Monday, April 7, 2014

Reading between the lines: Framing and Priming in the Ukraine Crisis Media coverage

The media are so powerful in today’s life that some people have labeled them on an equal footing as Parliament, Judiciary and the Executive arm of government. But with power comes great controversy and as such, the question of media is listed as one of the most controversial topic in political science.

There are competing ideas as to what the role of the media is in a democracy or in the international system and this paper will not try to join that debate, nor will it try to pick how true and real media effects are. The paper will however support the idea that media set the agenda and use language and other tricks to try to influence the way people interpret the world.

It will consider the case of priming and framing and use the currently ongoing Ukraine Crisis as case study to show how different media houses hold different ideologies and try to influence their audiences to think along their lines. As it is famously said: ‘‘the media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about’’ (Cohen, 1963, p. 13,).

Framing and Priming

Liberal Pluralists see society as a complex of competing groups and interests, none of them predominant all of the time. Media organizations are seen as bounded organizational systems, enjoying an important degree of autonomy from the state, political parties and institutionalized pressure groups. Control of the media is said to be in the hands of an autonomous managerial elite who allow a considerable degree of flexibility to media professionals[1].

Marxists view capitalist society as being one of class domination; the media are seen as part of an ideological arena in which various class views are fought out, although within the context of the dominance of certain classes; ultimate control is increasingly concentrated in monopoly capital; media professionals, while enjoying the illusion of autonomy, are socialized into and internalize the norms of the dominant culture; the media taken as a whole, relay interpretive frameworks consonant with the interests of the dominant classes, and media audiences, while sometimes negotiating and contesting these frameworks, lack ready access to alternative meaning systems that would enable them to reject the definitions offered by the media in favour of consistently oppositional definitions. (Gurevitch et al. in Chandler 1994)

This paper roots for the Marxist Media Theory.

The mass media are, in classical Marxist terms, a 'means of production' which in capitalist society are in the ownership of the ruling class. According to the classical Marxist position, the mass media simply disseminate the ideas and world views of the ruling class, and deny or defuse alternative ideas. This is very much in accord with Marx's argument that:

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. (Marx & Engels: The German Ideology, cited in Curran et al. 1982: 22 and quoted in Chandler, 1994).

The media, according to various Marxists, have ideological power and the messages they send to audiences are laden with it.

For Example, the media showing violence has been argued by scholars like Stuart Hall as being a way ‘to legitimize the forces of law and order, build consent for the extension of coercive state regulation and de-legitimate outsiders and dissidents'.

The coverage of elections has been shown as being a way of socializing the masses to believe that they live in a representative democracy.

Elites presumably care about what people think because they want them to behave in certain ways, supporting or at least tolerating elite activities. Given limitations of time, attention, and rationality, getting people to think (and behave) in a certain way requires selecting some things to tell them about and efficiently cueing them on how these elements mesh with their own schema systems.

“Because the best succinct definition of power is the ability to get others to do what one wants (Nagel, 1975), ‘‘telling people what to think about’’ is how one exerts political influence in noncoercive political systems (and to a lesser extent in coercive ones). And it is through framing that political actors shape the texts that influence or prime the agendas and considerations that people think about[2].”

Framing has been defined as the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connections among them to promote a particular interpretation. (Entman, 2007)
Framing works to shape and alter audience members’ interpretations and preferences through priming.

And Priming is when media provide a context for public discussion of an issue, setting the stage for audience understanding.

The amount of time and space that media devote to an issue make an audience receptive and alert to particular themes. Likewise, audience perceptions of events are impacted by historical context with which they are familiar (through experience or through media).

Grounded in cognitive psychology, the theory of media priming is derived from the associative network model of human memory, in which an idea or concept is stored as a node in the network and is related to other ideas or concepts by semantic paths. Priming refers to the activation of a node in this network, which may serve as a filter, an interpretive frame, or a premise for further information processing or judgment formation.

As an example media reporting may be very strong leading up to an event such as the Olympics, or World Cup, making it almost impossible for audiences to ignore the event. Such aggressive reporting thus creates an audience of people at least temporarily interested in the sport, even though prior to the reporting many (perhaps most) members of the audience were not sports fans. Rather, they are people who get caught up in the moment. (Ron Smith, 2011)

In framing media provide a focus and environment for reporting a story, influencing how audiences will understand or evaluate it. Framing theory deals with social construction on two levels: Perception of a social phenomenon by journalists presenting news and interpretation of that phenomenon by audience.

Framing involves the use of metaphor, spin, storytelling, jargon, word choice, and other narrative elements.
As an example, through initial reporting, the media may present the facts of a story in such as way that the audience is given a particular point of view or frame of reference and interpretation. The media may report that a political candidate has extreme views on an issue, that a budget proposal is harmful to a particular group, that a new medicine is of questionable safety, and so on. By such reporting, the media thus have presented a frame through which the story is interpreted by audiences. It also sets the baseline for future reporting on the issue.

