'Framing' a Story: Journalism 101

Here's the headline on a Wall Street Journal story today about changes in American patterns of electricity demand:


See if you can guess how the lead paragraph of the story ends. It begins this way:
"Americans are using more gadgets, televisions and air conditioners than ever before. But, oddly, their electricity use is barely growing, ..."
Possible choices for the rest of the paragraph are:
(a) "... reflecting hard-won efficiencies in electric-power use by industries and utilities."
(b) "... raising hopes that economic growth can coexist with reduced resource-use and greenhouse-gas emissions."
(c) "... which together with increased shale-gas production may hasten the era of 'energy independence' for the United States."
(d)"... posing a daunting challenge for the nation's utilities."
OK, you peeked, and know that the real answer is (d). No heavy-weather point here, and for the record I admire most of what is on the WSJ's news pages, even as I marvel at most of what is on its editorial pages. (And to be fair to the author of this story, several paragraphs down she works in a "to be sure" passage: "The slower pace of growth in electricity use may be helping the environment, since most of the nation's electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels. But it has power companies scrambling to trim spending or redirect capital investment...") 

I mention this story because it's as stark an example as you'll find of the impossibility of presenting "objective" news, and of the power of the "frame" the writer and editor choose to place around the daily increment of information. In the corporate-news section of the Wall Street Journal, we have a trend presented as a worrisome new problem for America's utility companies. In other publications, or even in another section of the WSJ, exactly the same information could have been a "good news for the environment" story. It's not only in China that contradictory phenomena are all true at the same time.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in National

From This Author

Just In