Communication & News Framing - Case Study of the U.S. & China Standoff of 2001
An event is a fact. It happens. People witness it. People talk about it. People report it. In today's world, the even t may be recorded for posterity in a variety of ways. It may be capture on videotape. It may be captured in the voice recordings of an airplane's "black box." It may be tracked line by line through a printed transcript that contains the exact words of the participants. Recorded. Exact. Fact. We associate these words with what we read in newspapers, hear on the radio, or see on television. We assume that the news, as it is reported, is wholly truthful and accurate, but is it? Is the reportage of real-world events by the "unbiased" media free from the filters through which we all observe and analyze the world around us? Children play a game called "telephone." In this game, a group of children sit in a circle. One child goes first, whispering a message to one of the children alongside him. This child in turn whispers the same message to the child next in the circle, and he to the next, and so on, and on, until at length, the very last child to receive the message repeats it aloud to the entire group. The final result of this children's game is almost always uncontrollable laughter. Why? Because the message that is repeated aloud at the end of the game is almost always entirely different from the original message. Somewhere along the line, that message was changed. Whether intentionally, or accidentally, a fact - in this case the original message - was completely distorted by passing through the "filter" of different individuals. It is the same with events of world importance. The media and their governments present the news in ways that reflect their relative points-of-view. They fine-tune their representations in order to shape public opinion, carefully guiding it into the desired channels. The way in which the media presents a news story is called "News Framing." Whether it is through the images that are shown, the words that are written, or the syllables that are spoken, news framing profoundly affects the way we the public think and react. Minor incidents can be blown out of proportion, and serious ones downplayed. It all depends on who is reporting the news. Perhaps one of the finest examples of this kind of news framing occurred early in 2001, in response to the collision of an American military plane with a Chinese fighter in Chinese airspace. This paper will examine that case.
The public's understanding of an event is colored by the way in which that event is presented. Whether it is through a series of images on a television screen, the reporter's voice over, or the commentator's analysis, the specific "viewpoint" of the agency conducting the reportage is automatically being represented along with the "facts" of the event itself.
As sociologists like William Gamson, Andre Modigliano and others have pointed out, when news framing refers to the practice of focusing on a particular meaning to classify, organize and interpret information, it deals with the construction of ideologies. The merits and consequences of these ideologies... [And] the fact that some are more readily learned than others is germane. Similarly, when framing affects causal thinking... It is important to consider that some causal linkages may arouse more interest and produce more learning than others.
(Graber, 1993, p. 78)
In our specific case of a U.S. military aircraft intruding into the airspace of the People's Republic of China and colliding with a Chinese fighter craft, we have an event that is ripe for news framing. As stated above, news reporting often involves the constructing of ideologies. What seem at first glance to be minor points in a story can actually take on enormous proportions in the minds of those who are exposed to the story. To being with, both Chinese and American reporters of the event agreed that a single Chinese plane, and single American plane were somehow involved in a collision. This collision resulted in the disappearance, and apparent death, of the Chinese pilot, and in the forced landing of the United States craft at a Chinese airbase. So far so good. Now, however, we come to the first point of contention. According to the New York Times headline of April 2, 2001, "U.S. Plane in China after it Collides with Chinese Jet,"
The midair crash occurred about 50 miles southeast of China's Hainan Island, in what American officials described as international waters. The EP-3E Aries II aircraft, which had taken off from an American air base in Okinawa, Japan, issued a Mayday call but managed to make an emergency landing on the island. The Chinese plane crashed into the waters below.
Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the United States Pacific Command, said Chinese planes had become increasingly aggressive in tailing American military aircraft in recent months, even prompting the United States to register a protest. "It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air," he said. (Rosenthal and Sanger, 2001)
And the Chinese version, as reported in the English Version of the Chinese newspaper, The People's Daily, on April 4th:
FM Spokesman Gives Full Account of Air Collision"
At 8:36 Beijing time, the U.S. plane approached the airspace over China's territorial waters off the city of Sanya to conduct surveillance. A unit of the Chinese Navy sent two F-8 fighters to follow and monitor the U.S. plane, Zhu said.
At 9:07, the Chinese planes made a normal flight in an area 104 kilometers from the baseline of Chinese territorial waters. The course of the Chinese planes was at 110 degrees, and the U.S. plane was flying parallel with the right side of the Chinese planes in the same direction.
The U.S. plane suddenly veered at a wide angle towards the Chinese planes, which were closer to baseline of the Chinese side. The U.S. plane's nose and left wing rammed the tail of one of the Chinese planes, causing it to lose control and plunge into the sea, Zhu said.
The U.S. plane entered Chinese airspace without approval, and landed at Lingshui Airport in Hainan at 9:33. The Chinese side made proper arrangements for the 24 crew members aboard, in a spirit of humanitarianism.
The surveillance flight conducted by the U.S. aircraft overran the scope of "free over-flight" according to international law, he said. The move also violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stipulates that any flight in airspace above another nation's exclusive economic zone should respect the rights of the country concerned, he said. Thus, the U.S. plane's actions posed a serious threat to the national security of China. (http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/home.html,2001)
So much for illegal games of "cat and mouse." Rather than confirm the American contention that the United States planes had been suddenly set on while in international waters near China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's version of events places the Americans entirely in the wrong, violating United Nations conventions regarding nationally sovereignty, as well as ignoring the standard rules of behavior during flight.
The two accounts cry out for interpretation. There is no doubt, that each is influenced by its nation's position in regard to the incident. The People's Daily is an official organ of the Chinese government. The New York Times is published by a private corporation. Nevertheless, each version of the incident accords perfectly with the nationalist sentiments of the respective countries. The article that appeared in The New York Times holds true to a variety of core American beliefs. Among these are the conviction that the United States is a peace-loving nation that respects the law, and that the People's Republic of China, as a communist state is, by its very nature, opposed to the very principles that the United States holds dear. For the American newspaper reader, it goes without saying that his country could not possibly have been wrong. Thus, The New York Times' giving credence to he explanations of the American military. On the other hand, The People's Daily is following along tradition in the People's Republic of demonizing the "imperialist" nations of the West, of which the United States is at present the chief exemplar. On a deeper level, it is the two nation's appeals to international law that bear the greatest interest. It is as if the incident itself is but a stage in some sort of a competition; a competition between two sovereign states for the admiration and approval of the rest of the world. By appealing to the argument of international law, and of abstract rights, they are saying, in effect, "Let's call in the referees, and take a look at the rule book."
The fairness criticism focuses on two discrete issues that can be called the bandwagon and the conventionalism problems. The bandwagon problem occurs when, because the press wants…