Thursday, June 26, 2008

No, but thanks for asking

The Thursday Evening Theory Seminar would like to take a moment to salute Bernard Cohen, whose (actually quite good) "The Press and Foreign Policy" has probably got the highest people-who-quote-it-to-people-who-read-it ratio of any book that doesn't claim to be divinely inspired.

Cohen's best-known image is the one associated with Max McCombs and Don Shaw's pioneering agenda-setting study a decade later: Newspapers might not be able to tell us what to think, but they're really, really good at telling us what to think about. Bob Entman, among others, considers the distinction misleading: "If the media (or anyone) can affect what people think about – the information they process – the media can affect their attitudes": or at least, what people think about what they're thinking about. And nobody remembers Cohen's following sentence: "It follows from this that the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their personal interests but also on the map that is drawn for them by the writers, editors and publishers of the papers they read."

That's why Fox World is such a mean and scary place, but it's also why Fox World is so comforting! You don't have to worry about why or wherefore there are so many different kinds of ruthless autocratic behavior, or whether different thugs need different ... where's Sly Stone when you need him anyway? Anyway, thugs are bad. They torture people and subvert democracy.

To be picky about it, lots of people would cast this as a framing question, rather than an agenda-setting one: Saddam Hussein defines what dictators look like, Mugabe's officially on the Fox dictator list, and that's all ye need to know: how to think about Mugabe, not what to think about Mugabe (theoretical arguments in this domain require deft use of the italics key). So for today's quiz, visit the little friends at Fox and categorize this story as "agenda-setting" or "framing":

Amnesty International's Anti-Guantanamo Display Rouses Controversy
NEW YORK — Amnesty International is currently touring the country with a life-sized replica of a maximum security prison cell at Guantánamo Bay. But critics say the cell, which is an attempt to call attention to alleged human rights abuses at the camp, is missing basic amenities provided to prisoners.

Whether Amnesty's display "roused" the controversy, or whether the said rousing is a result of Fox's calling a dependable source and asking him just how awful Amnesty is, are different questions. So which will it be: Framing or agenda-setting?

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