Prior research in the areas of agenda setting, framing, and affect explain how media forms differ in conveying information. Miller (2002) indicated that media does not express direct opinions about a topic but instead highlights the topics people should have opinions about. In order to highlight an issue, though, the media must first gain and maintain the attention of the audience (Miller, 2002). Hence, media uses tools such as framing, the concept of sensationalism, and affect to ensure audiences will remain interested. However, before setting up the structure of the story to achieve a certain reaction from the audience, the media must first
know what stories it wants to present. Deciding what stories to present is known as agenda setting.
Agenda Setting
Agenda setting proposes a relationship between the mass media and the public agenda. This theory suggests that the media tells the public what to think about by its coverage of a hierarchy of issues it publishes or broadcasts at a given point in time. Salience, the “degree to which an issue on an agenda is perceived as relatively important,” is a critical factor in agenda setting (Dearing, 1996, p. 8). It seeks to answer how important a particular issue is that is shown on the television news or printed in a daily newspaper. When studying agenda setting, one needs to measure how the salience of an issue changes and why the change happens (Shaw, 1992).
Another important aspect of agenda setting is the issue the media hopes to promote on its agenda. An issue is whatever is in contention for coverage by the news media. Because issues compete with each other, one will become more or less newsworthy in the public arena or in the mass media. Newsworthiness is not just determined by the coverage of an issue in a simple third-person or necessarily objective narrative format. More often than not, it is the visual power of the pictures or film associated with the story or the value and emotion-evoking quality of a subject’s interview that will influence an editor to move an item to the front page or the top-of-the-hour broadcast.
Sensationalism is another tool the media may use to both attract attention and induce emotion (McQuail, 2000). Sensationalism is the use of exciting and even shocking stories, graphics or language at the expense of accuracy to generate heightened interest and excitement, according to (2004). Sensationalism can also distort reality and provide a negative picture of a subject (McQuail, 2000). Audiences’ negative opinions concerning a topic can be directly linked to sensationalism through affect. Affect is the emotional vehicle by which humans guide their behavior (Dillard, 1998). More specifically, empathy is defined by Zillmann (1994, 1996) as an individual’s emotional response to another’s experience. In a study of news coverage, Zillmann, Taylor and Lewis (1998) stated that, “empathy theory predicts that bad news that reveals mishaps, setbacks, endangerments, victimizations, or tragic losses for specific agents or groups will prompt distress and genuine sadness in some” (p. 155). Armed with the three key communication concepts of agenda setting, affect, and sensationalism, the media can attract audience attention and sway public opinion through emotion while dictating what issues receive exposure.
In the course of prioritizing its agenda, the media often times prefer to favor or exclude information to achieve specifically desired reactions from the public. A key ingredient in agenda setting is framing the story. Framing is the way the media “chooses to shape the presentation of an issue” (Jasperson, A., Shah, D., Watts, M., Faber, R., & Fan, D., 1998, p.205). Gamson and Modigliani (1987) defined framing as a “central organizing idea” or “story line” that helps provide meaning to an event. Neuman, Just, and Crigler (1992) described news frames as “conceptual tools” that media use and audiences depend on “to convey, interpret, and evaluate information” (p.60). For example, the war in Iraq has a variety of angles from which the media can approach their stories. Reporters can focus on the daily death tolls and continuous battles in cities like Fallujah, Iraq. Conversely, they could spotlight military coalition members building new schools where young girls may now attend and learn in for the first time since the regime change. Simply put, “frames are the lenses through which social reality is viewed” (Dillard, Solomon, & Samp, 1996, p.706).
The frame creates a tone for the story, which increases the salience of the message. As discussed previously, salience occurs when a reporter makes a particular aspect of a story more noticeable and memorable to audience members (Miller, 2002). As salience increases, so does the likelihood that receivers will retain a message, come to a conclusion about it, and remember that conclusion (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). As a result, the selection of material or topics covered in a story, and, consequently the omission of other information, can change the tone of the message.
Entman (1993) said “frames select and call attention to particular aspects of the reality described, which logically means that frames simultaneously direct attention away from other aspects” (p. 54), and that frames are equally defined both by what they include and what they omit.
Returning to the example of the war in Iraq; if a reporter focused only on the death tolls and battles, by default he or she would be leaving out the other aspects of the war such as the education of young Iraqi girls. This influences the tone of the story. By only calling attention to the negative aspects of the war, the story is not presenting an objective portrayal of the war. A media consumer’s ability to objectively draw conclusions is severely diminished by a one-sided story. This brings us to propose the following research question:
RQ1: What are the differences in tone toward the war in Iraq across different
communication forms (e.g., network television news, newspapers, political talk radio, news radio, print and television news magazines, political talk television and online news sources)?

