A status quo of economics or a tyranny of intimacy? Changes and convergence in the framing of the United Nations’ development goals in organizational press releases and news media

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A status quo of economics or a tyranny of intimacy?

Changes and convergence in the framing of the United Nations’

development goals in organizational press releases and news media

Bernd Schifferdecker 12803367 Master’s Thesis

Graduate School of Communication Master’s Programme Communication Science

Robin Tschötschel 08/07/2021



The transition from Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) marked an important turning point for global humanitarian and development efforts. This study aims to investigate the predominant media frames around these goals. A quantitative content analysis of UN press releases and news articles from two international prestige media outlets over 10 years (2011 – 2020) was conducted, to assess the prevalence of Economic Consequences, Conflict, Human Interest, Success and Failure frames, whether the transition from MDGs to SDGs lead to changes in how they are framed, and how these frames converge or diverge over time and between the two sources. Economic Consequences predominate the goals’ framing in PR and media content, while Human Interest, Success and Failure framing partially diverge longitudinally and between press releases and news articles.

These findings mainly support past research on humanitarian communication, pointing out a scene-based focus on economic aspects, while neglecting individual-focused communication strategies, with a more human angle. The implications of this are discussed.

Keywords: Development, humanitarian, framing, SDGs, MDGs



When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were announced in 2000 in the United Nations’ General Assembly, the member states established and pledged to achieve eight internationally agreed up goals, ranging from education to child mortality, until the year 2015, to fight and end poverty across the globe.

In 2015, the MDGs were widely regarded as an undeniable success in improving the living conditions for millions of people around the world. More critical assessments pointed to the imbalanced impact of the UN’s initiatives, with high-income countries being the greatest beneficiaries of them, compared to lower-income nations of the Global South (Rosenbaum, 2015). According to some critics, their biggest weaknesses were a clearly neoliberal economic focus, disregarding the structural underpinnings of inequality in developing countries, as well as questionable and lackluster measures of analyzing the success for reaching the set targets and goals overall (McCloskey, 2015).

After hitting their deadline, the goals were superseded by the Sustainable

Development Goals (SDGs). Expanding upon the previous goals in number and scope, the United Nations set a wider global agenda of tackling economic, social and environmental issues.

Bello (2013) points out that the greatest value of the MDGs and any similar efforts in the future is in “creating moral outrage globally at the persistence of these conditions and making people question governments and global institutions on their efforts to eradicate them” (p. 155). In order to achieve the SDGs, humanitarian communication efforts have to continue to mobilize the public and engage in its discourse around global development issues (McCloskey, 2015).


One way to do this is to effectively communicate their agenda to the public via mass media and news outlets in order to garner public and political support. However, measuring the effectiveness of PR efforts is not less complicated than assessing the impact of global humanitarian aid programmes. Even though correlations between PR messaging and media content do not point to a causal relationship between the two, the concept of framing can serve as an indicator for levels of effectiveness, by assessing a convergence of perspectives and positions, rather than simply searching for direct quotes in media content (Fröhlich &

Rüdiger, 2006).

By studying how the MDGs and SDGs are framed within organizational press

releases and news media content and how this has changed and converged over the course of the UN’s campaign, this study aims to contribute to a better understanding of framing in development communication, as well as more effective humanitarian PR practices.

In the following sections, we will establish a theoretical framework around the concepts of development communication and framing, based on previous research, describe the methods, procedures and results of our analysis, as well as the results and their

implications regarding the overarching research question.

Theoretical Framework


Framing has long been and to a degree still is used to describe differing concepts, depending on the field of research it is being applied to. Entman (1993) fittingly called it a fractured paradigm, as for its lack of a cross-discipline consensus on how frames emerge, apply and exert influence. He broadly defined framing in communication as a process of


selecting certain aspects of messages, in order to “promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation” (p. 52) within a communicated text. Which aspects of a communicated message are omitted in a certain frame is however as significant as the ones that it includes, as such selective description can,

intentionally or not, deny the perceiver information, that is necessary for an interpretation alternative to the one that is included. Hallahan (1999) paints a metaphorical picture of this process of inclusion and exclusion, by comparing it to a view outside a window, allowing only some parts of the outside within one’s field of vision, while others remain obscured.

