Stages of a crisis and media frames and functions: U.S. television coverage of the 9/11 incident during the first 24 hours.

Author:Li, Xigen

Much research is devoted to determining how news media frame information so that it affects audiences' understanding and interpretation of issues. A number of studies also look at media functions under various situations. On September 11, 2001, continuous television coverage of the most aggressive terrorist attack on America to date began within seconds of the initial plane crash into the World Trade Center. This provided a unique opportunity to understand how television media cover a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. This study looks at how television outlets framed 9/11 during the first 24 hours, the functions they performed in the national crisis, and how the stages of the crisis affected coverage frames and media functions as unfolding events brought attention to new issues.

Literature Review

When the social order is seriously disrupted, people usually want more information than the media can provide (Neal, 1998). During crises, the public becomes almost totally dependent on the media for news that may be vital for survival and for important messages from public and private authorities. They look to the media for information, explanations, and interpretations (Graber, 1980, p. 228). For example, after President Kennedy's assassination, public uncertainty about the future of the U.S. government resulted in greater need for interpretation, explanation, and consolation (Schramm, 1965).

Media Functions in a Crisis

The National Research Council Committee on Disasters and the Mass Media (1980, p. 10) postulated that the press performed six functions during a crisis: 1) warning of predicted or impending disasters; 2) conveying information to officials, relief agencies, and the public; 3) charting the progress of relief and recovery; 4) dramatizing lessons learned for the purpose of future preparedness; 5) taking part in long-term public education programs; and 6) defining slow-onset problems as crises or disasters.

Researchers say the media have many functions depending on the audience's needs. For example, in addition to transmitting information, the media perform a "social utility function" (Dominick, 1996, p. 47) by providing companionship and emotional support in the absence of other human beings. Others (Entman, 1991 ; Hertog, 2000; Iyengar & Simon, 1993; Ungar, 1998) found the media performed different functions within different crisis situations. The selection of issues and the emphasis they receive tend to differ among media, but all forms of media include information on the primary issues (Lowery & DeFleur, 1995, p. 341). When dealing with breaking news, such as a crisis, the change in reporting routines affects the type of information that journalists disseminate. Journalists who covered the breaking news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were found to assume multiple roles in delivering information. The content of breaking news reported live was fundamentally different from the content of news stories that were produced with more time to check for violations of journalistic standards (Reynolds & Barnett, 2003).

Graber's notion that there are three stages of media coverage of a crisis seems to reaffirm the media functions listed (1980, p. 229). During the first stage, media are the primary information source not only for the general public, but also for public officials involved with the crisis. Media's key roles are to describe what has happened and help coordinate the relief work. Their top priority is to get accurate information, which relieves uncertainty and calms people (pp. 233-234). In the second stage, media coverage focuses on making sense out of the situation. Plans are formulated and implemented to address the needs of the victims and repair the damage. Graber says the third stage overlaps with the first two. In an effort to provide context, the role of media is to place the crisis in a larger, longer-term perspective.

Studies found between-media difference in U.S. media coverage of various issues including presidential campaigns (G. H. Stempel & Windhauser, 1989) and Canadian elections (Husselbee & Stempel, 1997). However, studies also showed similarity in selection of stories among newspapers (Riffe, Ellis, Rogers, Van Ommeren, & Woodman, 1986). Competing media will conform under certain circumstances (Bigman, 1948). These findings suggest between-media difference in coverage on issues of social significance. But to what degree television media differ in functions they perform in a crisis situation remains unanswered.

Frame Analysis and Sources' Role in Framing

Frame analysis is the most common approach to examining media content. It is based on the assumption that journalists filter information in ways that affect an audience's understanding or interpretation of issues, stories, or events (Lowery & DeFleur, 1995, p. 327). By selecting certain facts from a continuous flow of information, emphasizing specific issues or events over others, and presenting issues or events in specific orders, journalists have the ability to influence attitudes, beliefs, and behavior in a number of ways.

