As African countries such as Ethiopia seek to re-mold their global image as vibrant emerging economies, key to their success will be understanding research as it relates to the longstanding cultural associations and cognitive short cuts that still shape Western perceptions of the continent and its people.

In my Doctoral seminar this semester on Advanced Media Theory, graduate students were asked to review research on media framing and to develop a typology of frames relevant to a topic of interest. Among several strong responses was the following short essay by Isabelle Zaugg, a first year doctoral student interested in understanding the factors that shape the global image of African countries and the impact of these images on international trade and economic development. Here’s her short essay articulating the value of framing research to this topic.

Dark Continent or Vibrant Emerging Economy? Framing and the Global Image of African Countries

by Isabelle Zaugg

Is Ethiopia part of the “dark continent” or the “birthplace of humankind”? Is it yet another example of a corrupt and failing African state, or a shining exemplar of African exceptionalism? When stated bluntly, these questions seem absurd, and yet as underlying concepts they may be naggingly familiar. This phenomenon exemplifies the concept of framing. Framing describes the fact that all information comes in packages that, as Nisbet (2009, para. 13) describes, “set a specific train of thought in motion.” Frames rely on cultural associations and offer cognitive shortcuts for the interpretation of new information within a framework of prior knowledge. Framing is not necessarily false information, but is a privileging of a certain set of information about an issue, often in the interest of simplification and sometimes in the interest of political expediency.

Framing as a body of research has cross-disciplinary roots. Conceptually it can be linked to “strong effects” theories which studied the impact of propaganda on public opinion during the World War I era. Formally, the concept of framing can be traced back to anthropologist Erving Goffman, who in the 1970’s “described words and nonverbal interactions as helping individuals negotiate meaning through the lens of existing cultural beliefs and worldviews” (Nisbet, para. 15, citing Gamson, 1974). In the same decade Nobel-prize winning cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (Nisbet, para. 16, citing Kahneman, 2003) found that the framing of information in ambiguous situations, through particular wording or visual context, greatly shapes an individual’s response.

Thinking and Talking Through Media Images to Form Judgments

In recent decades, political science and sociology research has focused on the ways in which cultural forces and media frames have impacted public opinion on policy issues (para. 17). “Social constructivist” theories combine strands of strong and limited effects theories; the impact of media frames on public opinion is theorized to be limited by the fact that, for example, journalists rely on their impression of public opinion when framing issues (Scheufele, 1999), and audience members bring their own set of values, history, and beliefs to the interpretative process.

If communication is thought of as a transmission, for example a TV news broadcast, then framing describes the package of associations that the journalist or policymaker uses to present a topic, and framing also describes the unique schema an audience member uses to decipher and understand that same topic. While media frames do impact the frames that circulate amongst audience members, a constructionist approach would argue that it is not a simple cause and effect relationship; rather, both the person transmitting information and the recipient are constructing meaning (Gamson, 1989). Arguing for this approach, Gamson (p. 2) posits that “media discourse is part of the process by which individuals construct meaning and public opinion is part of the process by which journalists and other cultural entrepreneurs develop and crystallize meaning in public discourse.”

Furthermore, he argues for the importance of studying the relative circulation of a typology of media frames (in his seminal study related to depictions of nuclear power) as an indication of public opinion because these are the frames most accessible to the public when conceptualizing complex issues (p. 3), and because it is difficult to distinguish the multitude of frames people might be referencing when they give ambiguous or undecided answers to survey questions (p. 35-36).

In 1999 Scheufele helped to contextualize diverse strands of research and theory related to framing in his article “Framing as a Theory of Media Effects.” His goal was to sort out what made framing unique from other related theoretical concepts with which it had been conflated, such as agenda-setting and priming. He proposed that framing be considered along two dimensions, “the type of frame examined (media frames vs. audience frames) and the way frames are operationalized (independent variable or dependent variable)” (p. 103). Scheufele conceives framing as a process “where outcomes of certain processes serve as inputs for subsequent processes: frame building; frame setting, individual-level effects of framing; and a link between individual frames and media frames (i.e., journalists’ and elites’ susceptibility to framing processes)” (p. 115). He proposes that there is valuable framing research to be done at various intersections within this overarching process.

How are frames and the issue cultures around them built? Gamson proposes that frame building consists of “three broad classes of determinants that combine to produce particular package careers: cultural resonances, sponsor activities, and media practices” (1989, p. 5). The concept of cultural resonances (similar to Snow and Benford’s concept of “narrative fidelity, 1988) describes how a frame will appeal to audiences as familiar or natural when is is aligned with larger cultural tropes such as mythology (Gamson, 1989, p. 5). Many issue cultures are sponsored by organizations or entities that stand to benefit from a particular frame’s ascendancy in popular culture. Sponsors participate in frame building when they make speeches, publish documents, and contribute to journalistic efforts as experts or sources. Sponsors often work hard to build frames conducive to the needs, time constraints, and tastes of journalists (p. 6-7) .