Entman (1993) locates four distinct points in communication processes at which framing takes place: First, the communicator who consciously or unconsciously selects certain aspects of the message that they aim to convey. Second, the message itself, where frames manifest through specific keyword, phrases and images. Depending on the receiver’s own belief systems, the frames that are then evoked within their thinking might or might not reflect those previously intended by the communicator. Lastly, cultural framing describes frames that are commonly agreed upon, that can be empirically located within discourse of a society or groups within it.

De Vreese (2005) makes a similar distinction for framing. He proposes an integrated model, where framing is defined as a process that includes the production of frames, their contents, as well as media use perspectives. This process can be divided into frame-building and frame-setting. According to the author, while frame-setting describes the interplay of media frames and their reflection in audiences’ interpretation and evaluation of media messages, as well as the receivers’ prior knowledge and predispositions, frame-building precedes this step. It refers to internal factors that influence the emergence of frames in the production process, such as journalists’ personal belief systems, newsroom standards or editorial mandates. External factors, that lie outside the journalistic practice, involve the


constant dialogue with elites, experts and politicians, as well as social movements, such as the United Nations’ development goals.

But what role does framing play in the context of political communication,

specifically development communication? Not only does framing create a social reality for audiences by presenting issues and events in a certain way, but has shown to influence the direction of audiences’ thoughts towards political issues (de Vreese, 2004), as well as increase or lower the support for certain policy issues (de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2003).

Therefore, frames are crucial parts to political arguments and social movements’ discourse,

“endogenous to the political and social world” (de Vreese, 2005, p. 53).

Straying away from established frames when communicating an issue, poses certain risks for communicators, especially in a political or development context. Political actors and social movements can be perceived as lacking credibility by a wider audience, if they use terms that are not commonly associated with the framing of an issue (Entman, 1993).

However, deviating from dominant framing devices regarding a specific issue can be

intentional and potentially useful for communicators. Referred to as “frame-changing” (Chyi

& McCombs, 2004), emphasizing differing aspects of an issue by applying varied frames over different points of time, can help re-evoke the audiences’ interest in an issue and keep the narrative fresh (Bracken, 2018).

The transition from the Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals can be seen as a prime example of frame-changing. In order to better understand the impact this has on frame-building, i.e. the interaction between the United Nations’

development goals as a social movement and journalists, responsible for news production, we pose the following research question:


RQ: What are the predominant frames of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals / Sustainable Development Goals within organizational press releases and news media coverage, and how do they converge between the two, over time?

Development Communication & “Intimacy at a Distance”

Development or humanitarian communication can be defined as “the process of intervening in a systematic or strategic manner with either media […] or education […] for the purpose of positive social change.” (McPhail, 2009, p. 3). Communicators in the field of development utilize media tools and strategies in order to change behaviors towards an

improvement of quality of life. McPhail (2009) acknowledges that there are no singular grand theories for development communication, but that the field requires interdisciplinary

approaches to tackle its problems.

Wilkins and Mody (2001) similarly define development communication as strategic intervention “by institutions and communities […] by affirming the intentional use of communication technologies and processes, to advance socially beneficial goals” (p. 385).

The authors distinguish between to dimensions, communication for development and communication about development.

Communication for development refers to the strategic practices of communication professional in the development or humanitarian field, which despite their inherent goal of positive social change, have garnered criticism from scholars, experts and media alike.

