Monday, July 21, 2008

Journalistic frames

The institution of American media continues to cling tenaciously to the idea of objectivity, and while many reporters do strive for balance in their work, many unwittingly, or intentionally, fail miserably to live up to the ideal.

All people view the world through a lens of beliefs, experiences, biases and ideas. Journalists also see the world through these lenses and it colors their work. I believe much of what conservatives call media bias stems from the fact that most reporters possess a liberal world view. Much of what a conservative calls bias, a journalist calls the truth.

This explains how a journalism professor can bemoan the "unprofessional slant" of Fox News and honestly believe CNN meets the criteria of an unbiased arbiter of the truth.

When a reporter writes a story, or an editor chooses what to run or what to cut, they tend to work from a template. Academics call these templates frames. Frames represent the inherent assumptions within a story.

Frames become a problem when the writer fails to realize he has worked out of an assumption that he believes true, yet really only represents his particular world view.

Frames tend to propagate within the media world, and readers will often notice a particular frame repeated in multiple media sources.

One such frame often seen in reporting on the military casts the soldier as a victim.

Many stories fit this frame. The military recruit as poor and uneducated, and the high suicide rate of soldiers are two examples.

Herein lies the problem with frames. They often prove untrue. The suicide rate for soldiers trend close to those of the same demographic group in the general population. Most people serving in the military are not poor or uneducated.

The Lexington Herald Leader ran an AP story yesterday that fits this same "soldiers as victims" frame.

The story chronicles the stress of multiple deployments on military families and particularly emphasizes the high divorce rate and domestic violence.

But the reporter, David Crary, has no statistics, or any solid evidence to back up his claims. The entire piece relies on anecdotal information. In fact, he buried the result of the only study on out there on military divorce at the end of the story because it found that there was no significant increase in divorce for soldiers serving in Afghanistan or Iraq.

He conveniently explains away the study with the following:

Despite the stresses, a study published in April by Rand Corp. concluded that divorce rate among military families between 2001 and 2005 was no higher than during peacetime a decade earlier. But the study doesn't reflect the third and fourth war zone deployments that have strained many military marriages over the past three years.

In truth, we don't know if the third and fourth deployments will create a significant increase in the divorce rate. We could just as easily conclude the divorce rate won't rise.

But that does not fit Crary's frame.

Crary cites one other study.

In Iraq, the latest survey by Army mental health experts showed that more than 15 percent of married soldiers deployed there were planning a divorce, with the rates for soldiers at the late stages of deployment triple those of recent arrivals.

But he fails to provide any context for this number. I was unable to find a similar statistic for the population at large. With U.S. divorce rates averaging high in general, this number actually seems quite low.

In fact, statistics for the general population do show that 64.2 percent of women and 50.5 percent of men who get divorced do so before the age of 24, according to

This simply demonstrates that one would expect the age demographic of those serving in the military would experience higher divorce rates in general.

Having experience my own divorce, I know any stress can break an unhealthy marriage, which may well explain the fact that those later in deployment report they are considering divorce.

In reality, we don't know. We can only assume. The whole story revolves around the reporters assumptions based on his frame.

He fails to address what the military does to aid those having difficulty. He does not mention how many soldiers return and reconcile their marriages.

I don't want to minimize the stress, difficulties and sacrifices of our military families. Certainly serving in war zones takes a great toll, both on soldiers and families.

But painting an unsubstantiated picture without actual date because it fits the template does not constitute good journalism.

The above story ran in the Herald right next to the story of the military funeral for Spec. William McMillan III.

McMillan always made good on his promises, said Brad McMillan, his brother.

“He joined the Army with his eyes wide open,” he said.

“He had no regrets. He had no unfinished business left behind.”

It seems as if the editors of the Herald Leader couldn't simply let the story of a soldier who believed in his mission stand by itself. That does not fit their frame. So they included a story that did.

I understand frames. I am sure I write within my own.

The difference is that I admit my bias.

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