Recalling Political Messages: About the Framing of a Presidential Speech and Its Subsequent News Coverage

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

30 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Background – Approaches, Definitions and Influences of Framing

3 Framing of Obama’s Speech and Conveyance in the News - Methodology and Results
3.1 Introduction to the Frame Categories
3.2 Frame Categories in the Speech and Its Coverage: Results of Analysis
3.3 Comparison of Results

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

6 Appendix

1 Introduction

It is widely known that the public in the U.S. counts on the mass media to get information about political affairs these days (Pew Research Center 2010: 1), not only because it is hardly possible for people to gather all the political information they get from the media by themselves but also because political issues are usually very complex and difficult to comprehend without any guidance (cf. Berinsky/Kinder 2006: 641). What the public knows about politics – which is the basis of public debate and can shape public opinion – therefore depends to a large extent on what journalists convey in the news (cf. Simon/Xenos 2010: 363; de Vreese 2005: 51). This is also a crucial fact for political actors because they have to take the media into account whenever they want to convey a message or opinion about a political concern to the public.

Among the most important messages from political actors to the people are presidential speeches because they very often include vital decisions for the country or new strategies in an ongoing conflict. By giving a speech to the nation a president can not only justify political plans but also shape those plans in a way that makes them worthy of support among the public and the Congress. Thus, a president’s “message is constructed in such a way as to contain certain associations rather than others” (Simon/Xenos 2010: 367) in order to accentuate aspects of the message that the president thinks are likely to attract support. This is called framing and serves the purpose of promoting a certain “interpretation and evaluation” of a political issue by an audience (Entman 2004: 26). However, unless people watch the speeches themselves, a president cannot entirely determine how the public perceives the content of a speech. Whether a presidential speech comes across the way a president communicated it, depends heavily on whether journalists pick up the president’s framing and put the emphasis on the same information that the president did. If the media doesn’t do that, the public might not judge the political matter the way a president intended, which could result in less support for a policy.

Since framing research has gained a lot of relevance in the studies of political communication (cf. de Vreese 2005: 51), I will build on this research in this paper and address the coverage of a presidential speech in the media. For this purpose, I will take President Barack Obama’s speech on the new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan from March 27, 2009, and examine its coverage in the Washington Post from March 28-30, 2009. The underlying two questions that I intend to answer are: How did the Washington Post convey Obama’s speech on the plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan? Did the news emphasize the frames Obama established in the same way that he did, or did they choose to highlight the frames differently, not portraying the speech in the way Obama intended it? In order to find answers to these questions, I will need to examine how Obama shaped his speech by assigning the statements of his speech to different frame categories. After that, I will analyze which of Obama’s statements were used in the news coverage of the Washington Post, and therefore, find out which of the frames he used were highlighted as well. Ultimately, I can conclude whether the newspaper emphasized the frames proportionally to Obama, and make a statement about whether the speech was conveyed as Obama attempted it, or whether it was delivered differently to the public. Due to the length of the paper, I will only examine how the speech was framed in the news and not how the public perceived the speech to find out how the framing of the news influenced public opinion. This, however, could be the next step in the framing research of this very political issue.

I chose Obama’s speech because it was his first important foreign policy speech as a president and it marked a change in the U.S. strategy in the war in Afghanistan. Seeing that Obama considered the war in Afghanistan as more important than the one in Iraq (cf. Gärtner 2009: 157-158), these remarks, stating a new focus on the war in Afghanistan, indicated that Obama made progress in pursuing a goal that he had set himself. Not only was this speech important for Obama’s presidency but also for the public, since Obama announced the deployment of 21,000 more troops and more resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan, meaning more American soldiers would be sent to the war and a larger financial burden would approach the U.S. economy. Obviously, the speech had quite some relevance in foreign policy, and was therefore also covered quite extensively in the news. As for the media, I chose a newspaper for the examination of the news coverage because LexisNexis offers an enormous database of newspaper article that I could access. The Washington Post is one of the most read newspapers in the U.S. and was chosen at random from the five U.S. newspapers with the highest circulation[1].

