How did the media brainwash you

A framing to rule them?

In mid-February, a “framing manual” caused a stir in Germany. In the internal document, communications consultant Elisabeth Wehling gave ARD supposed tips on the choice of words in order to strengthen the trust of the citizens in the station again. On the one hand, linguistic images such as “our common, free broadcasting” should be emphasized. On the other hand, critics could be defamed as “disloyal”. And then there was the comparison of private broadcasters with “media capitalist locusts” ...

In defense, it must be said that this was not an instruction, but a basis for discussion. The document was never intended for publication. Nevertheless, it is now being sharply criticized, especially by rights and opponents of public service broadcasting. Does the ARD want to brainwash the citizens? Who is still safe from such media manipulation? Or is it cooked hotter than eaten here?

Demystification is urgently needed in this debate. The mechanisms of political communication are not as simple as we sometimes imagine. In public discourse, a communication model from the early days of media impact research is often assumed, where a clear stimulus is followed by a clear reaction. Attitudes to certain topics would be “inoculated” into us through media reporting or targeted political statements (hypodermic needle model).

Against this background, the concept of Framings get mystical powers in public. The basic idea is that the human brain needs an interpretation framework in order to process information. If you influence the frame of interpretation, you influence the processing of information and the resulting (political) attitudes. Communication advisors advertise that certain words or language images should be used and others should be avoided. After that, all (image) problems would practically resolve themselves. Although language creates reality, it is not always that simple.

“Frame? What's that again? " asked Michael Häupl in an interview with Falter in September 2017. His question is well founded. Because even in communication science, there is still no consensus as to when exactly framing can be used and how useful the concept actually is. In the rarest of cases, the supposed effect of framing is about persuasion, i.e. about convincing a person who has a certain opinion of a different opinion. Instead, settings that already exist are often reinforced.

Indeed, measuring communication effects is often a challenge for science. When it comes to media influences, “minimal effects” are often assumed, because generalizable effects are rarely found that would empirically substantiate pointed statements such as those made in communication consulting. Instead, one finds an influence by the media, e.g. more likely with people who are not very familiar with a topic and have no established attitudes towards it. For example, in a study on election coverage of the 2013 National Council election, I found that positive and negative ratings of parties in the media only influenced those voters who had little political knowledge and who were not affiliated with any party. In addition, due to the selective media use alone, i.e. the fact that citizens primarily use media whose content they share anyway and which they trust, the scope for possible manipulative media effects is rather limited. They only exist in connection with the already existing predispositions of the citizens. We are far from being “brainwashed” - as BILD suspects.

Then why the worry from manipulation by the media? On the one hand, the myth of the omnipotence of framing is of course spread by those who do their business with framing advice. On the other hand, we know that people tend to believe that the mass media influences everyone else much more than they do themselves (third-person effect). Probably the most central study on this phenomenon comes from the USA from the 1980s. Among other things, a survey shows that only 32% of respondents think that they were very much influenced by TV advertising as a child. However, twice as many are of the opinion other Children would have been heavily influenced. Recent research on the 2016 US presidential election shows the same effect on the perceived influence of fake news. Republican voters assume that fake news has the greatest influence on Democrats and vice-versa. On themselves, they believe, fake news would have had the slightest effect, even compared to other supporters of their own party.

Ultimately, however, it is above all those citizens who represent extreme political attitudes who like to accuse the media of being biased and suggest that they intend to influence. In Austria you can see this connection especially among female FPÖ voters. According to data from the Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES), around 28% of FPÖ voters from 2017 stated that they spoke to the media not trust at all (i.e. the lowest point on an Elfer scale). In other countries, such mistrust can be seen among both the extreme left and the extreme right. Voters at the political extremes want a reduction in the complexity of good and bad, which the media so often cannot deliver because they rarely exist in reality.

The pseudoscientific In the end, communication paper turns out to be an own goal for ARD and only unsettles those who already have little trust in the media (see also Christoph Hofinger's Falter comment on the cause). Consulting firms that deal with sounding names like Berkeley International Framing Institute or Cambridge Decorating Analytica in order to get closer to scientific institutions does not apply much. In the end, they want to primarily sell their service - regardless of empirical evidence. Consciously or unconsciously, they only feed the fear of media and political “brainwashing” even more.

On the one hand, the media should differentiate more clearly between marketing and science. Critical inquiries must be made where necessary, because evidence can also be requested from experts. This gives the media the opportunity to provide relevant contextual knowledge that can defuse the public debate. For science, on the other hand, it means communicating the state of research more clearly to the outside world and thus making a contribution to the fact that public discussions can be conducted in a more evidence-based manner. In the end, trust in the media may increase again.