By Delia Träger, Bachelor of Communication Research from the University of Münster.
The impact of medial framing on the popularity of the German minister of finance during the negotiations about the third EU-rescue program for Greece.
Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Both possible answers are right. But contrary angles can trigger both, a positively or a negatively biased judgment. This leads us to the framing theory, a prominent concept in social psychology and communication research. Framing, on the one hand, can be described as a selective awareness of features of the reality and, on the other hand, as a structuring tool for content communication (Dahinden, 2006, p. 14). Gamson and Modigliani (1987) define a single frame as the “central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning.” (p. 143)
By utilizing the framing concept, we look behind the high popularity ratings of the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble during the controversial political debate about the financial EU bailouts for Greece. According to the German opinion poll ARD-Deutschlandtrend the approval of Schäuble peaked with a value of 76% in July 2015 when the Greece-Crisis was aggravating. His high popularity was considered to be significant as it was largely attributed to his strict handling of the negotiations (Labs, 2015; Welt, 2015). This article tries to give answers to the following crucial questions: What effect did the journalistic frames of Schäuble´s political position have on media-consuming recipients? Which factors evoked such processes, which attitudes emerged and which changes in attitudes could be observed?
Citizens mainly receive political information or news from TV, the print-media and the Internet. Therefore, news flows seem to be controlled by producers and journalists (Matthes, 2007). “They determine (…) what kind of news (…) is comprehended as relevant and which aspects of an incident are chosen.” (Matthes, 2007, p. 54) Once a piece of news is perceived as important, reports on this incident are not presented incoherently. Instead, they are placed into a specific context that allows the recipients to form an opinion about the framed issue (Chong & Druckmann, 2007). Thus, framing occurs on two different levels: First, journalists write their articles against the backdrop of their perspective and interpretation schemes. Second, recipients also look at media reports through their own lens. The latter is determined by personal attitudes and an individual value system (Huber, 2012).
Entman (2004) distinguishes four elements of a frame: ‘definition of the problem’, ‘attribution to a reason’, ‘treatment recommendation’ and ‘evaluation’. In addition four principles set the groundwork of Entman’s framing theory.
(1) The principle of ambivalence (also known as the contingency principle) claims that there are always several frames towards one single issue. This implies the existence of different angles on a topic (Matthes, 2014).
(2) The principle of selection stands for the emphasis on certain aspects or salience of different aspects of an issue (de Vreese, 2004; Matthes, 2014).
(3) The principle of consistency requires a coherent chain of arguments without contradictions. This is specifically essential for political communication and focuses on the recipient´s ability to follow a logical interpretation (Pan & Kosicki, 1993).
(4) The principle of competition refers to different patterns of interpretation or frames that compete for acceptance in the public discourse (Matthes & Kohring, 2004). The competition between frames applies not only to commentators but also to recipients who are following different points of view (Matthes, 2014). Referring to the Greece crisis, at the peak of the discussion about a third rescue program for the country, one frame stood for almost unconditional solidarity while the contrary frame expressed the strict austerity claim.
Coming to the phenomenon of Wolfgang Schäubles strong approval ratings, I analyzed two journalistic frames and their impacts. First, I looked at the issue frame, which contains the political conflict (conflict frame) referring to the third EU rescue program for Greece and the inconsistency between two opposing positions. Second, the personal frame outlines the personalities of the German finance minister and his Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis and their personal polarization. Some Journalists tended to analyze the duel between the two protagonists by utilizing the tools of the game theory (game frame) (Kaiser, 2015). Much of the media coverage did not primarily focus on the content of the negotiations but solely on the clash between the two ministers (Lamby, 2015).
Applying Entman´s frame elements on the conflict frame, the (1) ‘definition of the problem’ is the over-indebted financial situation of the Greek state. The (2) ‘attribution to a reason’ lies in the failure of the Greek government to follow the austerity measures set by prior EU rescue programs. The (3) ‘treatment recommendation’ could be twofold: the call for further support by the EU or the demand for a stronger austerity policy carried out by the Greek government. The (4) ‘evaluation’ element is obviously part of each conflict frame and refers to the ways in which frames activate recipients (Entman, 2004).
