Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Undercutting the writers

A gentle (for now) reminder that a lot of the "framing" of a story -- to avoid getting into a full-scale lit review, let's specify that "framing" is a process in which news coverage highlights or downplays elements of a story by way of defining a problem, narrowing the set of solutions available, and sorting the cast into good and bad guys* -- comes from decisions the desk makes.

It doesn't have to be intentional. A bit of news judgment that looks like simple, reader-friendly packaging can say a lot about how you view the world, whether you want it to or not. And it can happen in a single sentence, as in today's lesson:

Padilla Case Shrinks
A federal judge in Miami on Monday threw out one count in the indictment against alleged al-Qaida operative and "Dirty Bomber" Jose Padilla and his co-defendants, concluding that it repeated other charges in the same indictment.

The clumsiness of the sentence isn't the point. The point is its position as a shirttail on this Washington story:

Bush cites urgent need for troops in Lebanon
President says Iraq war is straining U.S., but that GIs won't leave


Putting the unrelated concepts of Lebanon and Iraq together is OK here because they're both part of the president's news conference. Throwing Qaida in there is a different matter, and unfortunately it's not a neutral one. It frames Iraq and Qaida as part of the same story, meaning it does the president's work for him.

That's especially annoying in the light of some comments here about the long-range impact of the McClatchy/K-R merger: "The Knight-Ridder staff came with a reputation for aggressive Washington reporting. Before the Iraq invasion, it stood apart from other news services and national newspapers in writing stories that challenged the Bush Administration's weapons of mass destruction premise for the war."

True, if a little exaggerated. The K-R Washburo was unusually forthright in reporting that side of things (though it's never lost its penchant for manic hyperbole). Why, then, does the desk want to undercut that good work by buying into an equally dangerous aspect of the Big Lie: Al-Qaida is just Iraq with funnier hats?

Packaging isn't always innocent. In this case, it makes a distinct ideological statement. If that's what you want, hey -- it's your newsprint. But don't kid yourself about your neutrality.

* Largely condensed from Bob Entman's latest, to which the reader is referred for a thorough look at the sociology-derived side of framing.

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