Does Media’s Language Influence Opinion?

Patricia Oprea

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Language use is key to poets, to actors, to grant writers, and a great many professions. When used tactically and accurately, words have great power, yet, when they are used wrongly or distortedly, they have a certain power too.

On Tuesday April 19, assistant professor and coordinator of the political science program, Dr. Chris Haynes, spoke in the Marvin K. Peterson library. Haynes discussed how news sources word information, and why this really matters. Haynes is currently involved on a book addressing the effects of policy framing on immigration policy opinion.

First, Dr. Haynes introduces the audience to brought to the topic of frames. These are ways in which media organizes and presents facts and opinions.

One type is equivalency framing. This refers to phrases that are logically equivalent, but vary in their wording. One example is Obamacare vs. healthcare. Illegal vs. unauthorized. The weight of these words isn’t in meaning, because that is essentially the same, but in connotation.

Issue Framing is another kind of framing whereby the speaker influences people to focus on something when constructing an opinion. Essentially, the people are free to make their own decision about the topic, as long as they are thinking about that specific topic.

Other types are Episodic Framing, reporting particular events and issues, perhaps making them appear to occur often than they actually do, and Thematic Framing, placing issues and events in a general context, like not focusing on victim or perpetrator as much as collective evidence.

The overarching question is: does framing vary across media outlets? Furthermore, are frames consequential on public opinion? Haynes posed a question: “Do they shift opinion in a more supporting or opposing opinion?” Perhaps a decade of watching the nightly news broadcast or reading the morning paper can influence our own opinions.

Haynes introduced immigration with two policies in the United States: the DREAM Act, and DACA.

The Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is a proposed pathway to citizenship for undocumented minors that came to the US before a certain age. Too often, children with essentially no fault for their parent’s illegal immigration are being held back in their lives. US senator Orrin Hatch says, “These children have built their lives here, they have no possibility for achieving and living the American Dream. What a tremendous loss to our society” (2003). Most Americans are generally supportive of the DREAM act, says Dr. Haynes.  However, in 2007 and 2010, the Dream act failed to pass in the Senate. On the senate floor, Senator Feinstein said, “They’re just like every other American…Now, reaching adulthood, these people reach a dead end.”

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; this shields action from prosecutorial focus for certain populations. It often shields immigrants from deportation.

As recent as 2015, DACA failed to pass in the senate. Currently, the Supreme Court is considering DACA, mentioned Haynes.

Evaluating the presentation of immigration-related issues, for the past ten years, Haynes and colleagues collected data from several news sources. These included CNN, MSBS, New York Times, Washington Post, and conservative ones too: Washington Times, the New York Post, and FOX.

“I read through hundreds –-thousands– of articles,” Haynes stated. The researchers coded the articles assessing, “”what is the tone?” They also studied the emotional content, seeing which articles corresponded to empathy, anxiety, anger, etc.

Studies were carried out in 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014 to evaluate how language influences people’s opinion.

The proposed hypothesis was that mentions of the word “child” would increase support and amnesty mentions (undocumented, illegal) would decrease support for a policy.

In terms of Issue Farming- Researchers expected strong, consequential opinions especially when sources “are one sided, strong, and nove.l” Researchers also believed that people might reject frames that are inconsistent with their predispositions.

First, researchers tested to see if wording pertaining to amnesty has a certain affect on perceptions. Groups of people were given different passages, each with one word difference. Either the passage said illegal, or undocumented, or unauthorized.

Next, researchers tested to see if phrases with the word “child” had a certain affect on perceptions. A passage discussed immigrants and then either used the word children, or didn’t use this wording. This framing was found to have stark differences.

Researchers also found that fourth generation immigrants react differently than first generation immigrants. Essentially, that the further apart a person is from their own immigrant ancestral roots, the less they will identify with immigrants today.

The main takeaway is that the term used to describe this population of people has little effect on opinion. Meaning, whether one says unauthorized, undocumented, or illegal, people aren’t swayed by this framing. Other language use, as was demonstrated by the word child, does have a certain impact.

“Bringing children into the mix softens people’s opinion and can garner more support,” said Haynes. Thus, researchers believe “certain ways in which issues are framed is very consequential for public opinion,” and that negative framing is more consequential than positive framing.

Next time you atch the news keep in mind the vocabulary and tone. Read between the bigger pictures to see not just what issues are presented, but how.


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Does Media’s Language Influence Opinion?