Development communication is often seen as a way to promote western and capitalist values and ideals of capitalism and therefore not necessarily fostering equal development (McPhail, 2009). Closely associated to the criticism of western, capitalist ideas of development

dominating in the field, are problems of funding, which often plague development

programmes and communication projects. When governments, often authoritarian regimes


(McPhail 2009), decide to withdraw funding, organizations often have to or decide to partner with private corporations, leading to a “commercialization of public programs” (Wilkins &

Mody, 2001, p. 389). This coordination with private stakeholders can often lead to a selective way of addressing certain aspects, such as promoting more consumerist values, while other, more structural aspects remain marginalized. This disregard of structural constraints often leads to development communication practices that are oriented on short-term goals, rather than long-term interests. Privileging economic over social progress, development

communication finds itself “faced with a global economic empire, imposing marketing principles over political and social domains” (Wilkins & Mody, 2001, p. 390). Regarding our research question, one could assume that this tendency is mirrored in the overall framing of issues such as the United Nations’ development goals being predominantly focused on the economic aspects and consequences of such humanitarian efforts.

Communication about development generally describes a broader, public discourse about development, e.g. among scholars of the field, experts or in media. Scientific discourse and media descriptions are oftentimes critically impactful, especially in cases such as the ongoing covid-19 crisis or the spread of HIV/AIDS, when there are no (or not enough)

remedies readily available. Wilkins and Mody (2001) do however point out, that access to the knowledge produced in academic discourse is often produced in limited to those producing it, scholars and institution, without being effectively applied or reaching those in need of this information. Despite the ability of media outlets to convey socially beneficial messages to a wider audience, the increasing privatization of broadcasting and print news industries, makes to development programmes more dependent on funding, in order to compete for time and space within the media landscape. Wilkins & Mody (2001) point out that without sufficient media exposure and saturation, there is little hope for any development or humanitarian communication project to achieve its ultimate goals.


One aspect of development or humanitarian communication programmes is their apparent abstractness and complexity, oftentimes hindering them from receiving widespread media attention and/or sufficient funding from donors and institutions. Brigham and Nolan (2014) criticize the tendency in humanitarian advocacy to confront audiences with a situation’s complexity and therefore demobilizing them rather than invoking action to

change, resulting in a “numb and overwhelmed public” (p. 58). Similar to Wilkins & Mody’s arguments, this implies that humanitarian communication strategy would tend to emphasize framing of more complex and abstract issues, such as economics, while being more reluctant to confront audiences with more individual-focused framing devices.

Another criticism they voice is the dominant focus on the geography regarding issues such as human rights abuses, environmental crises or conflict. While such campaigns leave audiences familiar with the regions themselves, they have shown little long-lasting results and oftentimes lead the public to think that such situations are inherent to the location and

“just happen […] without any exploration of why these problems exist or who is responsible”

(Brigham & Nolan, 2014, p. 57). Instead, a more individual-centered angle is suggested, by putting a human face on a crisis, those responsible and suffering under it, and therefore activating the audience to be engaged actors.

Even though the focus on a specific person can be reductive, regarding the often complex and structural problems underlying humanitarian and development issues, Brigham and Nolan argue that such framing can serve as an entry point for audiences into longer lasting efforts for change. The goal is to “draw in an audience with the simplicity and

iconicity of the singular figure, and then, once that attention has been captivated, draw out the depth and complexity of the situation.” (p. 60). Any perceived ‘oversimplification’ of an issue should be seen as merely the first stage of successful communication efforts.


Orgad and Seu (2014) describe the stronger focus on individuals’ stories in development communication as a crucial part in creating ‘intimacy at a distance’. After conducting in-depth interviews with numerous experts and professionals of the field, they point out the practice’s sometimes problematic aspects, as well as its potential strengths. By replicating intimacy in a mediated, non-reciprocal form, in order to overcome audiences’

alienation from the ‘suffering other’ in developing countries and foster identification, care and empathy with them, ‘intimacy at a distance’ serves communicators as a counteract to the

“impersonal nature of their work, which is public, replicated, transactional and uses standardized formulas and strategies in mass-mediated forms (e.g. campaigns, appeals) to address the masses.” (p. 922).