Media practices frequently reinforce frames built by sponsors due to the tendency of journalists to favor “experts” (often labeled as such by their association with established organizations) (p. 7) who they can access regularly on their beats, thus forming a type of dependency based on the need to maintain personal bonds. This creates a form of bias that forces competitors to dominant frames to “bear the burden of proof” (p. 7).

Gamson also notes that while sponsors may push a particular framing with particular policy outcomes in mind, a diversity of views, even contradictory ones, will typically coalesce within a particular issue culture (p. 3). For example, a “progress” framing of nuclear power, which generally connotes pro-nuclear policy, may encompass a diversity of opinions about what nuclear power’s contribution to progress might look like, as well as its proper limitations. While some frames can be characterized as pro/con arguments, others contain a strong sense of ambivalence or lack of clear policy implications.

For example, in 2005 Price, Nir, and Capella tested interpretations of the issue of gay unions within social discussion according to two competing frames: civil unions/human rights versus gay marriage/special rights. They found that the gay marriage/special rights frame was more “polarizing in its effect…the gulf between liberal and conservative groups widened when the “marriage” frame introduced the discussion” (p. 202).

A Typology of Frames Shaping Views of African Countries

There are several approaches to constructing a typology of frames that address a particular topic, and typically it is best to use these approaches in combination. First, it is possible to review multiple examples of the media content in question, i.e. newspaper articles, inductively creating a typology of frames. Taking a deductive approach, other research focusing on the same topic or a related issue can be a valuable source of frames which have been vetted within rigorous content analysis. Because frames rely on cultural resonances, they often migrate from issue to issue; for example, Nisbet cites Gamson’s typology of frames within the nuclear power debate as relevant to his research on climate change framing. He cites, for example, how a Pandora’s Box paradigm has been used to characterize the negative impacts of both nuclear power and climate change (2009).

To return to the rhetorical questions that introduced this essay, in order to create a typology of frames related to Ethiopia’s national image, I have used both of the approaches listed above. In developing the typography listed below, I adapted aspects of Kothari’s (2010) four media framings of the Darfur conflict: United States as savior of Sudanese People, Ethnic conflict, Fatalist, and Hybrid. I also borrowed concepts from Berger’s 2010 article, “Image revisions: South Africa, Africa, and the 2010 world cup.” This article cited media references to South Africa as a booming emerging economy ready to act as representative of the continent (falling along a spectrum of romanticism about South Africa’s progress to “Afro-pessimism” about its future), as well as a wide variety of depictions related to the “noble savage” trope. I have also developed this typology in relation to media coverage of Ethiopia in both homegrown publications such as Ethiopian Airline’s in-flight magazine Selamta, as well as international publications such as The Economist. This is a first-draft of a typology of frames, with the potential for some categories to be collapsed or redefined in future formulations.


August, O (2013).  “Africa Rising:  A hopeful continent.”  The Economist.  2 March 2013.

Berger, G. (2010).  Image revisions:  South Africa, Africa, and the 2010 world cup. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 31(2):  174-190.

Gamson, W. A., & Modigliani, A. (1989). Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach. American journal of Sociology, 1-37.

Kahneman, D. (2003), “Maps of Bounded Rationality: A Perspective on Intuitive Judgment and Choice,” in T. Frängsmyr, ed., Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 2002 (Stockholm: Nobel Foundation, 2003), 449–89.

Kothari, A. (2010).  The framing of the Darfur conflict in the New York Times:  2003-2006.  Journalism Studies, 11(2):  209-224.

Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518

Price, V., Nir, L., & Cappella, J. N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69(2), 179.

Snow, D. A. & Benford, R. D. (1988).  “Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant Mobilization”.  p.197-217.  In From Structure to Action:  Social Movement Participation across Cultures, edited by Bert Klandermans, Hanspeter Kriesi, and SidneyTarrow.  Greenwich, Conn.:  JAI.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects.  Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.

(2000).  “The Hopeless Continent”  The Economist.  13 May 2000.  (could not locate author, perhaps because article was pulled from website).

(2013)  “Past, Present, Future.  Ethiopian Airlines:  A symbol of Pan—Africanism and African Renaissance.” Selamta (Ethiopian Airline’s In-Flight Magazine).  Spring 2013.  Web, accessed on 14 November 2013.  (no author listed).