The present paper will examine how the media frames a political issue of Proposition 73 (Prop. 73) to the state Constitution concerning abortion policy held by the state in regard to minors. The draft was worked out by Catherine Short, a lawyer with the Life Legal Defense Foundation. The measure ballot was held on November 8, 2005 and resulted in proposition defeat.
The goal of the paper is construction, evolution and content of a recent abortion talk in the media rather than abortion policy in California or in the U.S. by itself. The approach of framing in the presentation of news deals with two major aspects. One of them is the cultural background structuring abortion discussion. It is important to ask here who the major sponsors and participants of discussion are; how they are represented in the media; and how their framing strategies interact with a state and national strategies. In other words, a researcher needs to analyze who talks about what to achieve what goals. The analysis of framing strategies helps to understand why some actors achieve more success in reaching their outcomes desired than the others.
Another aspect is the quality of public abortion discussion in the media. Once Susan Gal (1994) suggested that “the nature of abortion talk tells a great deal, not only about reproductive rights and women, but also about the nature and concerns of democracy as a whole” (paraphrased in Ferree et al. 6). It means that behind the rhetoric of media discourse a researcher should be prepared to find specific mechanisms and ideologies permeating the public sphere and the institute of democracy.
Both aspects of research rely on the content analysis of a random sample of articles displayed at the two web sites: No on 73: the Campaign for Teen Safety and YES on 73 / Life on the Ballot site. The media sources are selected so as to maximize potential different approaches to the issue.The units of analysis are the utterance, the article, the speaker, and the idea element. The paper seeks to prove that the frames present in the media sources reveal specific political implications held by the actors of discussion and organize the facts in a specifically restrictive manner.
The abortion policy has always been “a topic of public controversy” (Ferree et al. 6). Public discourse on the issue contains various opportunities to display the interests of various communities. First of all, there are women who are the most deeply affected by abortion. Historically, women stayed on the outskirts of public life. The degree of women’s participation in the discussion may provide a researcher with clearer understanding of women’s role in the given community.
Second, abortion reform has always been the point of argument between different political parties. In the United States discussion of the issue has entered public sphere since the mid1960s. Third, abortion implies very important and significant issues of life and death, the role of women, “the role of the state as a moral agent, the sanctity of human life, the right to privacy, the nature of democracy, and society’s obligations to those in need” (Ferree et al. 6). It is logical to assume that religious and medical authorities would also be involved in public discussion.
The comparison of methods which are used by different media sources to discuss abortion is an opportunity to understand how democratic values and principles are operated by different parties and actors of discussion. The approach of framing may contribute to the aforesaid process of understanding. It has become ultimately popular in recent media research in communication, sociology, and political science. The honor to introduce the technique is believed to belong to the anthropologist-psychologist Gregory Bateson (1972) and the sociologist Erving Goffman (1974).
There are different theoretical models of framing (e.g., Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Entman, 1993; Gamson, 1981; Ghanem, 1997; Iyengar, 1991; Price & Tewksbury, 1997). Stephen D. Reese, one of the prominent researchers, defines framing as “the way events and issues are organized and made sense of, especially by media, media professionals, and their audiences” (7). Entman (1993), for example, stressed the result or effect of this approach: “To frame is 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” (52). Tankard et al. argue for the context of discussion being important: “A frame is a central organizing idea for news content that supplies a context and suggests what the issue is through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration” (11).
Reese suggested the complex definition of framing as being “concerned with the way interests, communicators, sources, and culture combine to yield coherent ways of understanding the world, which are developed using all of the available verbal and visual symbolic resources” (11). He pointed out that the technique has several characteristics.
First, it organizes discussion on a psychological and a cultural layer (episodic, or “anecdotal,” and thematic, or “baseline” treatment – Iyengar’s classification, 1991; “deep,” or older, proved, more general, and “shallow,” or recent, specific “strategic depth” – Gamson’s classification, 1981; Wolfsfeld’s classification, 1997). Second, it is based on the principles of abstraction and symbolization. Entman (1993) considered frames to consist of the communicator, the text, the receiver, and the culture. The symbolic forms of expression are designed within four structures: syntactical, script, thematic, and rhetorical (Pan and Kosicki, 1993). Gamson and Modigliani (1989) identified framing “devices”: metaphors, catchphrases, exemplars, depictions, and visual images. Third, to gain significance, frames should be shared personally, socially, or culturally. Fourth, frames structure public opinion either by inclusion or exclusion of ideas incorporated into discussion.
