This article is summary of a study by Kristine M. Nicolini, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, and Sara Steffes Hanson, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin. It appears courtesy of the authors. The full study is available here.
The Women’s March on Washington, which took place after President Trump’s inauguration, highlighted many women’s concerns with Trump’s administration. These concerns ranged from inclusivity, safety, civil rights and health. With such a diverse agenda, many were left wondering how effective the march was for bringing about social change.
This march was able to reach such a large audience, about half a million people, because its key message were communicated successfully through the media and social media. How the media framed the march helped define how effective the organization’s mission was. This study utilizes the framing theory to explore the ways in which the media framed the march. This study examines how that media coverage either supported or challenged the organization’s messages.
The literature for framing theory is evaluated based on the following criteria:
- How the media produced and presented news
- How the organization used frames in strategic communication with key messages
Tactics used by the media to frame the march include:
- Coverage of political protests and events
- Political organizations crafting key messages in hopes of causing the media to interact with the public
The framing theory is a theoretical understanding of how audiences consume key messages from the media and then interpret, internalize and differentiate them. When an organization develops a key message, it selects a specific part of the message, the frame, that will then give meaning to the story or define its overlying issue. By understanding that users are greatly influenced by the media, organizations use strategic communication techniques to set the media’s agenda. This means influencing the topics of what people in the media discuss and facilitating a flow of accurate information to journalists.
Framing the women’s protest
An analysis of women’s movement articles from 1986 to 2006 (Ashley and Olson’s) showed the following:
- Framing techniques by print media were used to de-legitimize feminists and legitimize anti-feminists
- Print media support of traditional power structures and the status quo
- Print media portraying feminists as disorganized, in protest conflicts that lessened their femininity, and with derogatory labels
Framing Strategic Communication
The National Organization for Women (NOW) utilized three frames when presenting political events that affect women:
- Vigilance to unmask threats to the pro-choice movement and watch political and corporate leader actions related to their causes
- Unity for women from all races and backgrounds to fight discrimination
- Deviance that included stating opponents as dishonest and radical, far from American ideals
With the March on Washington being a highly visible, large-scale protest, and the consequences of the media framing public perception of the march, the researchers proposed two questions:
- How aligned were the media frames to the Women’s March on Washington official key messages?
- Was the coverage supportive or challenging in relation to the key messages?
The Women’s March on Washington key messaging and media coverage were analyzed.
Two researchers analyzed four weeks of media coverage from three major U.S. news organizations:
- The New York Times whose audience leans politically liberal
- USA Today whose audience is politically moderate
- Fox News whose audience leans politically conservative
The researchers analyzed articles two weeks prior to and two weeks following the march, excluding all op-eds, web blogs, abstracts, duplicates, articles with high similarity and articles that only briefly discussed the march.
The researchers identified four frames central to the organizations key message. These frames include: diversity, resistance, activation and solidarity.
From the four-week analysis, the media frames overall reflected the organizations messages in an accurate way, however, Fox News often challenged specific frames.
The first research question was concerned with how aligned the media frames were with the organization’s key message, and in general, the frames showed alignment. At some points, exact or similar language was pulled from the organizations message as in the media reports. Other times, certain messages from the organization received minimal mention in the media.
The second research question was concerned with how supportive or challenging the media forms were with the organizations message. USA Today supported the diversity frame the most (75%), Fox News challenged that frame the most (50%) and the New York Times fell in the middle with 58% support. For the resistance frame, USA Today supported it the most (100%), Fox News challenged it the most (67%) and the New York Times fell in the middle with 79% support. For the activation frame, the New York Times supported it the most (100%), Fox News challenged it the most (50%) and USA Today fell in the middle with 85% support. For the solidarity frame, the New York Times supported in the most (84%), Fox News challenged it the most (46%) and USA Today fell in the middle with 83% support.
The findings from this research study offers implications of framed media messages in today’s media landscape.
All of the key messages from the march appeared in media coverage, mostly from The New York Times and USA Today, which are supportive outlets. This demonstrates the organization effectively communicating its position to the media and its users through web, social media and other platforms.
Given the New York Times and USA Today’s support for key messages in the Women’s March on Washington two weeks prior to the event, the communications initiative was able to successfully gather a large and diverse audience.
The Framing Theory provides a theoretical explanation for how media users dissect and interpret news. This theory helped researchers analyze the Women’s March on Washington’s media coverage. The results found that for the most part, the media overall reflected the key messages that the organization represented, but Fox News often challenged those frames. The observed media was also pretty supportive of the organizations frame, whereas Fox News would deviate from this. The findings also show that the Women’s March on Washington was successful in communicating its purpose to the media and the media was also successful at influencing the people.
Tamarra Thal is a sophomore public relations major and business administration minor at the University of Florida. She is a diplomat for the UF chapter of PRSSA and a public relations intern at Keep Alachua County Beautiful. Follow her on Twitter @TamarraThal.