An important aspect of framing is whether a story is presented thematically or episodically. Episodic and thematic frames correlate the characteristics of a news story with delivery characteristics that will most effectively communicate the story to the targeted audience. Just like a suit should be tailored to a specific person, a news story must be tailored to its specific audience. Iyengar (1987) said the key difference between episodic and thematic framing is, “episodic framing depicts concrete events that illustrate issues, while thematic framing presents collective or general evidence” (p.14).
Episodically-framed stories focus on an individual or a one-time event (Iyengar, 1991). As an example, an episodically-framed story might begin with, “Specialist David Jones is leaving his wife and their little girl today. He is going to Iraq with the 374th Airborne Unit and does not know when he is coming home.” The rest of the story would follow him around and specifically focus on his story. After absorbing an episodically-framed story, the audience may feel it has a more personal connection with the subject of the story, leading to increased audience attention to the issue behind the story. In addition, these increased feelings of compassion, sympathy, or patriotism of the audience would also affect the tone or way in which the story is perceived.
Thematically-framed stories, in contrast, are more fact-based reports. Iyengar (1991) defined a thematic frame as one that, “places public issues in some more general, abstract context,” and focuses on general outcomes or conditions (p.14). Because thematic frames focus on facts and general evidence, they do not inspire a lot of emotional involvement in the audience on an issue. Therefore, thematic frames do not increase salience as powerfully as episodic framing. For example, the beginning of a thematically-framed story might sound like, “The Army deployed two units composed of 1,500 troops to Iraq today,” and it would go on to talk about some of the events in the war that day.
While most stories contain aspects of both episodic and thematic framing, Iyengar (1991) believes that most stories are primarily framed either episodically or thematically. In most media forms, previous research has found that “news coverage of poverty, crime, and terrorism are predominately episodic; coverage of racial inequality tends to feature both episodic and thematic reports; and coverage of unemployment is primarily thematic” (Ricart-Costa, Subirana, & Valor-Sabtier, 2004, p. 3). Traditionally, television has been considered to be more episodic than print coverage (Iyengar, 1991). Television news reports frequently give facts supported by pictures or a correspondent reporting from the scene giving a recap of the event accompanied by visual images. Visually episodic reports make “good pictures” while thematic reports feature “talking heads” (Iyengar, 1987). By framing a story episodically on television and incorporating more emotion from the audience, however, producers of television shows hope to make the issue more personal for viewers and keep them “tuned-in” to the television. Based on this knowledge, we propose the following hypothesis:
H1: Compared to newspapers, television network news relies more heavily on episodic framing as opposed to thematic framing in its coverage of the war in Iraq.
However, little is known about framing in various other communication forms addressed in this study. Hence, the following research question:
RQ2: How will communication forms differ in regards to episodic and thematic
framing in their coverage of the war in Iraq?

Because television is the more episodic medium, it should elicit more emotion. As mentioned previously, Iyengar (1991) has found that television news coverage elicits more emotion than print coverage because of its power to draw personal associations from viewers. Television may be more episodically framed than other media forms by creating emotional accessibility with the viewer. This emotional accessibility may be due to parasocial interactions between television viewers and the subjects of episodically-framed stories or between the viewers and the reporters. Iyengar (1987) said television is capitalizing on this possibility and that “the dominance of the episodic frame in television news has been established in a number of studies” (p.14). This is because television show producers recognize its limitations and work around them, as “working through any medium imposes some element of manipulation, and this manifests itself as style” (Jamieson, 1985, p.104). Television’s style is to utilize parasocial interactions to get viewers to develop relationships with people they see on television.
Television’s ability to utilize parasocial interactions with its viewers results in its great popularity today. “We Americans trust television news; we see it as authoritative (perhaps because we see it); we have welcomed Huntley, Cronkite, Brokaw and others into our living rooms gladly” (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987, p.1). In addition, television is considered to be America’s single most important source of information about political affairs, and therefore, the public’s perception of political life is mainly what it sees on television (Iyengar, 1987).
Media, particularly television, is a very powerful persuasive tool, and their many forms can have significant impacts on one’s emotional state. In a review of the existing literature about media affects, Zillmann (1991) stated that media can help us to unwind or produce excitement. Zillmann and his colleagues have produced significant and influential research in the field of media affects, specifically, excitation transfer theory and empathy.