Before I examine Obama’s speech and the Washington Post coverage, I will first give an overview of the theoretical background of this paper. Framing analysis has attracted quite some attention not only in media and political communication research but also in sociological and psychological studies, which is where framing research originated. Considering the amount of different approaches, however, I will only summarize some important findings in this field to outline its development and underline its weight in social studies, and particularly the research of media effects. I will also include those scientific contributions that are valuable for my research and influenced the methodology of my study. Then, I will lead over to my case study and explain the methodology for my framing analysis of the presidential speech and the references to the speech in the coverage of the Washington Post.

The main part of my paper will be the presentation of my results from the analysis of the speech and the comparison to the analysis of the same frames in the news articles. First, I will present which of the frame categories I identified in the speech were emphasized more and which were emphasized less by Obama and in the Washington Post. Seeing that I only use quotes and paraphrases of the speech to ascertain that only the reproduction of the speech in the news is analyzed, I can assign the references to the same frame categories and then make a comparison as to whether the Washington Post highlighted the same frames or picked different frames to emphasize as the president did. Finally, I can conclude whether the presidential remarks were conveyed in the news the way the president intended it or whether the emphasis of the speech was altered in the news, which could have an impact of the perception of the speech by its receivers and their support for the strategy.

2 Theoretical Background – Approaches, Definitions and Influences of Framing

In order to carry out the framing analysis, I need to clarify what is meant by the term “frame” and what concepts of framing exist in this field of study. Although there have been numerous references to framing in countless case studies, scholars have stated that especially in the field of media research there is no clear definition of what exactly framing is and what a “framing theory”, describing “how frames become embedded within and make themselves manifest in a text, or how framing influences thinking”, could look like (cf. Entman 1993: 51; Entman 2004: 5; Scheufele 1999: 103; de Vreese 2005: 51). Considering the amount of research about the concept of framing, I will only concentrate on a few cornerstones in its development that were considered significant by other scholars and are related to my study.

The origin of the different approaches of frame analyses traces back to Erving Goffman’s sociological research, in which he identified unconscious structures that individuals use to “classify and organize [their] life experiences to make sense of them” (Simon/Xenos 2010: 366). In his work “Frame Analysis” (1974), Goffman assumed that “definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principles of organization which govern events […] and our subjective involvement in them; frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic elements as I am able to identify” (Goffman 1974: 10-11). Robert Entman explains that these so-called “schemata and closely related concepts such as categories, scripts, or stereotypes connote mentally stored clusters of ideas that guide individuals’ processing of information” (Entman 1993: 53). In other words, the purpose of frames is for individuals to interpret reality and evaluate information and events that they perceive (cf. Goffman 1974; Entman 2004: 7, 124; Simon/Xenos 2010: 366).

While Goffman concentrated on unconscious frames in people’s minds, a study by Daniel Kahneman and Arnos Tversky (1984) offered an insight into the psychological effects of active framing of solutions to a problem, meaning the wording of those solutions. The result of their study about the possible solutions of a public health crisis showed that there was an obvious tendency of the interviewed people to support different solutions depending on whether the emphasis of the wording was put on survival or death of people (for further description of the study see Allen et al. 1994: 267; Entman 2004: 27; Iyengar/Simon 1993: 369). With regard to that study, Barbara Allen et al. (1994) concluded that “people will make different choices, depending on whether identical information is presented in a context that suggests potential gains or potential losses” (267).

This study offered that frames do not only exist in individuals’ minds to interpret reality but frames can be actively applied to promote a certain evaluation of an issue. Entman identified four locations where frames can be found: “communicators” shape their statements “guided by frames that organize their belief systems”, the “text” “contains […] certain keywords, stock phrases, stereotyped images, sources of information” framing the content, the “receiver” has his own schemata that may or may not be the same as the communicator’s and the text’s, and the “culture” that consists of “common frames exhibited in the discourse and thinking of most people” (Entman 1993: 52-53). As framing research became part of media studies in the late 1980’s (cf. Gamson 1989), the approach shifted towards the examination of active framing by journalists (communicators) and its influence on the perception by the audience (receivers)[2]. The aim of framing analysis, according to Entman (1993), is to “illuminate[…] the precise way in which influence over a human consciousness is exerted by the transfer (or communication) of information from one location – such as a speech, utterance, news report, or novel – to that consciousness” (51-52). In my analysis, I will concentrate on the communicator’s framing of the text and how it was shaped compared to its original source. I can only speculate about how the news’s framing can alter the perception of the original speech by the audience.

