Framing Stories

May 2, 2005
Category: Uncategorized

In a previous column, I wrote about how Jacqui Banaszynski’s six paths to storytelling can be applied to reporting about diversity issues. The reporter who follows these paths will build a rich portfolio, including profiles, trend stories, investigative reports, explanatory pieces, narratives and slice-of-life features.

It’s especially helpful for beat reporters and their editors to think about these approaches to storytelling. They can use these genres for brainstorming: What are three profiles I can report on my beat? What are some trends I’m noticing? Is there a “day in the life” story that’s right under my nose?

Now I’d like to turn my attention to the different ways we frame, or see, diversity stories. Framing a story is akin to composing a photograph. If you’re a reasonably good photographer, you deliberately point your viewfinder to capture certain things in your photos — people, trees, mountains. Whatever interests you.

Let’s say you’re hiking through the woods. For one photo, you focus on the hikers. For another photo, you take close-up images of the leaves on the trees. For a third, you change your vantage point by climbing a hill and shooting downward into a clearing.

In a similar way, the reporter can deliberately choose what she sees in an unfolding story. Some tales emerge organically, and I’m not suggesting that reporters should manipulate their stories. But reporters need to be aware of the frames that they choose for their stories — and consider using multiple frames over a series of stories.

Think of covering a courtroom trial, or a political campaign, or a neighborhood in flux. These are ongoing stories, and thoughtful reporters often use a variety of frames to highlight different issues from one story to the next.

Editors need to be cognizant of these frames, as well. They might have a bias that favors using one frame over another. By giving priority to one kind of story, these editors risk producing monotonous, formulaic front pages.

When I consider how we cover stories involving diversity, I can think of a couple of basic frames. Let me know if you think of more.

The conflict frame: This classic frame of journalism is probably the one we most often use in diversity stories. Front-page stories about rebuilding Iraq focus on the conflict among the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds. Metro stories on the dissension on the city council emphasize the conflict among the blacks, whites and Hispanics. That’s not to say we shouldn’t tell these stories with the conflict frame. But telling all of our diversity stories through the prism of conflict is not being accurate journalistically. The consequences of diversity are more complex and nuanced.

The bridge-building frame: This would appear to be the opposite of the conflict frame, but there are similarities between the two. The journalist who chooses this frame identifies diverse groups that are making an effort to understand one another. An example would be a story about a church program that seeks to build interfaith alliances, or a high school club that fosters gay-straight friendships, or a citywide initiative where people from different races sit down to break bread. Programs such as these deserve the spotlight. But these stories tend to be simplistic, surface-level and event-driven, just like our conflict stories. Our challenge is to chronicle true, lasting relationships that transcend differences.

The disorientation frame: With this frame, we often portray the minority group as disoriented in the mainstream culture. When refugees are relocated from their war-torn homeland to our city, we write about their loneliness, isolation and difficulties adjusting to life here. When special-needs children are mainstreamed into a classroom, we examine their fish-out-of-water struggles. We portray these people as victims if they succumb to their disorientation. Or we portray them as heroes if they overcome these challenges. Our challenge is to also describe the disorientation of the majority. As immigrants change a neighborhood, as minority groups change the dominant culture, and as special-needs students change a classroom, the majority begins to feel disoriented, as well. The landscape around them shifts, and new cultural mores emerge. What, then, happens to the relationship between the majority and minority groups? What happens to the dynamics of the neighborhood, culture and classroom?

The identity frame: This, the most psychological of frames, focuses on the interior rather than the exterior. How does the collision of cultures change who we are and how we view ourselves? This will be an increasingly important story: As statistics indicate, 40 percent of Americans who are 18 years old and under are racial and ethnic minorities. That percentage is only going to grow. We need to examine how that mix will shape the identities of teens, including the identities of young whites. At the same time, how will the growing number of multiracial kids change our definitions of race?

The creation frame: With this frame, we allow ourselves to be hopeful and forward-looking. We find examples of fusion, where diverse cultural traditions blend and become something new. Think of the impact of fusion on food, music, art, politics, dance, literature. Of course, this cultural blending has been going on for ages. But there are artists today who are intentionally creating environments for this to happen. Recently, Yo-Yo Ma spoke to The New York Times about his Silk Road Project. In the past seven years, the cellist has brought together musicians from China to Turkey to build on their traditions, find connections and produce new music. “There is no tradition that exists that was not the result of successful and sustained invention,” Ma said.

The mainstreaming frame: This is the frame that at first doesn’t appear to be a frame. When we use it skillfully, readers don’t notice. But, as with all of these frames, we must have the intention to use it. Whether we are writing a story about gardening, Mother’s Day or cell phone etiquette, we make the commitment to populate the story with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We “mainstream” diversity into all of our stories. We’d like to think that this would happen naturally, and sometimes it does. But our source lists and social circles and the areas we visit to find people — these avenues all tend to reflect our own experience and cultural backgrounds. We need to break out of those boundaries to find new voices for our stories.