However, many of the interviewed communication professionals described an

emerging trend in the increasing application of human-focused angles, as over-compensating for past inadequate, patronizing representations of beneficiaries, that further solidified the view of developing countries as inherently, helplessly plagued by crises and human tragedy.

While this perceived “tyranny of intimacy” (p. 925) represents hindrance to alternative, possibly more effective ways to communicate certain issues for some, others see it at the core of development and humanitarian communications, by bridging the “geographical, cultural and moral gaps between spectators in the global North and distant others in the global South whose suffering they seek to mitigate.” (p. 929).

In the following section, I will discuss past and recent studies regarding the organizational and media framing of development and humanitarian issues, before

formulating an hypothesis regarding individual-focused framing of the UN’s development goals in organizational press releases and news media coverage.


Recent Findings & Hypotheses

While it is hard, if not impossible, to prove causality in news framing by media analysis, and communication professionals have widely varying motives for what they do and how they it, as previously shown in Brigham & Nolan’s (2014) survey, recent studies give several different indications for how organizational and media representations of

development and humanitarian issues emerge.

Odozi and Nyam’s (2014) analysis of press coverage regarding the MDGs in Nigerian news media, showed that journalists tended to report on development issues by addressing the facts superficially, as ‘straight news’, rather than emphasizing either more complex or

interpretive, human story-focused aspects, as suggested by e.g. Brigham & Nolan (2014) or Orgad & Seu (2014). However, the national constraints of this study do cast doubts on its overall representativeness, regarding the news framing of development and humanitarian issues.

Geographical aspects do seem a play a role in the framing of these issues, as

Barkemeyer, Figge and Holt (2013) point out in their study on sustainability and development related news coverage. Their results show that newspapers from the Global North and South are distinctly divided on their coverage of certain issues, based on how close in location and frequency they are inherently associated with either hemisphere. James & Boukes’ (2017) results of their comparative analysis of Western and Chinese news media coverage regarding the East African Community (EAC), an intergovernmental development organization, point towards more geopolitically motivated differences in framing. While Western outlets granted African actors more agency by giving them voice in their reporting, which lead to an overall more negative framing of the EAC, Chinese media generally refrained from doing so, as it

“tends to overlook divisive issues” (p. 526).


Further research suggests that differences in framing might be inherent to specific events (Barkemeyer & Holt, 2012) or even tied to the inherent nature of certain issue frames themselves (Barkemeyer, Givry & Figge, 2017), independently from geographical or political factors. The transition and reframing of the Millennium Development Goals towards

Sustainable Development Goals were a crucial turning point in global humanitarian

development, certainly making it an event that might lead to substantial messaging changes in organization communication strategies and / or news media messaging.

Bracken’s (2018) recent study regarding the framing of the MDGs within

organizational press releases and international media coverage showed that economic frames dominate across time and media forms, while human interest framing was almost not present at all, however increasing towards the MDG’s end in 2015. Therefore, this study aims to further investigate these trends in framing beyond 2015, into the current SDG-era.

Considering this, the theoretical framework established here and the fact that

‘intimacy at a distance’ is a relatively recently emerging trend in development and

humanitarian communication, we hypothesize that the transition from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals can be seen as a turning point by reframing them in a more individual-focused, human angle:

H1: Human interest framing is more present in organizational press releases of the United Nations post-2015 SDGs, than during the previous MDGs.

H2: Human interest framing is more present in news media coverage of the United Nations post-2015 SDGs, than during the previous MDGs.


H3: Human interest framing does converge more between organizational and news media coverage of the United Nations post-2015 SDGs, than during the previous MDGs.


To answer our research question regarding the organizational and news media framing of the United Nations’ development goals, a quantitative content analysis was conducted.

Berelson (1952) points out five main purposes of content analyses, which are the description of formal and substance characteristics of message content, inferences to

producers and audiences of message content, as well as predicting the effects of such content on audiences. While inferences to content producers’ intentions, audience effects or formal characteristics are outside of this research question’s scope, substance characteristics of message content are central to it.

