Thursday, March 23, 2017

FRAMING Bad News About Declining Longevity in Terms of Individual Sins

The bad news is that new analyses of the US mortality statistics reveals a significance decline in life expectancy for white Americans, the "nation's largest population group" according to research  by two Princeton University economists recently published by the Brookings Institute. The latest study - available here - also finds lagging, but not yet declining, longevity for whites with college degrees.

I've been following this story on declining longevity since it was first reported in the press several years ago. I've been particularly interested in how the story has been FRAMED by the researchers and by the media.

Frame analysis looks at how choices about language, symbolism and imagery shape audience interpretation. You can read about this method, as developed by the renowned sociologist, Erving Goffman:
Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience,
Today I was struck by the framing of declining longevity across across print and electronic editions of the Wall Street Journal's coverage. Although the text of the electronic and print editions of the story are largely the same, there is an important difference.

The electronic version of the story includes a byline that reinforces the central framing device, an underlying causal framework that attributes declining longevity largely, if not exclusively, to the "sins" (i.e., heavy drinking, drug overdoses, and suicides) of a disaffected, white working-class.

Although both the print and electronic narratives share the same underlying causal logics, the inclusion of the byline in the electronic version symbolic forecloses alternative interpretations of causality(ies).

The Wall Street Journal PRINT edition of the story does not attribute causality from "deaths of despair" until the 5th paragraph.  Moreover, 1 of the 4 graphs (far right) notes that the rising death rate could only be explained by deaths of despair "in part," leaving open the possibility that other factors are driving this collapse in longevity:

McKay, Betsy (2017, March 23). Whites’ Mortality Rate Worse Than Thought. The Wall Street Journal (print ed), p. A6. NO BYLINE

In contrast, the Wall Street Journal ELECTRONIC edition of the story emphasizes "deaths of despair" in the byline, framing readers' interpretation during their first engagement with the story: