Academic

Media Framing and Police Brutality

written for Journalism 614: Communication & Public Opinion at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

According to my media prediction paper, framing in the media has the ability to skew and shift public opinion. I believe that the law and order frame or race relations frame that hard news uses to portray events of police brutality alters the way in which the public interprets them, therefore altering their beliefs and perceptions of reality. The law and order frame justifies police behavior and the race relations frame describes instances of police brutality as aggressive acts of racial discrimination. For example, if a journalist uses the law and order frame to cover an instance of police brutality, it makes the public think that race is not the cause of the brutality and that race relations are not as bad as they actually are because the behavior is justified. If the race relations frame is used, there is more likely to be a divide between who is perceived to be guilty and who is perceived to be innocent.

Existing knowledge of cognitive processes indicate that people typically do not invest much effort into formulating an opinion. Aside from societal elites who tend to maintain a more defined set of beliefs, most people hold inconsistent, ever-changing views. Because most opinions are malleable, I believe that composing the same survey question in different ways will yield varying responses. Additionally, the classical conditioning theory suggests that responses can be dictated by specific stimuli. Therefore, casting a survey question in a negative or positive light may elicit different answers. Seeking to test this conclusion, I have altered the phrasing of our questions. If classical conditioning holds, then the contrasting characterizations of “police brutality” and “police injustice” may produce different outcomes. Similarly, if people feel a certain way about the labels “African Americans” and “blacks,” that may alter how they answer the question.

To develop different versions of the same survey item to test our media prediction, I will pay attention to the way the questions are framed by changes in wording. Our initial survey item is, “Do you think general members of the public fall victim to police brutality?” Our response options are: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree. In our question variations, I change the words “general members of the public” to “African American” and then to “black” members of the public, which could elicit differing responses associated with racial priming. According to a survey done by the Washington Post, the term “black” has been found to be “associated with a negative emotional tone,” while there was no such association found for the term “African American” (Hall, E, 2014). Therefore, I can predict that respondents will respond more strongly when the label “black” is used in a question, rather than “African American.” Lastly, rather than referring to our central conflict as police “brutality,” I replaced it with police “injustice,” which may generate a more neutral response like “agree,” “disagree”  or “neutral.” The word “injustice” may elicit sentiments more geared towards flaws in the law rather that unwarranted violence and harm by individual officers than “brutality.” If an individual responds “neutral” to one of the variations of our questions, this could inform us about whether or not our hypothesis is being proved: whether or not the police brutality frame is influencing people’s opinions. I predict that responses to our original survey question will be more neutral because the question does not specify “African Americans,” “blacks” or “brutality.”  

The three frames regarding race that are used within media content affects people’s opinions of race relations. The frame that is most dominantly used in the media dictates what the public’s opinion will be. For example, if frames specifying race is the most dominant frame portrayed in hard news, there may be a harsher response from the public regarding their approval of the country’s race relations. However, dominance of a law and order frame could impact  the public to sympathize with the police more and believe that race relations are not as problematic as if they were interpreting the news through a race frame. Thus, the responses from our question set will reflect how opinions on the country’s race issues can be manipulated through race and law and order frames.

Appendix

  1. “Do African American members of the public fall victim to police brutality?”
  2. “Do black members of the public fall victim to police brutality?”
  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

3. “Do you think African American members of the public fall victim to police injustice?”

4.  “Do you think blacks fall victim to police injustice”

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

SOURCES

Hall, E. (2014). Whites view the term “African-American” more favorably than “black”. Washington Post. Retrieved 8 November 2014, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/11/18/whites-view-the-term-african-american-more-favorably-than-black/?utm_term=.1571baa9fa26