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Framing the Economic Crisis: Bailout or Rescue Plan?

How critical is framing to effectively communicating about complex policy problems, especially under conditions of uncertainty? Just take a look at the debate over the economic crisis.

As I noted last week, the term "bailout" has locked in a specific framing of the issue that inflames populist anger and caters to House Republicans' efforts to exploit the situation for political gain. The "bailout" triggers thoughts of saving irresponsible wealthy bankers who got greedy, whereas economists view the problem more along the lines of jump starting an economy that is collectively a stuttering engine. Figuring out the language that communicates this expert view is the first step in reformulating communication strategy on the economic crisis.

Appearing this week on PBS Bill Moyers' Journal, University of Pennsylvania communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson discussed in detail the relevance of framing to the debate.



KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Language does our thinking for us. When the public doesn't have any sense about what's really going on, this is very confusing and very complicated. Framing matters. If this is described as a taxpayer bailout of Wall Street, it's not popular. If it's described as taxpayer investing in the well-being of the economy, it's far more a more positive. Now.

BILL MOYERS:Was that done?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:The first frame that was offered by the Bush Administration was not strong enough in favor of the bill. And as a result, the press picked up the language that you used, the language of bailout.

BILL MOYERS:Of Wall Street?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Of Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS:The greedy.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:By taxpayers.

BILL MOYERS:All right.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:So, my money to Wall Street in a bailout. What is benefiting me there? Where's the positive? When President Bush came forward with his second speech, he's beginning to frame it as a rescue plan. But we're not that clear that the rescue plan is for the economy and consumers. The rescue plan is still being cast as Wall Street. You still don't see a lot of reason that you'd want to rescue Wall Street.

The person who ultimately cast this most effectively as something the public ought to support, and the difference in polling is largely of framing, is Warren Buffet, who finds a way to say that this really is going to affect everyone. This is an economic Pearl Harbor.

WARREN BUFFETT:We have a terrific economy. It's like a great athlete that's having a cardiac arrest, you know. And it's flat on the floor and the paramedics have arrived and they shouldn't argue about whether they put the resuscitation a quarter of an inch this way or a quarter of an inch that way or they shouldn't start criticizing the patient because he didn't have blood pressure tests or something like that. They should do what's needed night now. And I think they will. I think Congress will do the right thing.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:If you had to look around and say who's got the credibility? Who has very wide trust, and who can talk in the English language that's intelligible? Warren Buffet is the answer. And he was putting money into a rescue effort of his own, in the interests, I believe, of making large amounts of money.

BILL MOYERS:Why?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Hence you're reassured by it. This-

BILL MOYERS:Reassured because?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Because this billionaire is putting his money in, saying, "I don't put money into things that I'm not going to make money at. I'm not in the business of a bailout," essentially, is what he's saying. "I'm investing. This economy is going to turn around, and I see it as a good investment." And he's standing behind the plan. He's and he's personable, he's friendly, his examples are concrete. He's speaking the English language. And he's got money in the game. The best communicator for this plan was Warren Buffet....

...KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Framing matters. If you buy the frame of rescue plan for the economy, for Main Street. And necessarily, because this is an economic Pearl Harbor. And we, the country, are the economy is like that patient in cardiac arrest. This is Warren Buffet then we have to act not because we're acting for Wall Street, but because we're acting for us. Framing matters. And you come back to the question, what about that $150 billion.

BILL MOYERS:Added this week.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:That's tacked on? One frame of that is that this is pork. One is these are necessarily tax investments. Another is, this is bribery, in order to get those people to support that bill. And we, again, have a contest over framing. But the cost just went up $150 billion in an economy that didn't have the money to afford the $700 billion to start with, but is being told it has to spend it, or things are going to get a lot worse.And then, you have these candidates come in, all four of them, and they won't answer the questions. Does this change your plans at all? And they essentially say, "Oh, no. Everything's fine. We're gonna cut taxes. We're gonna increase spending." Of course, not as much as they will. "We're actually revenue neutral."

Well, no, they're not. And nobody who's looked at their plans for taxing and spending believes it. It's a real disconnect between what's happening in the real world and what these four candidates have said. Two more debates. I hope they get those questions again. I hope somebody tells us the truth. And the danger is, if somebody does, it will be, you know, the kind of circumstance that, you know, Walter Mondale faced in 1984. You say, "I'm gonna raise taxes," and people say not "I'm not gonna vote for you."

Or you may have a circumstance in which they don't tell the truth. That's "Read my lips: No new taxes." George Herbert Walker Bush did increase taxes. That's Bill Clinton saying "tax cut for the middle class." He never delivered that. Neither one of them thought they responsibility could. Both of them, or their parties, were penalized.



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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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