That is, frames introduce or raise the salience or apparent importance of certain ideas, activating schemas that encourage target audiences to think, feel, and decide in a particular way.
Entman (2004) argues that frames typically perform four functions: problem definition, causal analysis, moral judgment, and remedy promotion.

Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of perceived reality and make them more salient in the 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. Frames, then, define problems—determine what a causal agent is doing and costs and benefits, usually measured in terms of cultural values; diagnose causes—identify the forces creating the problem; make moral judgments—evaluate causal agents and their effects; and suggest remedies—offer and justify treat

As a property of a message, a frame limits or defines the message’s meaning by shaping the inferences that individuals make about the message. Frames reflect judgments made by message creators or framers. Some frames represent alternative valencing of information (i.e., putting information in either a positive or negative light, or valence framing). Other frames involve the simple alternative phrasing of terms (semantic framing).
The most complex form of framing is storytelling (story framing). Story framing involves (a) selecting key themes or ideas that are the focus of the message and (b) incorporating a variety of storytelling or narrative.
Hallahan’s Seven Models of Framing [3]


Relationships between individuals in situations found in everyday living and literature. Framing of situations provides structure for examining communication. Applies to discourse analysis, negotiation, and other interactions.


Characteristics of objects and people are accentuated, whereas others are ignored, thus biasing processing of information in terms of focal attributes
Posing alternative decisions in either negative (loss) or positive (gain) terms can bias choices in situations involving uncertainty. Prospect theory suggests people will take greater risks to avoid losses than to obtain gains.

In persuasive contexts, the probability that a person will act to attain a desired goal is influenced by whether alternatives are stated in positive or negative terms.
Social problems and disputes can be explained in alternative terms by different parties who vie for their preferred definition a problem or situation to prevail.

Individuals tend to attribute cause of events to either internal or external factors, based on levels of stability and control. People portray their role in events consistent with their self-image in ways that maximize benefits and minimize culpability. People attribute causes to personal actions rather than systemic problems in society.

Media reports use familiar, culturally resonating themes to relay information about events. Sources vie for their preferred framing to be featured through frame enterprise and frame sponsorship

While covering conflict that involves multiple nations Zendberg and Neiger (2005) found that journalists are caught between being professional and patriotism and usually, argued the authors, the journalists try to be patriotic[4].


Ukraine is Europe’s second largest country seated on top or Romania and the Black Sea and half wedged into Russia.  With a population of 45 million people, Ukraine only got independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union fell apart.

Demonstrations broke out in Ukraine on the night of 21 November 2013, when protests erupted in the capital, Kiev, after the Ukrainian government suspended preparations for signing an Association Agreement and a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, in favour of closer economic relations with Russia.  On 24 November 2013 first clashes between protesters and police began. Protesters strived to break cordon.

Police used tear gas and batons, protesters also used tear gas and some fire crackers (according to police protesters were first to use them). After a few days of demonstrations an increasing number of university students joined the protests. Despite so far unmet demands to renew Ukraine-EU integration, the Euromaidan has been repeatedly characterized as an event of major political symbolism for the European Union itself, particularly as "the largest ever pro-European rally in history".

Ukraine has since been described as a battleground for old enemies; Russia and the West.
With this hypothesis in mind, this paper will highlight a few news stories from The Voice of Russia (The official Russian Broadcasting Station), RT (a Russian and publicly funded television station), The British Broadcasting Corporation and The Huffington Post a US independent news website.

The analogy is simply to illustrate theory and is in no way scientific.

RT on February 25 ran a story with a headline:

“Alarming trend in Ukraine: Historic monuments toppled, Nazi symbols spread (PHOTOS, VIDEO)[5]

The headline was followed by this lead:

‘After a fortnight of violent clashes in the name of democracy, Ukraine seems to be falling into a totally different trend. Symbols of victories over Hitler and Napoleon are being torn down, while those glorifying Nazi rule are multiplying.’

Voice of Russia writing n the same went with the headline:

“Clashes in Ukraine: historical statues destroyed while Nazi symbols remain[6]

The lead that followed ran as follows:

“Straight after violent clashes in Ukraine, finally it seems that the country is on a better path. After months of struggle, it can be seen that the symbols of victories have been torn down while Nazi symbols are being put up.”

On the Western front

The Huffington Post ran with:

Leninopad, Ukraine's Falling Lenin Statues, Celebrated As Soviet Symbols Toppled Nationwide (VIDEOS, PHOTOS)[7]

The lead for the Huffington Post ran:

“Last week, as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych tried to hang on to power, opposition protesters tore down statues of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin across the country, according to the BBC. The symbolic gesture signaled the protesters' desire to tear away from Ukraine's Soviet history and the country's ongoing dependence on modern Russia.”

The BBC went with:

Ukraine crisis: Lenin statues toppled in protest[8]

Following with:

“Protesters have toppled statues of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in various Ukrainian cities.”

