Underlying Message

In addition to the elements of frame and trigger, the study sought to examine a third component: whether there are certain underlying cultural messages, broad beliefs or even folkloric morals implicit in the news. For the purpose of this pilot study, the research team developed a long trial list of such messages.

For example, "a newcomer brings a breath of fresh air;" or "big business is greedy and unfeeling;" or "bad stuff happens to good people." The question was whether these messages were evident, in what patterns and how often. Some of the trial messages were contradictory, to test whether stories tended to one side of the scale. For instance, "advances in technology make life better" or "advances in technology make modern life worse."

In this initial attempt to create the variable in a way that would reach satisfactory intercoder reliability, a certain percentage of the stories defaulted into categories too broad to be useful in this analysis. The variable will be refined before undertaking the larger study. Yet, these limited numbers do suggest some things to look for in the next phase.

The long list of underlying messages is organized into eight broad categories. They are:


  • Protectiveness: Protectiveness included messages such as life should be risk-free and certain groups or ideas should not be slighted.
  • Littleguyism: The individual is favored over the system and the institution. Life outside big cities is pure and uncomplicated. Nostalgia for how things used to be: New ideas are dangerous; modern advances make life worse.
  • Optimism: Perseverence pays off; modern advances make life better; people deserve another chance.
    Anti-Establishmentarianism: The system doesn't work or judges unfairly; government can't get anything right.
  • Realism: Nobody is perfect; we go over board protecting certain groups or ideas.
  • Distrustfulness: Most everyone is a liar; big business is greedy; politicians are in it for the money.
  • Fatalism: People get what they deserve; Nothing ever changes or gets done.

Even though a number of stories defaulted out of underlying message because the variable is a work in progress, a sizable number of stories­roughly four-in-ten­were still identified as having an underlying message. Of these stories with clearly identified messages, a wide variety appeared on the front pages. The most common were those with optimistic themes such as perseverence pays off or the system is working (27%). Other common messages were those of protectiveness (15%), those that support "the little guy" (15%) and those that speak against the establishment (15%).

National and local papers had similar trends in their use of enduring messages but national papers were more likely to contain anti-establishment messages (16% versus 13%) and messages of distrust such as government can't get anything right (9% versus 5%).