Excitation transfer theory begins with the idea of arousal, a feeling that is neither positive nor negative that energizes one’s behavior. Arousal, according to Hebb (1955), does not steer human behavior, whereas, affect as mentioned previously, has guided human behavior since our inception. Zillmann (1971) believes that because arousal is a state of excitement without direction, that a feeling of excitement can be transferred to another stimulus-producing event which does not have to be emotionally related to the initial arousing stimuli. For example: a subject watches a particularly brutal murder on television, which creates a feeling of arousal. The subject then gets in an argument with his or her roommate, and because his or her senses are already aroused, the argument will be that much more emotionally charged. An important finding of Zillmann’s work is that the affects of arousal are not long lived. In fact, Zillmann (1991) stated that, “residual arousal is likely to dissipate within several minutes after exposure” (p. 118).
Knowing that television news relies more heavily on episodic framing than print media (Iyenger, 1991), we predict:
H2: Compared to print communication forms, television network news displays greater emotion in its coverage of the war in Iraq.
Specific Coverage Biases
Media forms exhibit biases in their coverage of news events. Network television reporting has the tendency to be more liberal, whereas talk radio is generally viewed as a more conservative form of media. On-line news is evolving from an extension of traditional media such as television or print home pages to an independent format with its own unique style. Many Internet-only news sites cover sensational material. No known biases have been documented by research for news magazines, late-night television entertainment shows, or television news magazines. Nevertheless, this study sought to uncover any differences or biases in these media formats.
Network Television – Despite findings that there are more conservatives than liberals in the United States, it is interesting that network television, particularly “Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw,” are characterized by most people as being liberal in their coverage (Mayer, 2004, p. 100). As a result, these conservative-minded people, “see network television and their local newspapers as promoting a perspective on national and world affairs that is fundamentally at odds with their own” (Mayer, 2004, p. 100).
Liberalism and slanted coverage may also have a correlation in network news. When reviewing all television networks’ coverage of Congress during a one-month period in 1976, Robinson and Appel (1979) found that, “although most studies were neutral in tone, all stories containing a slant were negative” (p. 415). In addition, Robinson and Appel (1979) also found that network television news surpassed print news, “in negative content and tone” (p. 415). Given that network television news has traditionally been considered to be negative, we propose the following hypothesis:
H3: Compared to other communication forms, network television news is more negative in its coverage of the war in Iraq.
Talk Radio – Like television, talk radio is also unique genre of media that aims to elicit great emotion from those who listen to it. Talk radio is, “often ideological and unbalanced, dramatic and conflictual" (Hollander, 1997, p. 365). Supporters of talk radio praise it for offering a medium for two-way debate and exchange of opinions, while critics claim political talk radio breeds cynicism and distrust among its listeners, often making a big issue out of trivial instances (Hollander, 1997). It may be correct to say that both sides of this debate are speaking the truth; political talk radio may be biased and unfair, but the people who listen to it are not necessarily taking everything that is said at face value. To the listeners, political talk radio can be considered “news entertainment;” that is, the news is slightly exaggerated to make it entertaining, and the listeners know this.
Zerbinos (1993) found that talk radio listeners were not only slightly more likely than non-listeners to have voted, but they also seemed to be aware of political issues and conferred with others about topics in the news, as cited in Hollander (1997). This heightened awareness of the issues and their own political beliefs may have caused listeners to also be less likely to turn solely to the external cues like the issues presented on the radio shows to form their political judgments resulting in listeners who were less confused and overwhelmed by all the exaggerated, conflicting information (Mondak, 1993). In using radio to try to convince voters to elect a certain political candidate, for example, it is important to know that radio in itself will not make the voter choose the candidate. In fact, “voters often put their own spin on the cues they receive from the media, relying on previous knowledge and personal experience to interpret the messages they receive” (Jones, 1998, p. 8).
Talk radio exhibits a conservative bias and would likely be more supportive of the current Republican administration. Political discussions on talk radio often revolve around congressional matters, the President, and the current administration’s decisions. Programming on political talk television and talk radio normally includes congressional leaders as guests with their commentary on how the war in Iraq and the transition are progressing. Because of the established research indicating that talk radio is conservative, and that radio exhibits a pro-administration bias, we can surmise that the talk radio coverage would similarly be pro-war.