As the units of analysis in this study are media content in textual form, a content analysis allows for a systematic, longitudinal, objective, and quantitative description of manifest and latent media content (Berelson, 1952), i.e. framing devices within

organizational press releases and news media coverage. Content analysis was ultimately deemed the most suitable method for this study, as its aim is to investigate the relationship between different variables, by examining trends and changes of framing within and between two separate mediums over time, without establishing a causal correlation (Bryman, 2016).

The time period covered by this content analysis stretches from January 2011 to December 2020, including the last five years of the Millennium Development Goals, before transitioning into the first five years of the Sustainable Development Goals. By putting this


crucial transition phase in the center of the analysis, we can account for and make further inferences regarding its role in any significant frame changes occurring within and convergence between organizational press releases and media coverage.


The sample of this study consists of organizational press releases and newspaper articles covering the United Nations’ development goals between 2011 and 2020. The UN press releases were collected via the United Nations’ official MDG press database (United Nations, n.d.a) and their general press archive (United Nations, n.d.b). While the MDG press database provided a comprehensive and easily accessible collection of all press releases regarding the Millennium Development Goals, all post-MDG press releases had to be collected by entering key words (SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals) into the general press archive’s search engine. Fact sheets, media advisories and reports were disregarded for the purpose of this study and only press releases that specifically mentioned the SDGs either in text, or in text and headline, were included.

This yielded a relatively small number of press releases overall, therefore all items within the time frame of the analysis were included in the sample (N = 39), in order to guarantee an adequate sample size. The implications of this will be discussed further in the discussion section. See Table 1 for the annual distribution of press releases.


Table 1

Distribution of press releases per year

Year Frequency In %

2011 2 5.1

2012 2 5.1

2013 4 10.3

2014 2 5.1

2015 5 12.8

2016 7 17.9

2017 3 7.7

2018 4 10.3

2019 4 10.3

2020 6 15.4

Total 39 100

The newspaper articles were drawn from two separate outlets, namely The Guardian and The Economist. Editorially, both outlets can be described as centrist to center-left leaning and are commonly considered international ‘prestige’ media outlets. Not including local or tabloid media might limit our ability to make inferences from our sample to the global media landscape. However, due to the complex, niche and international nature of international and humanitarian development, it can be assumed that the majority of MDG/SDG-related coverage is produced by outlets similar to The Guardian and The Economist.

Powers (2014) makes a strong case for this by noting that, due to the international and political nature of global development efforts, the United Nations communications strategy is most likely to maximize their reach towards the professional elites in politics and policy making. Engaging in prestige press discourse should seem like a priority, as these professional elites make up for a large part of their readership.


The articles for The Economist were accessed via the outlet’s online archive, those for The Guardian via the NexisUni database (formerly LexisNexis), by using key search words (MDG/MDGs, SDG/SDGs, Millennium Development Goals, Sustainable Development Goals, Sustainability Development Goals) for the determined time period.

Commentary or user generated content, such as opinion pieces or “letters to the editor” were excluded from the sample frame. After this initial selection process, a purposive sampling strategy was followed. The United Nations’ press releases occurred mostly around important, annual events, such as the General Assembly and mid- or end-of-year press recaps.

To mirror this in the news article sample, all items were drawn from the months of July, September and December of each year. The number of articles for The Guardian allowed for random sampling at this stage, while those for The Economist were included in the sample in their entirety, to account for an adequate sample size. This rendered an overall sample of 162 newspaper articles (The Guardian N = 127, The Economist N = 35) and a total sample of N = 201. See Table 2 for the annual distribution of newspaper articles.


Table 2

Distribution of news articles per year

Year Frequency In %

2011 15 9.3

2012 14 8.6

2013 19 11.7

2014 14 8.6

2015 31 19.3

2016 21 13.0

2017 10 6.2

2018 8 4.9

2019 10 6.2

2020 20 12.3

Total 162 100


Conducting a quantitative content analysis requires a priori research design, i.e. “all decisions on variables, their measurements […] must be made before the observation begins (Neuendorf, 2002, p. 11). This happens in the form of a code book, wherein all variables that are necessary for coding are included and described clearly.

