When the frame doesn’t fit

This morning in budget, we talked about the framing of an AP story in the Missourian about a study that showed that organic foods aren’t necessarily healthier than non-organic. Readers (I was one of them) responded to the framing of that story with discomfort and sometimes outright frustration (check out some of the comments on the New York Times’ blog post after they published a story on the study).

Sometimes as writers, we find ourselves struggling with a bad frame. We’ve left out someone or something important. We’re looking at an issue from the wrong perspective. Maybe we started our reporting with too much certainty about what we would find.

When I worked as an editor in Prague, I received a phone call from a reporter at the Czech Republic’s biggest daily. She wanted to interview me — and other foreigners — about their reactions to a Czech Easter tradition.

Here’s the tradition: On Easter Monday (yes, Monday), young women throw buckets of water on the men to wake them up in their beds. This is helpful because there has often been a great deal of drinking the night before.

Then, the men go out with willow switches (branches from young willow trees) and hit the young women. Or any women. They’re not supposed to hit hard; it’s more like a firm swat. The swat is delivered to the hindquarters or the legs, and it’s supposed to guarantee the woman’s beauty and fertility for another year. In return, the woman hands the man (“oh, thank you for that, sir!”) a beautiful, painted Easter egg.

You think I’m making this up? Nope.

So this reporter calls me and wants to know what I think of this, as a foreigner.

Being a stranger to the notion of a “sound bite,” I proceed to tell her how that previous Easter Monday, I was sitting in a restaurant with my husband when a man came in, ordered me to stand and swatted me, smiling. It was so bizarre, I couldn’t stop laughing, I told the reporter. But it’s your country’s tradition, and who am I to comment on your traditions? I’m a guest here.

Mm-hmm, she said.

I saw the story a few days later. In it, the reporter quoted me as saying that I was appalled and angered by this medieval Czech tradition. And that I had been injured by the man with the stick.

What?! What just happened there? Was I a victim of inaccuracy?

Yes, but that’s not the point of this story. The point is that she needed me to fit into a pre-made story frame: Foreign (feminist) woman finds Czech tradition primitive and stupid. The trouble is, that’s not what I’d said.

Be aware of frames in your reporting. The New York Times’ public editor Arthur S. Brisbane wrote about the power of framing in this column about the Tucson shootings. In the column, he quotes the dean of another journalism school as saying:

“Journalists developed automatic framing protocols generations ago because of the need to report quickly… Today’s hyper-deadlines, requiring journalists to report all day long and all night long, made that genetic disposition even more dominant.”

Tomorrow, Scott Swafford will talk about framing. In preparation for that discussion, think about how you decide what you put in your stories and what you leave out, and then think about why.

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1 Response to When the frame doesn’t fit

  1. ashleyamb3rh says:

    I really liked “…young women throw buckets of water on the men to wake them up in their beds. This is helpful because there has often been a great deal of drinking the night before.” It made me laugh.
    I am curious about how you handled the incident about being being portrayed inaccurately by the reporter. I would love to hear the rest of the story.

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