Many political talk shows like the Rush Limbaugh Show appeal to a conservative, Republican group of listeners. Hollander (1997) said that the traditionally conservative appeal of political talk shows can be explained by how “the ‘elite-challenging’ aspect of talk radio’s standard content dovetails nicely with the emergence of political conservatives as a mobilizing force in the 1990s, similar to that of the liberals in the 1960s” (p. 366). However, an interesting suggestion some people make of the conservative talk radio audience is that the audience may not be made entirely of conservatives who share the conservative opinions of the hosts of these shows. Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a radio trade magazine, conjectured that many of Rush Limbaugh’s audience are liberals who just like to disagree (Johnson, 2004). Harrison added that he thought about, “half of …[Limbaugh’s] audience disagrees with everything he says and gets great pleasure out of yelling at the radio” (Johnson, 2004).
The emergence of the liberal-themed Air America radio network in March of 2004 may signal a shift in the political talk radio audience. Mark Walsh, Air America’s CEO, said he hoped that listeners to liberal talk shows like The O’Franken Factor (now called the Al Franken Show) would be “entertained,” and have a well-thought argument when they arrived at work in response “to the right wing guy at the coffee urn talking about how Bill Clinton ruined this nation” (Johnson, 2004, p. 1). Lizz Winstead, co-creator of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and host of one of Air America’s programs, also commented Air America’s shows combine focus and structure with “liberties” that not only create good conversation, but could bring issues to the forefront (Johnson, 2004).
Many of the same hosts of talk radio also speak on political television shows, and the description of political talk radio seems as if it would correlate very well with political talk television programs. Furthermore, political talk television and radio are conservative and exhibit pro-administration and pro-war coverage tendencies. Therefore, we posit the following research questions:
H4: Compared to other communication forms, conservative political talk radio and political television are more positive in their coverage of the war in Iraq.
Online News – Another genre of media is online news, which is growing in popularity. Since one of the first online newspapers, the Chicago Tribune, was posted online in 1992, “online news has evolved from a chancy venture, approached tentatively by major media, to a full-throttle charge, profits be damned, to an obligatory extension of service the public has come to expect – and trust” (Palser, 2002, p. 39). This obligatory extension of service the public has come to expect has resulted in an already high and growing number of people seeking news online.
In June 1998, a CNN survey showed an increasing number of people turning to the Web for their daily news. According to Deuze (1999), the Web is the foremost competitor for the television newscasts instead of print media. In 1998, 13 percent of the American public regularly sought online news. By 2000, the number had risen to 23 percent. Two years later, a quarter of the nation was seeking news online (Palser, 2002).
According to Tewksbury (2003), “the World Wide Web provides audiences with substantially more control over the news selection process than they enjoyed with the traditional media” (p. 694). Readers no longer have to follow the cues of news editors and producers; they are now able to utilize the enhanced controls offered by the web to control the news selection process. Readers are also no longer bound by the linear format of electronic and print news media (Tewksbury, 2003). Internet news users still rely heavily on traditional news organizations when they go online (Margolis & Resnick, 2000).
Marion Lewenstein of the Stanford Poynter Project has found that when readers chose a story by clicking on a headline or summary, they read approximately 75 percent of the story as compared to the 25 percent usually read from newspapers (Johnson, 2001). Lewenstein also found that most online readers start with their local newspaper. On average, people visited six news providers’ sites. National news tended to attract more attention than local news. Seventy-five percent read some national news; 48 percent read some local news (Johnson, 2001). The results of Lewenstein’s study led Johnson (2001) to deduce that online newsreaders will be as informed as people who read newspapers or watch television.
Internet-only sites, like The Drudge Report and Salon, shook up established media by publishing “juicy,” sensationalized scoops, and changing what was considered the norm for what news is fit to print (Palser, 2002). However, according to Cohen (2002), not all news presentations on the Web are perceived as equally credible. Journalists affiliated with traditional firms may receive more attention than other independent news distributors. Dueze (1999) claimed that despite different characteristics and the requirement for different skills and standards, good online journalism is the same as good print journalism.
Given that Internet-only sites are considered more sensationalized, and that many print newspapers also post their material online, we posit another research question pertaining to the content provided by each news source:
RQ3: Do the Internet-only sites use affective appeals in their coverage of the war in Iraq more than the print newspapers?
Other Communication Forms – There were several media forms examined as part of this study for which no research exists to date to assign characteristics or broad judgments upon. These include: newspapers; news magazines such as Time or Newsweek; television news magazines such as 60 Minutes; and television entertainment talk shows, for example the Jay Leno show. We hesitate to classify any of these media as liberal or conservative or episodic or thematic without appropriate research. It is difficult to make any predictions specifically addressing each of the individual media forms. This leads us to posit our final research question:
RQ4: Are there any differences in newspaper, news magazine, late-night television entertainment talk shows, and television news magazine coverage of the war in Iraq, and if so, what are the nature of those differences?