Framing and the September 11th Attacks

On September 11th, 2001, American suffered an attack on a unprecedented scale.   Hijackers flew planes into two World Trade Center buildings, and into the Pentagon. Another plane crashed due to struggles over control while in the air.  By the end, almost 3000 people had lost their lives in the incident1.   The news spread quickly – less than two minutes after the first plane impacts, the attack was reported on television2, and by the next day, news media throughout the world had coverage of the event.

However, while only one set of events happened, the story was described differently by different people. In the above paragraph, I gave a description that involved suffering an attack, perpetrated by hijackers. I could have said a crime by evil people, I could have said a terrorist attack by terrorists, I could have said an attack by extremists. I could have even said that heroes sacrificed their lives to deal a blow to symbols of American economic and military might. All of those possibilities would have described the same events.

If I had provided interpretation, I could have said that the hijackers were motivated by a hatred of freedom and democracy, or that they were motivated by social injustice in the world. I could describe the events as a wake-up call for war, or wake-up call for better international public relations. Still, I would be describing the same events – the motivation for the events and the effect of the events.

The difference is framing, and every issue includes framing – not just to make sense of the event, but even to describe it at all. Barnett and Reynolds quote Robert Entman as part of their definition: “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 for the item described.”3

So how was 9/11 framed? Cristina Archetti describes former President George Bush’s framing as an example: “the 9/11 events could be seen as a terrorist act (problem definition) by evil people (moral evaluation) motivated by hate for freedom and for America’s way of life (causal interpretation). In order to bring to justice the perpetrators, the world should declare a war on terrorism (treatment recommendation).”4

A quick glance at newspaper headlines5 (starting with A) matches this interpretation: “The Day of Terror.” (Argentina), “Pure Evil” (Australia), “The World In Shock” (Austria), “Bush: The War Will be Long, Hard, and Difficult” (Bolivia), “Green Light for Revenge” (Brazil). “Terror,” “Evil,” “Shock” “War,” “Revenge”are repeated again and again in the headlines. Less frequent are headlines such as “Alive” (Australia, Finnland), that focus on the victims, rather than the attack itself or the response expected.

Is Bush’s description similar to what the news agencies reported? According to media flow theory and globalization theory, the American view should set the frame for the world. The headlines seem to back this up.

However, a closer look permits a different view. The French newspaper Le Monde (The World), ran an article on the 12th provocatively titled “We are All Americans” in reference to Kennedy’s “We are all Berliners.” Written by the then editor of Le Monde, the article starts off by condemning the attacks, and condemns any justification of motives, and continues into the repercussions of the attacks. However, this discussion of repercussions is far different. Instead of describing the hijackers’ hatred of freedom, or calling for a war on terror, the writer steers the article in a different direction, describing the problems of the sole superpower America withdrawing from many parts of the world, noting that US trained and armed the group held responsible, and otherwise noting the global negligence that gave rise to a world where the US would be attacked. In terms of US response, the writer predicts a shift in US policy, echoing Bush’s response, but describes the danger of labeling Islamic fundamentalism as the enemy, and notes that the attacks force moderate Muslims to pick sides, deepening “an unprecedented crisis in the Arab world6. As compared to Bush’s framing, the editor of Le Monde describes the 9/11 attacks as murderous attacks (problem definition) perpetrated by madmen extremists (moral evaluation), motivated, though not justified, by American’s neglect of the world (causal interpretation), requiring a careful response to fix the problems causing these attacks (treatment recommendation).

While my friend in France did not notice any affect on news there, having been sheltered from the immediate news and not noticing any long-term changes, according to Feblowitz, French media representation of the US was affected by the incident. Initially, the reaction consisted of “passionate empathy,” mixed with hope for the US to embrace the international community. However, in the week following, Feblowitz follows the french papers as they move from empathy and hope to disapproval and criticism of US responses. According to Feblowitz, “Le Monde offers a counter-narrative of international solidarity and reflection and expresses increasing anxiety and disapproval as the US rejects this worldview.”7

Is that then the framing of 9/11 as written in French media? Is 9/11 a murderous attack provoked by negligence, and solved by meticulous US involvement in world affairs? According to a study on international communication theories, this seems unlikely. While the study repudiated claims of media in poorer countries parroting first world powers (particularly the US), the study also described differences in framing between different newspapers in the same country – in fact, most (5/8) newspapers shared more framing elements with foreign counterparts than with their national counterparts.8

This then opens the door to the question of what other narratives concerning 9/11 exist, both in France and elsewhere. Neither the US government nor the US media controls the framing of events in foreign newspapers, despite US global domination. As seen in 9/11, while a single event in America can be the focus of headlines throughout the world, the interpretation of those events, and even the meaning of the headlines themselves, include a range interpretation. Brazil’s O Dia newspaper’s September 12th headline, “Sinal verde para a vingança” could be read, framed, and interpreted many different ways9.

Works Cited (modified for blog format):

1Wikipedia contributors, “September 11 attacks,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 4, 2010).

2Wikipedia contributors, “Timeline for the day of the September 11 attacks,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 4, 2010).

3Barnett, Brook and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press: An uneasy relationship. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), 47.

4Archetti, Cristina. “NEWS COVERAGE OF 9/11 AND THE DEMISE OF THE MEDIA FLOWS, GLOBALIZATION AND LOCALIZATION HYPOTHESES.” International Communication Gazette 70, no. 6 (December 2008): 463-485. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 4, 2010).

5September 11 News. (accessed February 4, 2010)

6Colombani, Jean-Marie. “We are all Americans.” Le Monde. September 12, 2001. (Accessed February 4, 2010)

7Feblowitz, Joshua. “La Fin D’un Reve: French Newspaper Coverage of 9/11”. Student Pulse. (Accessed Feb 4, 2010)

8Archetti, Cristina. “NEWS COVERAGE OF 9/11 AND THE DEMISE OF THE MEDIA FLOWS, GLOBALIZATION AND LOCALIZATION HYPOTHESES.” International Communication Gazette 70, no. 6 (December 2008): 463-485. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 4, 2010).

9September 11th News.