7 January 2022

New research led by the University of Edinburgh Business School has analysed the media framing of recent worldwide crises, determining how single stand-alone events have the ability to change the narrative of media coverage.
News camera equipment

'Framing theory' is the study of how rhetorical devices can be used to convince people of the value of any given position. Frames select certain aspects of a perceived reality to make them more noticeable, often simplifying the message to mobilise people and garner support (and importantly, demobilising antagonists). This new research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, gives us the first known insight into how and why the framing of societal issues change over time.

In 2015, wars across several countries (notably Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq) led to a sharp increase in people fleeing their home countries in search or shelter elsewhere. According to figures from the International Organisation of Migration, more than 1 million people arrived in Europe in 2015, up from 280,000 the previous year. When looking at the framing of the crisis in the UK media, terms such as 'swarms of migrants', 'marauding migrants', and 'cockroaches' were common place, with narratives focusing on the perceived negative economic impact that an influx of new arrivals would have across our country’s infrastructure.

However the terms of the debate changed significantly on 2 September when the image of three-year old Syrian Aylan Kurdi lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish, became the front-page image of newspapers everywhere.

John Amis, Professor of Strategic Management and Organisation at the University of Edinburgh Business School, said: "This image triggered an immediate and shocking reaction worldwide. The conversation of the crisis in the media changed significantly, and immediately we witnessed a change in the language used to characterise the people involved."

Although images of people dying in their thousands had been published previous to this image, none of them had a comparable effect. Politicians and media organisations of all ideologies changed their strategies almost immediately. The research showed framing to be a dynamic process, with the integration of new material causing rapid change to the emphasis and presentation of available frames over time.

Frames were shown to consist of an emotional array: a set of emotions, a level of intensity at which these are expressed, and a distinctive associated language. The team found that the emotional arrays of the frames available in the UK media changed after the image was published and this then led to wider changes of the framing of the crisis.

"We demonstrate that frames are much more malleable that previously thought and that disruptive events can bring about rapid and radical shifts in frame composition and emphasis" said Amis.

John Amis is the Chair in Strategic Management & Organisation and Head of Strategy Group at the University of Edinburgh Business School.