Monday, December 19, 2011

PWR 2 Fall Webby Winner: The Power of Framing

by Jose A. Alvarez

This clip and others like it have spread like wildfire, receiving airtime on most American news stations in the past few weeks. The story: a group of protestors was pepper-sprayed by police officers at the University of California at Davis. The report has caused outrage throughout the country from Occupy Wall Street protesters, sympathizers, and college communities. As a viewer watching a report like the one above, one concludes that an irresponsible police officer in riot gear used an unnecessary weapons-grade pepper spray to assault a group of peaceful protestors.

Does that sound like a popular opinion? It should, and that is no surprise. News stations everywhere use framing techniques to present content in a way that encourages viewers towards a specific interpretation or opinion. These techniques can be motivated by political agenda, corporate agenda, or a desire for top ratings. At this point you may be asking why framing matters in this case. The clip above seems to be straightforward, and according to our society’s consensus gentium the police officer used unnecessary force on peaceful protestors. Well, here are 15 minutes of video that the news reports chose to omit:

* A version of the video without commentary can be found here:

I won’t give you 15 minutes of additional commentary, but here’s a rough synopsis. The police officers first give warnings to the protesting students, including information on the laws they are breaking. After the students refuse to leave, police officers clear tents and arrest a group of students. Other students then encroach and surround the police officers and demand that the arrested students be released before they allow the officers to leave. After some final warnings, the police officers proceed to use pepper spray to clear a path. Encroachment, the most serious offence by the students in the second video, is against the law. Hence, after watching the second video, it seems as if the use of pepper spray by the police officer was indeed provoked and warranted, something that the news report failed to address.

Many questions result after watching both videos. Why did the “experts” in the news report fail to take into account the information depicted in the second video? If my assumption that it is illegal to encroach and surround police officers is true, why were three officers placed on administrative leave? Do all of the station’s employees, including writers, anchors, and executives, share the blame for the blatant exclusion of information from news reports? Unfortunately, while those and other questions are important, this post is just too short for the appropriate answers.

This post is not meant to support or refute the Occupy Wall Street movements. My own personal opinions on the matter are irrelevant. Rather, it is meant to challenge the ways in which we interpret content that is delivered to us by the media. The more aware we become of mass media’s methods for content delivery, the closer we can get to truly forming our own informed opinions on news.

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