“The whole notion of framing contests and the behind-the-scenes strategies have been underexplored”–QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Øyvind Ihlen, Tine Ustad Figenschou and Anna Grøndahl Larsen from the University of Oslo are working on a paper on how different political actors (like government agencies and NGOs) act as “frame sponsors” and compete to shape news media frames on immigration behind the scenes in Norway. As they say (below), “the whole notion of framing contests and the behind-the-scenes strategies have been underexplored.”

Their paper “Behind The Framing Scenes: Qualitative Approaches to Analyze the NGO vs. Government Framing Strategies on Irregular Immigration” for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research. Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with them about their research. (Over the next months, we will publish a series of email interviews done with various people who will present at the preconference.) The full abstract is below the jump and on the conference page.

RKN: You work on frame sponsorship, how different political actors work behind the scenes to shape news frames. How would you say this connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

Our work is geared towards understanding the role played by communication when it comes to the issue of power. This is arguably at the heart of political communication research. We point to how different parties frame to benefit their particular cause, how they relate to the media and each other, and how they reflect on dilemmas, strengths and weaknesses. In this, it is particularly the community of scholars working on framing that we feel a kinship to, since issues of power has been brought up in relation to how certain readings are “naturalized”. At the same time, we feel that the whole notion of framing contests and the behind-the-scenes strategies have been underexplored.

In political communication research, there has traditionally been more work done on framing effects than on frame building. Did you feel you had to go beyond political communication for theoretical and methodological inspirations for your work, and if so where did you find it?

Indeed, and we have benefited from our diverse backgrounds in this sense. At the heart of our approach is a pragmatic orientation: It was our aim to examine how stakeholders in the field of immigration worked strategically to influence the media coverage from various starting points. We are trying to make sense of social phenomena and use the tools to think with that we feel are most useful, no matter which discipline they originated from. Theoretically, for example, we draw on our backgrounds in journalism, strategic communication and rhetoric. At the same time, we see research as a rhetorical operation in and of itself. We present our readings and try to qualify them with different empirical data and convincing theoretical arguments.

Few scholars challenge that qualitative research excels at depth, detail, and precision in terms of understanding particular cases or processes. But some would question whether findings based on for example ethnography and interviews can be generalized. Do you see your own findings as generalizable? If so, how and under what conditions?

The standard answer is that findings based on ethnography and interviews could have analytical generalizability and could also yield hypotheses that could be tested under other conditions and in other settings. We do not think of research as an endeavor where you get at final readings and we discuss our findings in relation to later projects and research in other settings. We are happy if our readings come across as meaningful and become a part of the conversation of how social phenomena are understood. The paper for the pre-conference stems from a larger research project where we have analyzed meditization processes in the Norwegian immigration bureaucracy. Our conclusions in this regard have met huge interest and approval here in other sectors of the bureaucracy, like health, suggesting other actors recognize themselves in the processes we analyze.

Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does mainly fairly conventional forms of behavioralist, quantitative political communication research, i.e., studies agenda-setting in lab experiments or frame effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

Actually, survey research is also a part of this multi-method project on migration issues, along with ethnography, qualitative interviews, quantitative framing studies and rhetorical text analysis. As we pursued our research, we felt that a singular focus on quantitative approaches would limit the possibility of getting a deep understanding of the frame building processes we focus on. In other words, we firmly believe in the value of cross-disciplinary and multi-method approaches. We would suggest to our colleague that conclusions can be tested in “the real world” through the use of qualitative methods, and that these provide much thicker descriptions and a deeper understanding than what quantitative approaches typically yield. Moreover, we would underline that particularly our main focus in this paper—actors’ frame-building strategies and, even more so, their reflections around these processes—can only really be identified and studied qualitatively.

Full paper abstract below the jump.

Behind The Framing Scenes: Qualitative Approaches to Analyze the NGO vs. Government Framing Strategies on Irregular Immigration

By Øyvind Ihlen, Tine Ustad Figenschou and Anna Grøndahl Larsen (University of Oslo)

Paper for ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research, Seattle, May 2014

Abstract: Immigration in general and “irregular” immigration in particular is a controversial, important and emotional issue worldwide. The restrictive immigration policy in many Western countries has also led to a wave of protests and political mobilization of irregular migrants and pro-migrant activists throughout Europe, North America and Australia (Nyers, 2010).

In this paper we regard the authorities and the NGOs as so-called frame sponsors that confront each others in framing contests over how the issue of irregular immigration should be defined (problem definition), what causes the problems, and what solutions would work (Entman, 1993). The paper offers an innovative approach to framing contests in its behind-the-scenes ethnographic study of how two competing frame sponsors adapt to, and seek to exploit, the logic of the news media. The extant literature on immigration and the media has emphasized media content and to some extent media reception over news production (e.g., Horsti, 2008). Still, little is known about the production processes leading up to the news on migration. Based on data from extensive ethnographic fieldwork and 35 qualitative interviews with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and public authorities in a small western democracy (Norway), the paper moves beyond textual analysis in an in-depth analysis of the strategizing that goes on behind the scenes. Thus, the study extends the traditional political communication literature which has placed a strong emphasis on politicians in election campaigns (e.g., Sanders, 2009). By situating the strategies and actors in the broader political and social context, the paper also heeds the call for more ethnography in both political science and public relations (e.g., Everett & Johnston, 2012) and for more attention to power in framing research (Carragee & Roefs, 2004).

The research questions are as follow: How do the authorities and NGOs work strategically behind the scenes to frame irregular immigration? How do they strive to maximize their resources, contest with each other, reflect on the challenges they face and adapt their communication strategies to the logic of the news media? And, finally, how do the two parties’ uneven resources and power limit and enable these framing strategies?

Carragee, K. M., & Roefs, W. (2004). The neglect of power in recent framing research. Journal of Communication, 54(2), 214-233.
Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.
Everett, J. L., & Johnston, K. A. (2012). Toward an ethnographic imperative in public relations research. Public Relations Review, 38(4), 522-528. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.05.006
Horsti, K. (2008). Overview of Nordic Media Research on immigration and Ethnic relations. From text analysis to the study of Production, Use and Reception.
Nordicom Review, 29(2), 275-293.
Nyers, P. (2010). No one is illegal between city and nation. Studies in social justice,
4(2), 127-143.
Sanders, K. (2009). Communicating politics in the twenty-first century. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.