Researchers have looked at media frames from various perspectives. "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." (Entman, 1993, p. 52) Framing, then, can be described as a "story angle or hook"; it is "the central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events and weaves a connection among them" (Gamson & Modigliani, 1987, p. 143). Media use "certain perspective and frames" in news coverage to help people organize and understand news information (King, 1997, p. 29). News is often presented from a point of view that changes the viewer's understanding or interpretation of events and evokes emotions (Nimmo & Combs, 1985, pp. 17-18; Norris, 1995, p. 359).

A number of studies have focused on news content and how it is framed (Entman, 1993; Fico & Freedman, 2001; Iyengar, 1991; Iyengar & Simon, 1993; Larson, 1984; Nacos, 1994; Norris, 1995; Pan & Kosicki, 1993; Semetko & Valkenburg, 2000; Tewksbury, Jones, Peske, Raymond, & Vig, 2000; Ungar, 1998). Framing research shows that four frames are more common than others: conflict, human interest, responsibility, and economic consequences (Valkenburg & Semetko, 1999, p. 551). The responsibility frame is the most frequently used, followed by the conflict frame. Economic and human interest frames were significantly lower in use (Semetko & Valkenburg, 2000). However, in a crisis involving a large number of casualties, human interest could emerge as a dominant frame. Media functions suggested by The National Research Council Committee on Disasters (1980, p. 10) and the social utility function (Dominick, 1996, p. 47) concurred in pointing to the attention that media paid to human interest in the coverage of disasters, which could lead to human interest frames overshadowing others.

Sources play an important role in media framing. Studies found source use is related to media frames (Liebler & Bendix, 1996). Other studies found unusual source selection in a crisis and its effect on framing (Andsager & Powers, 1999; Colby & Cook, 1991; Entman, 1991; Lasorsa & Reese, 1990; Nacos, 1994). Media used a wider variety of sources when covering an anti-American terrorist act than when covering other foreign policy issues (Nacos, 1994). In the coverage of AIDS, the typical AIDS story tended less to sensationalize than to reassure because government officials and high-ranking doctors were major sources (Colby & Cook, 1991). Under the crisis situation of 9/11, a wider range of sources was used and such source reliance is likely to affect media frames.

Frame Dynamics and Stage of Crisis

The studies reviewed here indicate that various factors affect media frames. Whereas the findings of these studies offer insight into the coverage pattern of important issues in a crisis, there is still much to be understood. For example, in a rapidly developing national crisis, do news frames emerge with patterns similar to those in other crisis situations? What sources played the most important roles in framing the news? To what degree do new events bring about changes in media frames? One of the major flaws in frame analysis of news coverage is that most of the studies examined media frames from a static perspective; that is, the media frames were considered constant throughout the process. In fact, when covering a rapidly changing crisis, media are likely to follow the changes and present varying frames as events unfold. This study seeks to specify the changing construction of media frames during a rapidly evolving crisis.

Several studies have touched on frame dynamics in media coverage of various issues including welfare (Gilens, 1999), the Clinton health care package (Jacobs & Shapiro, 2000) and police brutality (Lawrence, 2000). Media could shift framing strategies from presenting frightening information to a containment or calming approach when "dread-inspiring events are developing in unpredictable and potentially threatening ways" (Ungar, 1998, p. 36). None of these studies specifically focused on frame dynamics in media coverage of a national crisis or offered an elaborate view on frame dynamics. Chyi and McCombs (2004) proposed "frame-changing" in their study of the coverage of the Columbine school shooting, arguing that during any news event's life span, media often reframe the event by emphasizing different attributes. Muschert and Carr (2006) extended the study of frame-changing across similar events and between more and less salient events. Although both studies examined frame dynamics and offered useful ideas of sequence-related frame changes associated with time, neither of them examined frame-changing in news coverage as...

To continue reading