In the South of the country in the offshoot of Crimea, a group of people who had guns stormed the parliament ad installed a Russian flag atop the building…

For Voice of Russia the groups were described as ‘self-defense units[9],’ Huffington Post called them ‘armed protesters[10],’ and RT termed them “Self-defense Squads[11].”

The Voice or Russia did not mention that a Russian flag was installed on the seized building; RT used the very Russian flag in its headline and picture as did the Huffington Post.

The BBC showed the picture of the flag but said the ‘unidentified’ men ‘were cheered by a handful of pro-Russian demonstrators who gathered round the building[12].’

Having considered the Marxist theory and defined framing and priming, it is easy to see the wall in the media on the opposite sides of Ukraine.

The BBC goes on to use phrases such as “Western nations have warned Russia…,” for example which to an unsuspecting media consumer will trigger his brain to see Ukraine as a wall between Russia and the West.

The Russia media calling the armed protestors self-defense units/squads is also another ploy to make audiences think that the men who actually stormed parliament and threw a flash grenade at journalists are just people defending themselves.

And the BBC can also not explain why it uses the word handful to describe a group of people without admitting that it meant to convey a sense that the numbers around the Crimean parliament were very decimal.
The fact that the Voice of Russia omits the picture of a Russian flag on the Crimean parliament or the mention of it shows that it is trying to make unavailable certain facts that audiences might use in making an interpretation about the situation.

And the leads used by RT and Voice of Russia are also laden with ideology and are primed and framed to tilt the Ukrainian story in favour of Russia.

RT has done more than three stories and all talk about how the statue destroyed in town so and so signified the freeing of the Ukrainians from Napoleon…all while not mentioning that it is a Russian statue and therefore possibly seen as a symbol of Russian colonialism in Ukraine.

Instead the two highlight, with both pictures and video zooming into swastikas painted on some walls. The idea behind this priming is to emphasize and draw attention to the neo-Nazi elements in the Ukrainian protest movements and ultimately to discredit them in the minds of the audiences.

But neo-Nazi units have always been part of European cities including Russia itself and so far the majority of the protest movement has not been vocal and active in championing racial hatred.

With this said, the Huffington post and the BBC lack of significant mention of the Nazi units in the Ukrainian protest movement might be a deliberate omission to sanitize the protestors as genuine clean European loving common people.

And the description in the western media that the Ukrainian protests were the biggest pro-European rallies in history are for example attempts to appeal to audiences as a gallant play by Ukrainians, and nobody wants to highlight the fact that the protest grew because people particularly wanted to oust the president for championing anti-protest laws.


BBC (2014) West warns Russia amid rising tensions in Crimea Retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

BBC (2014) Ukraine crisis: Lenin statues toppled in protest retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

Chandler, Daniel (1994) Marxist Media Theory retrieved on 20/02/14 from URL:

Huffington Post UK (2014) Ukraine Crisis: Crimean Protesters Raise Russian Flag Over Parliament Building retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

Huffington Post (2014) Leninopad, Ukraine's Falling Lenin Statues, Celebrated As Soviet Symbols Toppled Nationwide (VIDEOS, PHOTOS) retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

Kirk Hallahan (1999) Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations in Journal of Public Relations Research, 11(3), 205–242

Robert M. Entman  (2007) Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power in Journal of Communication Volume 57Issue 1pages 163–173, March 2007

RT (2014) retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

RT (2014) Russian flag over Crimea's parliament as people barricaded inside Retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

Voice of Russia (2014) Clashes in Ukraine: historical statues destroyed while Nazi symbols remain retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

Voice of Russia (2014) Crimea Parliament seized by unidentified armed men, tensions grow in Ukraine retrieved on 27/02/14 from URL:

Zendberg, E i Neiger, M 2005, ‘Between the nation and profession: journalists as members of contradicting communities’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 1,str. 131—141.

[1] Chandler, Daniel (1994) Marxist Media Theory retrieved on 20/02/14 from URL:

[2] Robert M. Entman  (2007) Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power in Journal of Communication Volume 57Issue 1pages 163–173March 2007

[3] Adapted from Kirk Hallahan (1999) Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations in Journal of Public Relations Research, 11(3), 205–242

[4] Zendberg, E i Neiger, M 2005, ‘Between the nation and profession: journalists as members of contradicting communities’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 1,str. 131—141.

[5] RT (2014) retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:
[6] Voice of Russia (2014) Clashes in Ukraine: historical statues destroyed while Nazi symbols remain retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:
[7]Huffington Post (2014) Leninopad, Ukraine's Falling Lenin Statues, Celebrated As Soviet Symbols Toppled Nationwide (VIDEOS, PHOTOS) retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:
[8]BBC (2014) Ukraine crisis: Lenin statues toppled in protest retrieved on 28/02/14 from URL:

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