Members Only | April 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
How rightwingers determine what we do and don’t talk about
Liberals need better media framing.
A press release from the Florida Department of Education, entitled “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students,” says it had rejected 41 percent of textbooks submitted by publishers.
“Reasons for rejecting textbooks included references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics”, the release stated.
Incredibly, about three out of four mathematics textbooks submitted for kindergarten through fifth grade were rejected by the department.
The press release and Governor Ron Desantis’s comments later on – he said the books were using “indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism” – naturally led to people asking exactly what caused the department to swipe left on the textbooks. The Times reviewed 21 books, and as expected, there was little that had to do with race.
Media outlets on the left need to do more than just talk about different things. They need to be more deliberate in constructing a political reality more beneficial to a greater number of Americans. They need to identify problems; explain what caused those problems; give a moral evaluation; and describe how we can solve them.
It is, indeed, political theater, Florida-style. But these performances, if the 2022 elections predictions are any indication, are sold out. The production of “Critical Race Theory in Schools” is still playing to packed houses. “Liberals Are Groomers” has been a surprise hit.
Some scholars examine how media influences public opinion through what is called framing analysis. Media outlets can set the political agenda by choosing certain issues and emphasizing certain aspects of those issues. By “media,” I mean not only traditional news organizations like Fox but also individuals with large followings like Ben Shapiro and organizations like the Manhattan Institute.
One approach to framing analysis was popularized by Robert M. Entman. A professor of political science at George Washington University, he’s written extensively on media framing. I find his approach to be useful, especially in today’s info-rich environment.
In an article discussing his approach, Entman writes:
To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.
Let’s unpack this.
The four frames
The first type of framing is naming.
There’s a lot going on in the world. One can pluck any number of issues to talk about. Republicans could talk about quality of life issues in ways that conform to their conservative ideology. They could talk about people mired in debt, rising income inequality, food deserts in urban neighborhoods, drug addiction and lack of access to healthcare.
Instead, rightwing media outlets identify as “problems” things like diversity training, incorporating Black people into the teaching of US history, teachers discussing variations in gender identity, and most recently, social-emotional learning incorporated in math textbooks.
The second type of framing is diagnosis.
What is the cause of things the rightwing identifies as “problems?” It could be framed as generational disagreements in how we progress as a society – an agree-with-the-ends-but-not-the-means type of frame.
It could be discussed in terms of new ideas coming from academia that are now being applied in ways people are unaccustomed to. But somehow, out of the ether, all of these problems are caused by something called “wokism” (read: liberals, progressives, the left).
The third type of framing is moral evaluation.
It goes without saying here that when a problem is identified, it is seen as something that must be addressed. But Republicans have decided to pass moral judgments on these issues and their perceived causes.
It’s a kind of gaslighting.
Wanting to talk about the actual history of the United States – warts and all – means you are un-American, the thinking goes. Wanting to teach that Timmy has two dads means you are a pedophile. It’s not people of color who are being discriminated against – despite what all the data suggests. No, it is racist woke people discriminating against God-fearing white Christians, and so on so forth et cetera ad nauseam.
The fourth type of framing is resolution.
It is astonishing that Republicans, the party of freedom and smaller government, now exclusively frame solutions in terms of expanding government oversight and restricting freedoms. The way to deal with the discomfort white students may feel when discussing slavery is to propose a law banning those lessons. The party of free speech is now supporting the banning of books and the muzzling of teachers.
A call for better framing
It’s not as if the left doesn’t frame stories. The simple choice of what to put in an op-ed is itself an exercise of it. But there’s a qualitative difference between the means of making stories resonate with one’s target audience, and, as Rick Perlstein recently tweeted in a thread:
careful propaganda campaigns to seed moral panics in order to roll back human rights for everyone who is not conservative, using techniques quite similar to Nazi propagandists.
This is on the money.
The motives and the endgame are different. The frames used by the rightwing have constructed a reality for conservatives in which “wokism” is the most pressing issue in American society. Real Americans must do anything they can to stop it, up to and including compromising values they wrapped themselves in a decade before.
Many, including me, argue the left can wedge the audience for “Critical Race Theory in Schools” and “Liberals Are Groomers” extravaganzas by talking about quality of life issues. I still believe this, especially for members of Congress running for reelection in swing districts.
But media outlets on the left need to do more than just talk about different things. They need to be more deliberate in constructing a reality that is more beneficial to a greater number of Americans.
We need to identify problems; explain what caused those problems; give a moral evaluation; and describe how we can solve them.
In other words, we need better frames.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.