The framing approach may help to identify the participants, the “interpretive packages” (Reese 16) and the ideas, and the political agenda in public discussion on abortion policy in California. To summarize, Prop. 73 requires a doctor to notify a parent or guardian of an unmarried female under age 18 in written form at least 48 hours before performing an abortion. The exceptions are medical emergencies or abortions performed with parental waiver (“Proposition 73”). Doctors who provide abortions without parental notification are prosecuted criminally and are subjects for suing by the parents for at least $10,000 in damages. Prop. 73 defines abortion as causing “death of the unborn child, a child conceived but not yet born” (“Proposition 73”). A minor is allowed to obtain waiving permission in court by proving maturity or best interests. The judge is obliged to keep the hearing and the minor’s name confidential. However, once a year each judge is required to give account of how many abortion requests (s)he has granted and denied within a general report for public use. On November 8, 2005 Californians voted to defeat Prop 73, 47.4 YES to 52.6 NO.
A hot public discussion took place in the media, including electronic sources. Two of them, No on 73: the Campaign for Teen Safety (Site # 1) and YES on 73 / Life on the Ballot site (Site # 2), formed the sample for analysis taken in the present paper. On the one hand, these web sites are similar in a baseline respect of structure. They are distinctive from books in regard to material organization. Whereas material in a book traditionally progresses through pages linearly, material on a web site is accessed from the home page. Both web sites contain both text and graphic images (as well as audio and video clips) as well as hypertext. They exhibit large amounts of content and contact or interactive services. Both are focused on one and the same topic, though each presents it specifically. Unlike web chat rooms which also focus on specific issues and share ideas and information, these web sites are forums being less transient.
Both web sites share some structural principles of being organized along vertical and horizontal axes. The pages “Home,” “Donate,” and “Volunteer” are common features of the horizontal navigation panel. The content packages “Get Informed” and “Get Involved” are placed on the vertical navigation panels of each of the web site.
On the other hand, there are distinctions in structure, organizing principles and content observed between the two web sites. I argue that framing is used to underline the ideology and political underpinning of the sponsors which contributed to creating a web site. For example, Site # 1 contains the page “About Us,” and Site # 2 does not. No on 73: the Campaign for Teen Safety is said to be “a broad-based coalition of doctors, nurses, health care providers, educators, civil rights and women’s groups, including the League of Women Voters and millions of parents joining together to protect the safety of our daughters.”
YES on 73 / Life on the Ballot site does not provide information on the sponsors. We may assume that no large organizations or coalitions stand behind the initiative. The stress is put instead on images, audio and video materials, headers and subheaders, as well as personal narrations of celebrities. In the right column there is a statement of Feminists for Life Honorary Chair and Two-Time Emmy Winner Patricia Heaton, the radio interviews of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Ben Stein, Laura Ingraham and Robert Davi. In the central column there are video files under the header “Shocking audio tapes! Listen online.” There are also video clips of Patrick Warburton (the header “Actor and father of four”), Kerri Caviezel (the header “Protect our rights as parents to be involved in our children’s lives”), the videos with catching headers “Planned Parenthood sells minors secret abortions,” “Diana Lopez: 13-year-old daughter gets secret abortion” (the motto “I couldn’t protect my daughter. Protect yours. Vote Yes on 73.”), “‘Protect me…please’: Young girls who need your help” (the motto “Only you can protect our daughters”), and “”My Little Girl” video (the motto “She can make a LIFE or DEATH decision that I don’t even know about?”).
The structural analysis of Site # 1 and Site # 2 in regard to basic principles of content organization suggests that whilst Site # 1 sticks to “baseline” treatment of the issue, Site # 2 develops an “anecdotal” one. The strategic depth of Site # 2 is emphatically “hot,” or recent, shallow, specific. The exemplars, depictions, and visual images are heavily used as the most active and argumentative in making a person adopt the suggested view point. The appeal to celebrities is made to assure the reader that the content has been proved and praised by authorities.
The Site # 1 has a large running image window in the center of the main page. It displays the photographs of happy families with young girls in the foreground and their parents in the background with the anchors: “Their Safety, Our Responsibility,” and “If she can’t come to me, I just want to keep her safe.” Under the photograph of a young girl being dragged by an older guy into the door opening into a dark space, there is a text: “On a daily basis, older men exploit young girls and use secret abortions to cover up their crimes.” The Site # 2 also has the image serving the same goals, though it is placed on the bottom of the left column and, therefore, is less important for sending message. There is a black-an-white photo of a young and pretty girl who is dragged by an older man of aggressive looks into the door. The viewer may feel that there is peril behind the door because it opens into a dark space. The subscript speaks about the contrasting image of “older men exploit[ing] young girls and use secret abortions to cover up their crimes.” As I prove in a while, these images summarize the key arguments held by each of the party appealing to one and the same community of parents.
