Framing effects in a feature-length article on trans young people

If you are taking part in interviews with a journalist for a feature article about a complex topic, is it better for your story to set the scene or have the last word?

Part II

My last post on the Michael Bachelard piece found an unfamiliar audience so hello! Welcome to the blog, let me introduce myself… I’m a queer and nonbinary person living with serious mental illness. I use they/them pronouns. I originally trained in law and cultural studies and my career has combined health promotion practice with social research in public health.

I’m writing this as a culture and communication researcher doing my PhD at a centre focused on regulation and governance, looking at how public health initiatives engage with communities grappling with health and social problems. One of my two PhD case studies is the Unharm Story Lab, which trains people who use drugs to share their stories with journalists, particularly those writing long-form and feature pieces.

Recall and framing

In cognitive science, studies of recall suggest two effects, mediated by different neural systems. The primacy effect — items learnt first are recalled more often — is mediated by long-term memory, whereas the recency effect — ease of recall for last-learnt items — is mediated by short-term memory.

But recall is only the beginning. Semantic processing — how we make meaning from what we learn — depends on recall but goes far beyond it. In its simplest expression, the concept of framing refers to the way some learned items can influence the processing of other learned items. 

This concept has a long history. Framing has been extensively studied (and debated) in sociology (Goffman, 1974), communication science (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007), behavioural economics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981), linguistics (Lakoff, 2004) and cultural studies (Vicari, 2023). 

All of these treatments conceive framing in different ways and offer their own advantages and downsides. I am going to focus on two in particular.

In Joel Dignam’s helpful summary, Lakoff describes frames as ‘mental structures that shape the way we see the world.’ From a cognitive perspective, framing is the practice of communicating in a way that activates unconscious ideas and associations that support the message being communicated. 

By contrast, in Goffman’s account, frames are social and consist of sets of unspoken rules that determine the nature and conduct of a given situation.

With framing in mind, let’s return to my question. Quite straightforwardly, in media communications, it is more powerful to set the scene than to have the last word. The opening paragraphs of an article provide the reader with an interpretive framework for what follows in the remainder of the article. 

They answer Goffman’s question: what are we doing here? What kind of article is this? And in Lakoff’s sense, they activate networks of unspoken associations that structure how the rest of the article is perceived and interpreted.

TL;DR

There’s another more brutally practical reason for wanting to come first: communication research has consistently demonstrated that people don’t read articles line-by-line from beginning to end. 

Instead, they skim — and what they do read skews heavily towards the ‘top’ of the article: its opening paragraphs. 

That’s why news articles cover the key details of a story — the who-what-where-when-how-and-why — in the first 2-3 paragraphs and devote the rest to reactions from key actors, supporting facts and legal/editorial disclaimers.

There’s a feedback loop here. Journalists know that reading practices are top-heavy, so they put the key details in the first few paragraphs; in turn this trains and reinforces audiences in the top-heavy reading practice.

Reflections on the Bachelard piece

My last post shared my strong concern about unethical reporting in the Michael Bachelard piece in The Age/SMH Good Weekend about trans young people. People quite fairly asked me ‘But Daniel, what about the rest of the piece?’ 

It featured a heart-warming narrative about trans man Sage Moorhen and his nonbinary genderfluid partner Priya, and Sage’s family who supported him through the process of affirming first nonbinary identity then male gender. 

It describes, with studied neutrality, a self-help group for ‘gender critical’ parents, providing extensive quotes that leave them sounding like the most revolting people.

Lastly it finishes with two interviews, featuring Dr Son Vivienne (they/them) and Michelle McNamara (she/her), who are respectively the CEO and advocacy committee chair at Transgender Victoria. Their voices come through loud and clear — warm, concerned, engaged, and above all, pragmatic. This is the voice of common sense at last.

But it is last.

Unconscious dimensions

I’ve been talking about the structure of the piece: what comes first, last, and in the middle; what that signals to whom; and how that interacts with reading practices. The structure is unspoken, unconscious, ‘behind the scenes,’ but it’s still incredibly powerful at framing what we read and take from the piece.

I have some hypotheses about this piece. Structurally, it is wonky as fuck. It begins with a really uncomfortable anecdote — a weak, unsatisfying story, and deeply negative, not a strong start for a long piece where you need readers to really commit if they are going to make it to the end.

By contrast, in the narrative about Sage Moorhen, the young trans man the author Michael Bachelard has known since childhood, the writing is calm, confident and expansive — a much more natural note to begin a feature upon. 

I’m just guessing, but my guess is that an editor directed Bachelard to reorder the piece so that Misha’s experience frames the rest of the piece. My guess is Misha’s story originally came after the Moorhen narrative — a discursive move that would have said ‘but not everyone benefits from gender affirming care…’

Which is straightforwardly true — but that discursive move would present Misha’s story as exceptional, rather than a case typical of an entire system for gender affirmative care in crisis…

Conclusion

In my next post, I’ll write about the unspoken issue at the heart of the traumatic narratives presented in this awful piece — complex post-traumatic disorder and its effects on personality development in young people.

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