Framing social conflicts in news coverage and social media: A multicounty comparative study

Global research/ MIRH/ 29 August 2022

By Saifuddin Ahmed and Jaeho Cho

Executive summary

Mass media have long been considered to provide the primary framework through which individuals experience and make sense of the society (Entman, 2004). Research has posited that news accounts construct a mediated reality which in turn shapes people’s understanding of the society. Under this conception of media effects, research has focused on how issues and events are covered in news (e.g., Dimitrova and Stro¨mba¨ck, 2005; Semetko and Valkenburg, 2000) and how news messages are consumed and processed by the audience (e.g., Iyengar, 1994; McLeod and Shah, 2015). Underlying this research is the assumption that the media have a quasi-monopolistic power in accessing information about issues/ events and in getting messages across to massive audiences, while ordinary citizens lack such power (Livingston and Bennett, 2003).

Recent years, however, have seen profound changes in media ecology largely driven by the developments in digital technology and the online social sphere (Shah et al., 2017). Recognizing the changing media ecology where social media emerges as an alternative information source, the present study is set out to examine how a controversial political event is framed in traditional news media and social media. Specifically, drawing on the literature of media framing on social conflicts (Benford and Snow, 2000; Hamdy and Gomaa, 2012; Snow et al., 2007), we investigate whether a 2013 riot in Singapore, as the focal event, was discussed similarly or differently in newspapers and citizen-generated tweets. Further, we add another layer to the comparison of two domains of issue discussion by considering geopolitical proximity to the event as a contextual factor. Given that geopolitical proximity has been known as one of the determinants of news coverage (Chang et al., 1987; Mueller, 1997; Snyder and Kelly, 1977), examining whether social media content—particularly the way the riot is framed in citizens’ tweets—is also bounded by geopolitical proximity provides a useful perspective in understanding the role of social media in political communication as compared to that of the traditional news media. Thus, a multinational comparison suggests that news media follow the traditional hypothesis of geopolitical proximity and international news coverage. However, Twitter seems less constrained by geopolitical boundaries of news making allowing citizens to bypass press censorship in an alternate information system.

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