Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MEDIA FRAMES STORIES FOR WAR: THE AFGHANISTAN CASE

Harry Targ

“Media frames” are orientations towards information that shape the interpretation of events: what facts are used to report key events, what words are used to describe events, and what options are presented to address the problem in the story. Media frames depend on what sources are quoted as “experts,” the amount of space or time that competing interpretations and recommendations are given in a story, and which perspective gets the last word. In print media what is said in headlines matters as well as photographs accompanying stories. Of course, sound bites on television or radio shape the viewer and listeners' expectations about the story.

Communications scholars correctly point out that most of us experience the world through the media frames that shape the news we consume. While we are active receivers of information, we are limited by the frames that are communicated to us. Probably a majority of Americans who follow news know that Fox television is not “fair and balanced.” The way they frame virtually every story fits the extreme rightwing agenda they promote. But these same Americans often assume that other media outlets, “the mainstream media,” are “objective,” neutral,” or contrary to Fox, “fair and balanced.” And here is the problem.

Our most trusted media, from the networks to CNN (and even MSNBC), or from the Washington Post to the New York Times frame their stories. In fact, all communication of information is framed by the communicator. In the case of the “mainstream” media most often stories are shaped by pro-war agendas.

Take stories on the recent assessments going on in the White House about the next moves in Afghanistan. The occasion for decision is a seemingly endless eight year war in that country waged by the NATO alliance, and prominently the United States, against the so-called Taliban who ruled the country until the United States attacked them in October, 2001. In addition, the recently held election in Afghanistan is believed to have been riddled with corruption. Finally, the general running the war there, Stanley McChrystal, has recommended an additional 40,000 United States troops adding to the over 60,000 troops already in the country.

Given the context, National Public Radio and CNN frame the relevant debate over policy as between those who want to grant General McChrystal’s request for troops, implying an escalation of war, and those “in the left of the Democratic Party” who want to reject any additional escalation. Time after time, mainstream commentators suggest the debate is about those who support the McChrystal recommendation, the reasonable and necessary approach, and those who reject reason because they are “playing politics,” that is possibly being influenced by the 65 percent of the American people who oppose U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. They also suggest that President Obama is not acting in a timely manner to authorize the troop increases because he too is playing politics or is afraid to buck his own party.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has reframed the debate to more fully incorporate an analysis of the dangers of escalating U.S. military force in the country. She has effectively analyzed the eight years of failed policy, the rising opposition to the U.S. presence in the country, election corruption and the lack of popularity of the Hamid Karzai administration. But her frame is one with two alternatives, escalating U.S. troop commitments or continuing the current policy.

In the end, the news consuming public is given a story of Afghanistan that reflects either the need for military escalation-that is the dominant frame-or perpetual war. There is no discussion of other options, gradual but steady demilitarization of western troops, initiating dialogue with the “enemy,” reconceptualizing the “enemy” (that is the perpetrators of 9/11 rather than the former Taliban regime), and perhaps most importantly, drawing upon regional states, relevant secular and religious leaders, and others to launch a South Asia Peace Conference. These options have been suggested by a variety of public intellectuals, activists, and a few members of Congress.

In short, the presentation of facts, expert opinions, data on incidences of violence, pictures, headlines, ‘leaks’ from military spokespersons, and speculation about what the President and his party leaders and the opposition are thinking all conspire to leave the media consumer with the view that escalating the U.S. war on Afghanistan and the President overruling his party and the American people is the only right thing to do.