November 20, 2015

Mind Over Media: Beware of Message Manipulation


The tragic terrorist attacks in Paris last week have rightfully consumed the news media, the social media and inevitably, our minds. Discussions in various outlets and circles have been a melange of diplomatic, direct, distracting, disruptive and dramatic messages leading to a general feeling of malaise and melancholy.

Three powerful forces are at play, that unless you’ve studied media theory, you may not be aware of: Agenda-Setting, Priming and Framing. An understanding of the role that each of these forces plays in influencing the way people perceive messages — constructed by journalists, advertisers, public relations practitioners, marketing professionals, etc. — is key to taking charge of our own minds and forming our own opinions. Of course, this applies to international, domestic, and professional situations and settings.

Agenda-Setting: The media does not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about. This is the power of determining what is newsworthy and merits our focus and discourse. There are thousands of stories and events taking place daily, but what gets covered is what we deem to be important. The media’s selection process can legitimize or marginalize stories and events – or certain aspect of those stories and events. So, in essence, what we think about and what we talk about is set by the news media and reinforced by social media. (Agenda-Setting theory source: McCombs & Shaw, 1972).

Priming: The media provides the context for our discussion of an issue, and sets the stage for our perception and understanding. This is the amount of time and space devoted and dedicated to covering a topic. After terrorist attacks, before political elections, during sporting events — the media’s reporting is particularly strong and aggressive. Even if we weren’t interested in an issue, we can’t ignore it or help being impacted by it due to the strength of the priming effect. (Priming theory source: Iyengar, Peters and Kinder, 1982).

Framing: The media tells us how to think about an issue by providing a focus and frame of reference for our interpretation and evaluation. This is probably the media’s greatest persuasive power. The way facts are presented, the points of view that are expressed, the manner in which the story is told, and the words that are chosen create the story’s meaning and shape our understanding. When the media reports that a proposal is “harmful,” a view is “extreme,” a product’s safety is “questionable,” and when a story is told from a specific angle or version, the issue–and audience–have both been framed.  (Framing theory source: Goffman, 1974).

By becoming aware of these three powerful media effects, we can see how our minds and manners are impacted by oftentimes intentional and sometimes accidental media manipulation. This awareness will hopefully empower us to become more mindful of how we form our judgments and participate in meaningful and productive public discourse.

Wishing us all peace and positivity in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

Lee Broekman

Lee Broekman is an author, professor, trainer and coach. Her company Organic Communication, brings interactive, never boring, always edifying presentations and programs — focused on communication, collaboration and innovation — to your firm or organization.

Find her latest book Successful (Happy) Lawyering on