Patterson (1993) and Bennett (1988) claim that the media tend to focus more on political players and their personalities (thus setting personal frames) than on abstract institutions. This also explains the general public interest in the person of Wolfgang Schäuble. He is one of the two main actors in the conflict frame and becomes the ‘hero’ of the Germans in the subsequent game frame, which simply consists of the duel between the German and the Greek minister (Simantke, 2015). The following chain of arguments becomes obvious: The interest of the German population in Wolfgang Schäuble was successfully triggered. The more information about him was made available, the more his political position and his actions became understandable and the more his approval rating skyrocketed with regard to his personal clash with Varoufakis.
Another point of interest is the manner in which framing effects emerge. This can be described with a two-stage-process: First, a recipient simply picks up the frame out of the media. Second, the frame activates the already existing frames of the recipient leading to further interpretations and possibly an opinion change (Kühne, 2013). The unhampered access to the saved knowledge is essential for this process.
Price et al. (1997) established a formal but widely accepted model of framing effects. Every recipient owns an individual knowledge store. It contains specific previous knowledge about issues. The store also contains structural knowledge, information fragments and personal opinions. Some contents of the store are temporary others seem to be more stable. Therefore, it should also be distinguished whether information or pre-shaped opinions are quickly or slowly accessible (Price et al., 1997). Once a frame gets into contact with the individual knowledge store, specific (previous) information content that is addressed by the incoming frame gets activated. Formally speaking, the effectiveness of a frame is subject to certain pre-conditions. First, the applicability of (previous) information to the frame must be given. Specific attitudes of the recipient are touched and his stored information fragments are competitive to come to an evaluation of a specific event (Price & Tewksbury, 1997). Second, a frame should be able to change the accessibility of information. Information fragments that are – figuratively speaking – at the bottom of the knowledge store can be shifted upwards, thus easier to access (Price & Tewksbury, 1997; Chong & Druckman, 2007; Smith & Queller, 2001). Third, the appropriateness of information fragments addressed by the frame is important. This means that previously stored information have to be morally in accordance with the frame (Price & Tewksbury, 1997). Under these pre-conditions a frame generally shows an impact on a recipient´s attitude to an issue (Smith & Queller, 2001; Matthes, 2014; Price & Tewksbury, 1997).
Recent research has identified further success factors for the effectiveness of frames. One is frame repetition over a longer period of time (Chong & Druckman, 2007). Another is the frame competition: the more conflicting frames about one issue exist, the more the recipient takes part in this conflict and builds his opinion in an evaluative manner (Huber, 2012; Chong & Druckman, 2007). Frame credibility is also important for the effectiveness of a frame. Are the arguments credible? Are the sources credible? Credibility has a major impact on the evaluations by the recipients (Matthes, 2014). Above all, emotions are influencing the effectiveness of a frame (Kühne, 2013).
It seems that frames, indeed, exert cognitive effects on recipients and their evaluation schemes. The framing theory can explain political phenomena such as the high approval ratings of Wolfgang Schäuble during the Greek debt crisis (Labs, 2015). The issue/conflict frame and the personal/game frame – as well as the strong and frequent presentation of Wolfgang Schäuble as a person in the media – led to solidarity of the German citizens with their minister of finance and attributed the responsibility for the crisis to other political actors.
On a side note, it is interesting to mention that after the conditions for a third rescue package were agreed upon, Schäuble never again attained comparably high ratings (Infratest Dimap, 2015). It could be argued that the reason for this development was the diminishing number of press articles on the issue and the change of tenor. Frames providing a solution to a conflict have a lower journalistic valence. They mark the end of a conflict (Hoffmann-Riem, 2009). An eye-catching escalation is not achievable and sticking to the issue becomes obsolete because two important drivers are missing: the attraction of the frame and its repetitions (Matthes, 2014; Chong & Druckman, 2007).
This analysis brings me to an explosive yet crucial social question: Could democracies be harmed by powerful framing effects about politicians? Elected representatives and ministers regularly go through volatile changes from being the pariah or the darling of the media. Negative frames could finally cause resignations. At the same time, journalist themselves are permanently under pressure to gain public attention. Since framing is potentially a powerful instrument to get attention, journalists might be tempted to portray politicians in a certain light just to receive more public attention.
Looking at the current political situation in the EU, the BREXIT could lead again to the framing of a politician or a group of politicians. On the one hand the position as an advocate of economic rationality in order to limit pragmatically the severe economic repercussions of the UK leaving the EU. On the other hand the position of strict and formal negotiations with the British Government in order to deter imitators from going the same way.
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