Let us examine the texts which occupy the central place on both the home pages. The Site # 1 placed the editorial letter under the header “Victory: Prop 73 DEFEATED!.” There is a direct statement about Prop 73 being the initiative “which would have put the health and safety of our teenage daughters at risk.” To add, there is a metaphor “sending teens back to the back alleys” used. The stone seems to be thrown at religious institutions which deny the idea of abortion (“[Californians] voted to reject the politics of fear and religion […]. They voted to keep our teens safe.”). The playing with feminist camp is suspected in the remark about “a woman’s right to choose”. The role of medical institutions, educators, and civil rights institutions is underlined in decreasing “our teen pregnancy rate […] already down 40%”. The call for granting educationalists with even more authority is made through proposing the “real answer to teen pregnancy” (“caring families and age appropriate sex education, including teaching abstinence.”). The implication for promoting sex abstinence seems to suit state medical institutions which would have been spending fewer funds on preventive educational as compared to abortion procedures.
The Site # 2 exhibits less militant editorial with the anchor “Parents Have a Right to Know.” The parents are put between two concepts: less serious medical and non-medical interference (“a flu shot,” “a school trip,” “a tooth pulled,” or “ears pierced”) and abortion in regard to their knowing it. The same image of “the back alleys” is used, though, in relation to “an older boyfriend or school employee [who] can take your 13-year-old daughter to an abortionist […].” The fact file in the left column mentions that under present legislation a minor may apply for taxpayer-funded abortion. The cases of sexual harassment by abortionist are mentioned.
It proves to be important to analyse the newspaper articles exhibited on the web sites to accomplish the role of framing in shaping public discussion about Prop. 73. The analyses of the media players which took part in the discussion revealed interesting results. The major ones are “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Sacramento Bee,” “North County Times” which are known for “targeting a national rather than a more regional audience and in being oriented toward policy-making elites” (Ferree et al. 45). However, the newspaper section, where the topical articles were placed, influenced the general tone of rhetoric. Other information sponsors “Recorder,” “Capital Times,” “LA Daily News,” “Orange County Register,” “LA Weekly,” “Signal,” “San-Diego Union-Tribune,” “Stanford Daily,” and “Santa Cruz Sentinel” seemed to work with local audience. The separate position occupies the YES On 73 news release placed on the Site # 2 which straight-forwardly states the YES On 73-group’s position.
Where possible, the articles from one and the same newspaper with different framings were pared. The San Francisco Chronicle published the personal letter “Dear Abby” (7 Oct. 2005) voting contra the initiative and the journalistic article by Debra J. Saunders “Parents should be notified” (3 Nov. 2005, B – 9). Both articles introduce the personal mode through the personal “I”-pronoun, though the outcomes achieved are different.
In the former case, an anonymous minister (having signed in as “Regretful in Florida”) tells about a young girl (around 13 years of age) having applied to Planned Parenthood. Her argument against telling her parents that she was test positive for pregnancy was “Dad will kill me!” The outcome of informing her parents was stated laconically: “Her father beat her so badly that she was in the hospital for more than a month. She lost the baby because of the beating and ended up in foster care.” The columnist’s response segregated families with minors in those where “teenagers could disclose to their parents,” and those where they can not. The stress is made on the concepts of “sex education,” “personal value systems,” and “a safe and comfortable environment.”
The latter example from the Site # 2 appeals to logic that “doesn’t work.” There is also a method of contrast pairing used, though it involves not the families with caring and uncaring parents, but “the least responsible teens” (“who have sex but don’t use birth control at all or correctly”) and “teens who either use birth control consistently or abstain from having sex.” The logic is jumbled by equating a responsible teen who uses birth control or abstains from sex and “a responsible teen who wants a tattoo.” The heavy minor is displayed as “a pregnant teen carry an unwanted child.” The author underlines that there is the judicial bypass “for daughters of abusive parents.” The next passage is a special question: “Why wouldn’t a parent vote for this measure?” The framing is done through suspended rhetorical questions, authority opinions (Becky Morgan, a former GOP state senator and mother of an obstetrician/gynecologist) and personal teens’ narrations.
The expressive remark of a teenager is given in Morgan’s parenthesis: “I will always remember the teenager who said, ‘My father gave my boyfriend a key to the house, and when I got pregnant, he threw me out.'”. The idea is personally framed in regard to the recent account: “I don’t want laws that would result in a pregnant teen getting thrown out of the house.”
