Academic journal article Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly

Evaluating Public Discourse in Newspaper Opinion Articles: Values-Framing and Integrative Complexity in Substance and Health Policy Issues

Academic journal article Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly

Evaluating Public Discourse in Newspaper Opinion Articles: Values-Framing and Integrative Complexity in Substance and Health Policy Issues

Article excerpt


The exchange of opinions is an important component of participatory democracies, and newspaper forum pages have been hailed as a conduit for such discussion. This research explored Schwartz's value framework to characterize lay and journalist frames in a national sample of local newspapers. A content analysis was conducted on newspaper forum articles on health policy issues-notably, alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, and crime-for the presence and complexity of value frames. Significant differences in values were found by article type and topic. Values typically associated with liberalism were also predictive of greater integrative complexity.

Normative questions about the quality, content, and form of public discourse have been at the center of political and social theories for centuries. However, research on such discourse typically focuses on archival studies of political speeches or statements, or the professional reportage of news.1 The forum pages of newspapers provide a unique opportunity to study opinion expression of the citizenry, as well as of professional journalists across the United States. That is, such pages contain content-opinions that have arguably been reasonably attained-that is not ordinarily archived. As communication scholars, we have a unique obligation to assess the nature and quality of that discourse.

In this study, we seek to characterize and compare lay and journalist opinion expression regarding substance use and health policy issues, using a unique nationally representative sample of local newspapers. In particular, we propose that research on human values2 provides a viable theoretical framework for characterizing both lay and journalist opinion frames. We also argue that policy-relevant discourse can be assessed with respect not only to value stance, but to the complexity of opinions expressed.3

Public Discourse within Newspaper Forum Pages. Forum pages-which include letters to the editor, editorials, and opinion columns-provide a historically important place in public discourse. Some scholars have argued that the opinions expressed in these pages serve as "a place where democracy blossoms because regular citizens are allowed a voice of their own."4 Although there are other forums for this type of expression-such as television talk shows, radio call-in programs, or Internet group discussions-newspaper forum pages are generally not limited by a specialized topic and reach large numbers of community members.5

Most literature on forum pages focuses on the professional norms and practices of journalists.6 Little research has actually examined the content of those opinions. In fact, Perrin claimed that no studies to date have examined the general tone of letters to the editor over a period of time.7 Those who have analyzed such content generally have focused on purely descriptive accounts.8 Yet this content gives communication scholars a window through which to explore a vast array of theoretical possibilities. Moreover, the availability of newspaper opinion pieces makes it feasible to sample them in such a way as to provide a reasonable national representation of public discourse in these pages.

Framing and Opinion Content in Newspapers. Much of the literature on framing focuses not on lay discourse, but on news or elite discourse.9 But journalists and elites are arguably not the only ones competent enough to strategically frame issues. Citizens organize their thoughts about issues through relevant discourse and-if they choose to write a letter to the editor, for example-may reconfigure applicable information (or "reframe") information themselves.10 The scholarly emphasis on journalistic and elite perspectives has neglected the ways in which individuals frame arguments in public discourse. Moreover, framing is a central concept in evaluating the quality of citizens' performance in such public processes. …

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