Friday, March 25, 2011

Bad News: the Framing Game

Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Kabul, said yesterday that continued progress in Afghanistan is critical to preventing the situation in neighboring Pakistan from deteriorating further – and to persuading Islamabad to mount a more...
Councilman Ruben W. Wills of Queens acknowledged on Sunday that he had failed to resolve an outstanding arrest warrant related to a business dispute from more than a decade ago.
ALBANY -- Detective James Miller, the city police department spokesman charged with driving while intoxicated during a Friday night traffic stop, released a statement as he prepared for arraignment Monday morning.
KINGSTON – The chairwoman of the Ulster County Republican Committee said the county should give serious consideration to selling the Golden Hill Health Care Center.

Those sentences, each the opening of a news story (New York Times, TimesUnion, DailyFreeman; 3/21/11), illustrate a dual communicative operation. Each one combines brief description of an event with a hint about newsworthiness. The cited event in each case is a speech act. The hint about newsworthiness comes by way of what the reporter picks to say about the cited speaker’s identity. The reporter chooses to mention that the person whose words are being reported is a general (and more), a borough councilman, a detective and police department spokesman, or a Republican county chairwoman. By singling out that aspect of identity, and by giving it pride of place, the reporter invites respondents to infer that the most important thing about the news subject’s act, for the present situation, is his or her role.

As regular recipients of news, we recognize this mode of suggestion. We respond to hints that serve our felt need to grasp the meaning, the implications as well as the immediate nature, of a cited event. We credit the sender with attempting to render that service with verbal economy. To that end, the sender employs a device that can be called the First As Foremost nudge. It prompts receivers to construe the first thing that is said about the identity of a news subject as, circumstantially, the most important thing.

In the cases cited, drawing the invited inference seems altogether safe. The reported deeds surely are newsworthy becauseof the named social traits of the speakers: U.S. commander in Kabul, councilman, detective who is facing charges, local Republican chairperson.

In other cases, trust in the First As Foremost clue could be misplaced. The following sentences also opened news stories. Each report, again, recounts an individual’s act or experience.

An 18-year-old Cairo man was charged with possessing marijuana and driving recklessly after leading police on a high-speed chase early Sunday.
A 24-year-old Palenville man has been charged with possession of child pornography, authorities said Thursday.
The 22-year-old Cairo man accused of forcing his way into a Cairo home last year, robbing the residents at gunpoint has pleaded not guilty in Greene County Court.
Joseph Francis “Bubba” Conlin, Jr., 55, of Tampa, Florida, died suddenly on Thursday….
Captain Thomas J. Bradley, 79, of Corwin Place, Lake Katrine, died Saturday…at Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck after a long illness.
A 25-year-old Greene County motorcyclist was killed in an accident Saturday morning, according to the Greene County Sheriff's Office.A 66-year-old Hunter man has died after being struck in the chest by a tree he had cut down on his property.
Salvatore Taccetta, 49, of Athens, was arrested Sunday at 3:50a.m. by state police at Catskill and charged with two counts of misdemeanor drunken driving and the infractions of leaving the scene of a property damage accident and unsafe lane change.
Zachary S. Coons, 25, of Saugerties, was arrested Sunday at 4:45 a.m. by state police at Coxsackie and charged with two counts of misdemeanor drunk driving.

Each of those sentences conveys, by means of the First As Foremost nudge, a suggestion about causation. Each one conveys the same explanatory suggestion. Each one invites recipients to believe that with regard to the deed or the experience of the person mentioned, great importance attaches, surpassing relevance pertains, to years of age. Each one can be seen as equivalent to reporting that

Gen. David Petraeus, 58, said yesterday that continued progress in Afghanistan is critical to preventing the situation in neighboring Pakistan from deteriorating further....

Such sentences can be seen as acts of devotion to a little-known, quaint, scientistic doctrine: Ageism. To alert receivers, however, they convey an additional message. They signal the presence in mainstream news organs of thoughtless, habit-bound, misleading verbiage. They call attention, more particularly, to blind habit as a shaper of verbiage about the identities of news-makers.

The need for sensitivity to that aspect of news discourse can be demonstrated by reference to opening sentences such as these:

Democrat Jim Van Slyke has announced his candidacy for a third term as NewBaltimore’s representative to the Greene County Legislature at his family’s farm.
Republican Elsie Allan, citing her concern and love for her community, has announced that she will seek the Town of Durham seat on the Greene County legislature this fall.
Democratic Greene County Legislator Forest Cotten has kicked off his re-electioncampaign at Union Mills Gallery, 361 Main St., Catskill.

Those sentences too perform a dual communicative operation. They combine bits of information about candidacies for elective office with hints about what is at stake. In the latter respect they deliver a politically sensitive suggestion. By means of the First As Foremost device, they invite recipients to adopt a particular way of seeing the named candidates. Each one suggests that the foremost fact about the named candidate, the fact that is topically most salient for receivers of the news, is party affiliation. And cumulatively, those sentences suggest that the foremost fact about candidates generally, the fact that we most urgently need to know, is party affiliation.

Accepting that suggestion can be convenient. As conscientious prospective voters, we might feel obliged to learn about each candidate’s family, career, character, principles, policy stands, and non-party as well as party affiliation. If we take at face value the suggested primacy of party affiliation, we gain relief from a daunting task of information-gathering. Thus, accepting that suggestion—seeing it as a trustworthy application of the First As Foremost nudge--can be more convenient than seeing it as a thoughtless, habit-born manifestation of hack journalism.