The American media has developed into a massive institution that has the ability to shape society’s beliefs, opinions, and overall construction of reality. Even with the proliferation of media channels, general themes cross-pollinate across every medium and every outlet. Unfortunately for the intellectual scrutineer inside all of us, one of those themes is the media’s tendency to frame stories through an episodic lens.
Episodic framing is typically defined as a way to depict a story that is more visual or individualistic in nature. Television embraces episodic framing, as broadcasters only have limited time to develop a story. Broadcasters use graphics, visuals, and human interest stories to help attract the attention of the audience and draw them into the story itself. However, an issue arises when broadcasters, and other media practitioners alike, continually rely on this simplistic episodic frame. Framing a story in this manner often means that much of the background narrative and true substance of the story are left out. The heavier content is harder to understand and comprehend, so the media tend to give people what they want — stories that are visually appealing and easy to identify with.
The media’s tendency to invoke episodic framing is not a new phenomenon. However, the media’s coverage of recent uprisings in the international community, particularly in Egypt, again demonstrated the American media’s most serious flaw; they too often favor superficial, easy-to-understand coverage instead of in-depth, more cognitively taxing reporting.
We made Egypt’s issue our issue, in the eyes of the media. In the world of the 24/7 news cycle, the media is constantly looking for a new story to latch on to. (The Chilean miners incident is a perfect example; the American media saw this story and ran with it, as it provided endless, emotionally-appealing content. Did this incident have any true affect on Americans at all? No, not really. I’m not saying this story wasn’t tragic or shouldn’t have been reported, but it certainly wasn’t as important to our national identity as the media made it out to be.)
The American media — anxious to brand and label anything they can — instantly defined the Egyptian uprising as “Rage and Revolution in Egypt.” They used extensive diagrams to depict the fighting at Tahrir Square. They showed Anderson Cooper beatup and reporting from an “undisclosed location.” They latched onto the story of the captured Google executive. They hailed Twitter for its ability to fuel the revolution. They showed footage of fighting when the protests took a turn away from the peaceful.
But, what didn’t they do? They neglected to tell us WHY these Egyptians were outraged and had been driven to revolt. Why did they feel as though Muburak had repressed them for years? What was the state of their economy and their wellbeing? These questions are substantive and usually far too complex for the media to fully address. So, instead of trying to explain the context of the situation, the media once again relegated to focusing on the conflict (Tahrir Square footage, diagrams), individual stories (Anderson Cooper, the Google executive), and the technological aspect (Twitter). There were few Americans who didn’t know about the Egyptian revolution, but I’d venture to guess that there were many Americans who couldn’t list a single reason as to why the conflict was taking place.
Shouldn’t the media, our arguably most powerful societal institution, be responsible for explaining why conflicts like the one in Egypt occur? Yes, it’s easier for us to understand conflict in terms of good v. evil, with pictures instead of words. But, what happens when we don’t really understand anything at all besides the artificial surface content? Is it the media’s job to give us what we want because it’s easier for us (and also probably for them)? Or, do they have a responsibility to society for the greater good?
Here is a very interesting perspective from al-Jazeera in regards to how the American media covered the Egyptian conflict…