The San Francisco Chronicle seems to start summarizing pro- and contra arguments in the form of explicit or implicit concepts. The possibility of a pregnant minor “get[ting] a tax-funded abortion by pleading poverty – whether they are poor or not” may hint on California community segregation and rational ways of spending state funds. What is even more important for the present research, the previous remark from the proponents’ camp seems to introduce the democratic idea of non-intrusion of the government into families’ lives. The idea about parental responsibilities is also made the banner of the Prop. 73-admirers.
The Sacramento Bee steps into discussion with “Proposition 73 – Abortion notification: Burden would fall on doctors” by Peter Hecht (Site # 1) and “Governor speaks up on abortion” by Gary Delsohn (September 21, 2005) (Site # 2). In the contra-argument a specific life-situation is given with participation of counselor and nurse practitioner Felicia Paxton (Planned Parenthood medical clinics in Los Angeles). Paxton is reported to recall an episode with a 17-year-old girl “who had an abortion and cried out in the operating room, ‘I wish I could tell my mom!’”
“I asked her, why won’t she?” Paxton recalls.
The girl answered: ” ‘Because she just wouldn’t understand.’ ”
Positions of proponents and opponents of the initiative are summarized. The former stress “a fundamental issue of parental rights.” The latter argue that Prop. 73 “endanger already traumatized young girls, including victims of sexual or family abuse, causing many to avoid or delay medical attention.” The process of obtaining waive parental notification is said to “burden frightened girls with navigating their way through the legal system.” Different points of view are juxtaposed between each other in the brief sayings of professionals (a Sacramento nurse as a proponent, an assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Alameda, as an opponent, etc.).
What is important concerning that source, the list of donors for both yes- and no-campaigns is given. Among those who contributed to collecting pro-arguments James Holman ($1.1 million, publisher of a secular weekly newspaper, the San Diego Reader), former state lawmaker Don Sebastiani (family owns the Sebastiani & Sons winery in Sonoma County), and Tom Monaghan (founder of Domino’s Pizza, each contributed $150,000) are named. Proponent individuals are opposed by organizations, Planned Parenthood of California and its statewide affiliates (raised more than $1.1 million to defeat the measure), the California Family Health Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern and Southern California and state and national chapters of the Abortion Rights Action League ($146,123).
The same source with the article having been picked up for the Site # 2 concentrates on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promise to “‘kill’ someone who took one of his own daughters for an abortion without informing him.” The idea is repeated twice in a journalist’s remark and in the direct quotation of Schwarzenegger himself.
The choice of other Schwarzenegger’s quotations seeks to prove the private point of a parent and not the governor:
“It will be the ultimate of being outraged about it and angry about it,” he said.
“They call me when my daughter falls off the jungle gym in the school and they say, ‘What do you want us to use? Can we put a Band-Aid on it? Do you want to come in? She’s crying a little bit.’
“They call us about everything. I don’t want them in that particular incident not to call us.”
In general, the articles and web sources reviewed prove the point that there are first and second-level agenda-settings in any media content. According to McCombs and Ghanem: “When journalists and, subsequently, members of the public think about and talk about various objects, some attributes have center stage. Others are relegated to lesser roles, and many are absent altogether” (68). The media sources analyzed by applying framing theory tell us not simply about a school debate on abortion (“Teen Girls Talking about Prop. 73” by Steve Lopez, 2 Oct. 2005), or the story of Becky Bell who died of complications as the consequence of abortion (“Parental consent for abortion is topic at Capitol” by Judith Davidoff, The Capital Times, 6 Oct. 2005). Various topics contain in publicly held discourses starting from a women’s choice to have a baby and ending with political agendas. One of them is clearly stated by Ferree et al. in the book “Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States.”:
The classic understanding of liberalism as favoring meritocracy, individual choice, and personal freedoms, while largely ignoring differences in social location and rejecting state interventions, is a fundamental theme in U. S. political culture. (181)
Consequently, when a group of speakers acknowledges that specific groups of population are disadvantaged in comparison to the others, or when the call for need-specific measures is made, it is booed by Democrats, large medical and educational institutions, as well as by feminists. On the other hand, rigid anti-abortion measures seem to appeal to religious institutions, parental and medical communities, and anti-Democrats. It seems than both the camps used such framing methods as “anecdotal” vs “baseline” treatment. The No-Prop 73 camp, though, seemed to appeal to past legal and medical traditions more often than its counterparts. Whereas the proponents of initiative conceptualized themselves as members of organizations, the opponents operated as parents and conscious individuals when appealing to the sense of common logic and parental feelings and values.
