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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: To see the big picture, you have to see its framing

At the height of the Cold War, a group of social scientists conducted an experiment. They gathered a group of survey respondents and asked them a simple question: Should a Soviet reporter be allowed in the U.S.? As expected, only 37 percent of respondents were willing to allow this. However, when this question was preceded by another asking whether American journalists should be allowed into Russia, to which most answered yes, the percent of respondents willing to allow the Soviet reporter almost doubled, jumping to 73 percent.

This effect, which we would now refer to as framing, has the potential to drastically alter the outcomes of public opinion polls. For example, people are less likely to describe themselves as politically engaged after being asked about a number of obscure policy issues. People’s survey responses vary with regard to support for abortion rights based on the types of items (e.g. religious or women’s rights) that precede the question.

But the effects of framing are not unique to policy preferences — they also influence our feelings about people. A famous study from the late 1980s showed that viewing a news clip about then-President Reagan which contained references to an issue they felt strongly about (gun rights, for example) increased support for the President among those individuals by almost 50 percent.

During his campaign, President Donald Trump was able to use these effects to his advantage. By constantly reinforcing the image of Hillary Clinton as a liar and criminal and coining such phrases as “Lock her up,” Trump was able to alter the way in which people evaluated Clinton as a candidate. He created the expectation that she was dishonest, so that everything she said was scrutinized and never rationally considered by a wide swath of the electorate.

Trump is already making it clear that he intends to use framing to his benefit in order to hold on to the power he won in last year’s election. Every President attempts to frame the way in which the public perceives his agenda, to be sure. This is the reason the office of White House Press Secretary exists. But at least in the modern era, we have not seen a U.S. president so boldly dismiss our truth-seeking institutions of journalism and academia.

By framing academics as disconnected and entirely self-interested, Trump calls into question the legitimacy of their findings, such as his discrediting of an academic paper that suggests the hacking by Russian actors influenced the election in his favor.

By suggesting that “the media” is entirely dishonest and actively searching for reasons to attack him, Trump erodes the public’s confidence in the so-called “fourth estate.” He questions their objectivity because it is a threat to his framing of the agenda becoming dominant.

For the next four years, we can reasonably expect significant deviations from the policies of the Obama administration. There will be a lot of changes that we, the public, will need to evaluate and respond to. Whatever our feelings are about the president, seeking information that is free from the preferred framing of the party who stands to benefit from our support is essential, not only to keeping the administration in check, but in allowing us to carry out our duty as engaged democratic citizens.

If we allow the president to frame established, respected journalistic institutions like The Washington Post or The New York Times as so-called “fake news,” we are giving up the only defense we have against President Trump and his supporters monopolizing truth in public discourse.

The press informs the masses so that they may make their own assessments and amplifies the sound of public opinion such that our government is informed and responsive. Attacks on a free press by the leader of the free world create a serious threat to the link between the will of the people and the actions of government.

But beyond the role of media institutions, it is incumbent upon us as individuals to be conscious and aware. As Kellyanne Conway said earlier this week, there are now many “alternative facts” to contend with. Recognizing those who are attempting to frame the discussion in our nation and our state will go a long way in preserving the accountability of our government and the power of the people to make their own judgments. 

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