'Framing' a Story: Journalism 101

By James Fallows

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.

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