Framing research has become one of the key concepts within the research of media effects and political communication (cf. Entman 1993; Scheufele 1999). In several studies it has been mentioned and considered in the context of the theories of agenda-setting and priming (cf. Scheufele 1999: 103; Maher 2001: 83-84; London 1993; Iyengar/Simon 1993: 266) . Agenda-setting describes the ability of the media to determine what matters the public regards as important, while priming describes its ability to determine the criteria “with which the public evaluates politicians” (Iyengar/Simon 1993: 266). Since framing means the ways the media influence how the public evaluates an issue, Maxwell McCombs, Donald Shaw, and David Weaver also named this concept second-level agenda-setting as an “extension” of the media’s power to only tell the public what is a relevant issue (Scheufele 1999: 103; cf. Allen et al.: 269; Maher 2001: 84).

As mentioned before, there are different concepts and definitions of what framing in the media actually is. An early definition often cited by other researchers was given by William Gamson and Andre Modigliani, who define a frame as “a central organizing idea […] for making sense of relevant events, suggesting what is at issue” (Gamson/Modigliani 1989: 3; see also London 1993). This basically means that a frame is a guide for the audience that suggests how it should understand the matter that was framed (cf. de Vreese 2005: 53; Bennett 2001: 123-124). Entman later dealt with the question of how such frames come into existence and summarized that framing in the process of communication means to “select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (Entman 1993: 52; see also Entman 2004: 26; Scheufele 1999: 103; de Vreese 2005: 53). Therefore, the idea of framing is to accentuate certain characteristics or aspects of an issue and disregard others to promote a certain meaning of the issue that the communicator wants to convey to the receiver (cf. Simon/Xenos 2010: 367; Maher 2001: 87)

For the purpose of promoting such an understanding of an issue, frames fulfil four functions: “to define effects or conditions as problematic, to identify causes, to convey a moral judgement, and to endorse remedies or improvements” (Entman 2004: 5-6; see also Entman 1993: 52; de Vreese 2005: 53)[3]. But before journalists can apply such frames to shape a political issue in the news they need sources to get their information from. This is an opportunity for political actors to frame issues themselves to have their opinion conveyed to the public if the news picks up their way of framing. Bennett noted that “message framing” is one of four steps of “news management”[4] that political actors apply to make sure an issue is communicated in the way they want it to be perceived (cf. Bennett 2001: 119-124). Hence, “leaders work proactively to shape media frames, promoting news that will stimulate public support, dampen opposition, and, most important, promote the perception that public opinion is in their corner” (Entman 2004: 126). A presidential speech is a special case of message by a political actor because those remarks usually get a lot of attention by the media due to his prominence and power. Whether President Obama was successful in managing the news and was able to get the media to frame his address the way he intended is the core of this paper.

It is the journalists’ task to cover a political message like a speech in the news but in their “effort […] to convey a story in a direct and meaningful way” (London 1993) they choose how they suggest an issue should be interpreted by their framing, and people use their own schemata and “belief system” to judge about those matters. Yet, the less people know about other interpretations of an issue than the one that they perceive from the news, the higher is the degree of influence by the news media (cf. Entman 1993: 54-56; Scheufele 1999: 105). This also means that “seemingly subtle differences in the presentation of identical information in the news media can […] influence political judgements” (Berinsky/Kinder 2006: 640-641), and therefore, a political message, such as a speech, can come across differently in the news than it was meant to by the creator of the original message if the journalists do not represent the creator’s framing in the same way.

In my study I will find out whether there were such differences in the presentation of the framing of the speech by Obama and the subsequent news coverage in the Washington Post. Now that I clarified what frames are, why they are applied, and what impact they can have, I will explain how I analyzed the framing of Obama’s remarks and the quotes and paraphrases that appeared in the articles of the Washington Post. Then, I will present the results of both analysis and compare both ways of framing.

