The Frame Game

In 1995, the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed by a domestic terrorist whose name was linked to a small group of anti-government activists known as the Michigan Militia. Up to that time, says Heather Norton, public awareness of the militia movement was scant. In the wake of the Oklahoma City carnage, the movement found itself suddenly awash in bad press.

More than seven years later Norton, a Penn State graduate student, is looking at media coverage during that critical period to understand how the public's perception was shaped. “What I'm interested in,” she says, “is how we know what we know about the militia.”

“The telling of a news story,” explains Jennifer Young, another graduate student in the department of communication arts and sciences, “has a frame that is constructed by different groups engaged in a tug-of-war for media attention.” The frame determines what information is presented, particularly during the brief period of intense focus known as the issue-attention cycle, the hours- to days-long period when the public learns most of what it will come to know about a particular event.

“The issue-attention cycle is like a wave,” says Young. “Some groups are very sophisticated at surfing it.” Her dissertation focuses on the Promise Keepers, a Christian men's group that became popular in the mid-1990's. In 1997, the Promise Keepers held a march on Washington as part of a rally called “Stand in the Gap.” The rally drew between 500,000 and a million men, attracted by what promoters promised to be an opportunity for spiritual renewal. Feminist groups led by the National Organization for Women (NOW) attempted to portray the rally as a political event, designed to push a socially conservative agenda. Young examined the rhetorical tactics that both groups used to shape public perception.

The Promise Keepers had hired a public-relations firm to help present their message. In coverage leading up to the event, the group's leaders stressed that “Stand in the Gap” would show “a bended knee rather than a clenched fist.” Their goal was to portray the event as a spiritual revival.

Platforms were set up on the National Mall so that journalists and camera crews had clear views and access to attendees of the rally. As a result, Young says, media coverage of the event was largely positive, dominated by human-interest stories about ordinary men who had been drawn to join the group. The visual coverage concentrated on images of men weeping, hugging, or praying.

NOW, on the other hand, produced a video in the style of an investigative report purporting to uncover the group's true aspirations. “The video portrayed the Promise Keepers as using a vocabulary of revivalism to mask a political intent,” Young says.

Both groups shifted frames in response to subsequent media coverage. Early in the issue-attention cycle, Young explains, the Promise Keepers stressed an ideal of male “servant-leadership,” in which men retain authority over their families—but only in order to serve. When feminists called the concept a thinly veiled form of patriarchal domination, the Promise Keepers refocused their message toward ideas of racial reconciliation and re-commitment to God, again denying any political intent. Feminists re-countered with claims of a right-wing agenda.

In the case of the militia movement, Norton says, so-called watchdog groups attempted to fashion the public image of militias. Before the bombing in Oklahoma City, the militia movement had presented itself as a band of super-patriots, willing if necessary to fight the federal government for the right to bear arms. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League used this rhetoric of antagonism to sound the alarm that the militias were violent hate-groups. Granted the status of unbiased experts by the mass media, Norton says, watchdog groups “utilized this position to vilify militias.”

In the year following the bombing, Norton says, the militia groups changed tactics. Appearing on television programs including “Nightline,” militia members defended their anti-government ideas, but downplayed their previous militant stance, and began portraying themselves as defenders rather than agitators. During that year, according to watchdog estimates, the militia movement grew from about 5,000 to between 10,000 and 40,000 members. The sheer increase in publicity may have been enough to spur a temporary growth, Norton speculates. Ultimately, however, the watchdog groups won the image war. “Public opinion of militias tended to be very negative. By the year 2000 the movement was all but washed-up.

“In some ways,” she adds, “we still don't know very much about the militia movement, or what caused so many people to associate with its ideas.” Ironically, she says, this is in part because watchdog groups were so successful at shaping the media coverage.

The result of the clash of interests surrounding the “Stand in the Gap” rally was not as clearly defined. The Promise Keepers were vying for positive public opinion at a time when the media tended to be critical of all religious groups, and at the same time broadly accepting of feminist organizations. Even so, Young says, the Promise Keepers largely managed to get across their version of the event. “In news coverage the feminists tended to look a little over the top because their claims weren't apparent to journalists covering the event,” she says. “The Promise Keepers looked very sincere.

“The two sides in these image wars often seem to be talking past each other,” she concludes, and the media's tendency to polarize debates heightens this effect.

“A more realistic dialogue,” adds Norton, “would develop tempered solutions to issues that the public finds compelling.”

Heather Norton is a doctoral candidate in the department of communication arts and sciences. Her research, which received first prize for Arts and Humanities in the 2002 Graduate Exhibition, was funded by a grant from the Research and Graduate Studies Office of the College of the Liberal Arts. Jennifer Young is a doctoral candidate in the same department; her work, which placed third for Arts and Humanities, was also funded by a grant from the Research and Graduate Studies Office. Their adviser is J. Michael Hogan, Ph.D., professor of communication arts and sciences in the College of the Liberal Arts, 234 Sparks Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3461; jmh32@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 2003