Thursday, May 29, 2008

How the Media Frames a Candidate

I'm reading an interesting book right now, which sheds light on the fading battle between Clinton and Obama. In The Press Effect, Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor of Communication and the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about how the press first comes up with a frame for covering a candidate, and then fits all facts into that frame. She writes, "Reporters covering the campaign create simple frames, based on one or two characteristics of personality, and channel their coverage through those frames."

So in the 2000 campaign, the press reduced Gore's flaw to "trustworthiness", "while Bush's was reduced to lack of knowledge, translated ultimately as inexperience."

Jamieson writes that, fortunate for Bush, inexperience can be remedied by experience, or by selecting a cabinet or vice president with experience. On the other hand, a lack of trust is much more difficult to overcome. Jamieson writes, "Once the untrustworthy lens was locked in, any move on Gore's part could be interpreted as a cynical attempt to hide his true self."

It's kind of strange how these same two frames reappeared in this campaign between the two Democratic contenders, with even Hillary Clinton herself touting her experience, and her detractors and critics throwing the damning critique of "sleazy" or "untrustworthy" onto her. (This "untrustworthy" label has also cropped up a bit in reference to Obama, but only on the part of voters, not so much on the part of media commentators, whereas the press has applied the "untrustworthy" label to Clinton.)

Knowing how it is so difficult to re-frame how the press portrays a candidate, and how it's so hard to remove the stigma of untrustworthiness, Hillary Clinton would have been fared better if she had not herself made the metric one of experience versus inexperience. Unfortunately for her, from the beginning the media has criticized her for allegedly not showing her true self. Perhaps that's why back in New Hampshire she declared that she had "found my voice." She was trying to shake that "untrustworthy" label much as Gore tried to. But once the press nails a candidate as untrustworthy, and fits all subsequent statements into that "frame," it's impossible to remove.

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