3 Framing of Obama’s Speech and Conveyance in the News - Methodology and Results

The goal of this paper is to examine whether the news coverage of The Washington Post emphasized the aspects of Obama’s remarks on the Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same proportion as the president did. The first step for this analysis was the examination of the speech itself as one part for a subsequent comparison. I used an inductive approach to identify the frames Obama applied in his speech, which means that I didn’t specify frame categories beforehand and analyzed the speech with regard to those categories but recognized new frames during my analysis, which I then added to the set of frame categories. This inductive way of analyzing ensures that no frame that might be specific for this speech is left out and gives a very detailed insight into what Obama tried to convey through his speech and how he did that. I used the functions of frames noted by Entman (1993: 52) to help identify and structure the frame categories in Obama’s speech. In the course of the analysis, I was able to identify nine different frame categories, which I will introduce in the results section[5]. I coded each of the 164 sentences of the speech according to the frame categories detectable in every sentence, and classified statements dealing with similar issues to the same categories. I neither included welcome or farewell statements, nor the acknowledgements to certain attendees of the speech and contributors to the strategy in the first two paragraphs, since I did not consider them relevant for the study[6]. Each sentence could either be assigned or not be assigned to a frame category (0/1). Following Entman (cf. 1993: 52), I decided that one sentence could match more than one frame category, i.e. one sentence could invoke the later explained “Threat”-frame as well as the “Taliban Insurgents/Al Qaeda” frame. Then, I computed how many times each frame category was invoked in the speech to add them up to the total number of invocations of all frame categories. That allowed me to calculate the percentage of the application of each frame category compared to the total number of applications of frame categories. These numbers gave an insight into which frames Obama emphasized more and which less in his speech. Thus, I can conclude what Obama intended to convey in his speech and how he wanted the public to interpret and evaluate the new strategy[7].

For the analysis of conveyance of the speech in newspaper articles by the Washington Post, I used the database LexisNexis and searched for articles including the words “Afghanistan AND Pakistan” and “Afghanistan AND Obama”[8] in their body to make sure I would get all articles addressing the speech. The timeframe for the search was chosen from March 28-30, 2009, as I estimated that in this time period the speech would certainly be relevant in the news and the news coverage of three days would be representative for the conveyance of the speech in the Washington Post. After reading all articles once to filter out those referencing the speech by quoting or paraphrasing parts of it, I arrived at a number of ten relevant articles. From those articles I then selected the sentences with references to the speech and did not analyze the whole articles because I wanted to find out how the news coverage recalled the frames established by Obama. So, by using only quotes and paraphrases of Obama’s speech in the articles, I could be sure to only analyze the representation of the speech in the news. I filtered out a total number of 81 sentences quoting or paraphrasing the speech, which I then assigned to the same frame categories as I assigned the statements of the original speech that those references quoted or paraphrased.


[1] According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation the five newspapers with the highest circulation in the U.S. are the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angles Times and the Washington Post, see

[2] Following Entman’s locations of framing, Dietram Scheufele (1999) identified two “concepts of framing”: media frames are “devices embedded in political discourse” and individual frames are “internal structures of the mind” (106).

[3] In my analysis, I will use these functions as a basis to identify frame categories in Obama’s speech that I will assign his statements to.

[4] The other three steps are “message composition”, “message salience”, and “message credibility” (for further description of these steps see Bennett 2001: 119-124)

[5] See also App. Table 1 for the names of all frame categories

[6] I coded the speech from the third paragraph on, starting with the words “Today, I’m announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” (Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan March 27, 2009).

[7] See App. Table 1 for table of coded speech

[8] The search term „Afghanistan“ for this timeframe resulted in too many articles because I could only select the newspaper from a list after I got the results for the search term. Since LexisNexis was not able to show all the results, I had to narrow the search down.

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Recalling Political Messages: About the Framing of a Presidential Speech and Its Subsequent News Coverage
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy-Institut )
The Media and Public Opinion in US Foreign Policy
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ISBN (Book)
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recalling, political, messages, about, framing, presidential, speech, subsequent, news, coverage
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Sophia Schulze (Author), 2011, Recalling Political Messages: About the Framing of a Presidential Speech and Its Subsequent News Coverage, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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