seldom read. If professors give students a time frame, such as the past year, papers will differ from one academic year to the next. I will definitely use this assignment again.

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