Due to space limitations, it is impossible to trace all the possible concepts throughout a more substantial corpus of media sources. However, the present analysis reveals the importance of framing to point out specific political agenda within media content.
The List of Articles Reviewed
No on 73: the Campaign for Teen Safety (Site # 1)
Bernhard, Blythe, and Scott Martindale. “Prop. 73’s requirement that parents be notified before a minor girl’s abortion raises medical and family issues.” The Orange County Register 6 Nov. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=196&Itemid=105>.
Davidoff, Judith. “Parental consent for abortion is topic at Capitol.” The Capital Times, 6 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=127&Itemid=105>.
“Dear Abby.” The San Francisco Chronicle 7 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=126&Itemid=105>.
Egelko, Bob. “Abortion issue’s opponents wary of the fine print.” San Francisco Chronicle 26 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content;task=view;id=172;Itemid=105;.
Hecht, Peter. “Proposition 73 – Abortion notification: Burden would fall on doctors.” The Sacramento Bee 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content;task=view;id=118;Itemid=105;.
Lewis, Judith. “Unwanted Conversation: Some Teenagers Can’t Imagine Telling Their Parents about an Abortion.” LA Weekly 20 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content;task=view;id=156;Itemid=105;.
Lopez, Steve. “Teen Girls Talking About Prop. 73.” Los Angeles Times 2 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content;task=view;id=124;Itemid=105;.
McKee, Mike. “Juvenile Court Judges Denounce Prop 73.” The Recorder 7 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content;task=view;id=121;Itemid=105;.
Sheppard, Harrison. “CON: Measure to make surgery harder for some Notification is difficult in some situations.” LA Daily News 9 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.noonproposition73.com/index.php?option=com_content;task=view;id=122;Itemid=105;.
YES on 73 / Life on the Ballot site
“American Academy of Pediatrics Caught in Scientific Deception.” YES On 73. 31 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ; http://www.yeson73.net/content/view/38/62/;.
Delsohn, Gary. “Governor speaks up on abortion.” The Sacramento Bee
21 Sept. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.sacbee.com/content/women/v-print/story/13597865p-14438717c.html;.
Heaton, Patricia. “Protect Our Daughters” Statement. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.yeson73.net/content/view/39;.
Miller, Heather. “Prop. 73 will help us, our children.” Santa Cruz Sentinel 12 Sept. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2005/November/06/edit/stories/02edit.htm;.
Patno, Noelle. “Prop. 73 would support, protect minors.” The Stanford Daily 7 Nov. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://daily.stanford.edu/tempo?page=content;id=18211;repository=0001_article;.
“Prop. 73: Parents Have a Right to Know.” The Signal 9 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.the-signal.com/News/ViewStory.asp?storyID=8015;.
Saunders, Debra J. “Parents should be notified.” The San Francisco Chronicle 3 Nov. 2005, B – 9. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/11/03/EDG9UFHKD61.DTL;.
Trageser, Jim. “Underage girls need guidance from parents.” North County Times 19 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 ;http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2005/10/20/news/columnists/trageser/20_29_0010_19_05.txt;.
“Yes on Prop. 73: Notifying parents of minor’s abortion makes sense.” The San-Diego Union-Tribune. 24 Oct. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20051024/news_mz1ed24top.html>.
List of References
Entman, R. “Framing toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.” Journal of Communication, 43 (4), 1993, 51–58.
Ferree, Myra Marx, William Anthony Gamson, Jürgen Gerhards, and Dieter Rucht. Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States. Cambridge, England: Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
McCombs, Maxwell, and Salma I. Ghanem. “The convergence of agenda setting and framing.” Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world. Eds. Oscar H. Gandy Jr., August E. Grant, Stephen D. Reese. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001, 67-81.
No on 73: the Campaign for Teen Safety. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <http://www.noonproposition73.org>.
“Proposition 73: Waiting Period and Parental Notification before Termination of Minor’s Pregnancy. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.” Congress.org. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <http://www.congress.org/congressorg/e4/content/ballotinfo/?state=CA&id=247>.
Reese, Stephen D. “Prologue – Framing Public Life: A Bridging Model for Media Research.” Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World. Eds. Oscar H. Gandy Jr., August E. Grant, Stephen D. Reese. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001, 7-31.
Tankard, J., Hendrickson, L., Silberman, J., Bliss, K., & Ghanem, S. “Media frames: Approaches to conceptualization and measurement.” Boston: Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 1991.
YES on 73 / Life on the Ballot site. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <http://www.yeson73.net>.