Five framing variables were included in this study. 1) Economic Consequences 2) Human Interest and 3) Conflict are based on Semetko & Valkenburg’s (2000) identified news frames, adapted and applied here similarly to Bracken’s (2018) analysis of MDG framing.

The 4) Success and 5) Failure framing variables are based on Hallahan’s (1999) findings regarding the implications of framing models for public relations, as well as James &

Boukes’ (2017) application of these frames. These five frames were selected for their

predominance in Bracken’s (2018) findings on the framing of the Milennnium Development


Goals from 2008 – 2015. Other dominant framing variables of that study were excluded, namely the different dimensions of poverty framing. Due to the specific focus on fighting poverty during the MDG period, these frames would be less generally applicable to both MDG- and SDG-related media content and therefore less relevant within the scope of our research question.

For a more detailed description and instructions of each frame within the code book, see Appendix 1. All five framing variables were coded dichotomously, indicating each frame as either present or not present. Variables regarding formal item characteristics, such as the date of publishing and source were also included in the code book.


Intercoder reliability was established by recruiting an English-speaking second coder, who was familiar with content analysis procedures and humanitarian and development communication. The main coder and second coder analyzed several example articles and releases together, in order to assure that the in instruction for each variable within the code book are clear enough and easy to understand and follow. The second coder then coded a randomly selected sub-sample of around 10% of the total sample (press releases N = 7, news articles N = 18).

Based on the coded sub-sample, reliability measurements were calculated in SPSS.

The Krippendorf’s alpha coefficient for all exceeded the threshold of .67, indicating sufficient intercoder reliability (See Table 3 for the reliability values of the total sample). The was no difference for press releases and news articles in the application of any categories within the code book.


Table 3

Intercoder Reliability

Variable Kappa % -

Agreement KALPHA Economic

Consequences .75 88 .75


Interest 1.00 100 1.00

Conflict .88 96 .89

Success .91 96 .91

Failure .83 96 .84


All tests and calculations were run in the SPSS statistical analysis tool. The date variable was recoded into a variable with two categories, one for press releases and articles published between 2011 – 2015, the other for those between 2016 – 2020 (The first

representing the time period of the Millennium Development Goals, the second the current Sustainable Development Goals). The source variable was recoded into a dichotomous variable, identifying the item as either press release or news article.

Descriptive calculations were run for both press releases and news articles, to identify how dominant each frame is within the sample. Independent samples t-tests were executed to account for longitudinal changes, as the independent variable is categorical with two groups and the dependent framing variables were coded from dichotomously from 0 (not present) to 1 (present), therefore treated like a continuous variable.

Convergence between press releases and news articles was also investigated via independent samples t-testing, the grouping variable here being the recoded source variable.


The descriptive data shows that all five frames are more or less well represented within the sample (See Table 4). Economic Consequences was the most dominant frame in press releases and news articles, whereas Human Interest was least present for both. The Conflict, Success and Failure frames are relatively similarly present within the sample, only Success being almost as dominant as Economic Consequences within press releases.

Table 4

Overall framing of press releases and news articles Press Releases

N = 39

News Articles N = 162

Frame M (SD) M (SD)


Consequences .51 (.51) .54 (.50) Human

Interest .13 (.34) .25 (.43) Conflict .21 (.43) .32 (.47) Success .49 (.51) .27 (.45) Failure .10 (0.31) .26 (.44)

By comparing the two time groups for press releases and news articles, some longitudinal changes can be observed (See Table 5).

Within press releases, none of the frames show a significant change between 2011 – 2015 and 2016 – 2020. Human Interest framing presence more than doubles in the second time group compared to the first. However, considering the low levels of presence for this frame overall, this difference is not significant. Therefore, we have to reject Hypothesis 1.

For news articles, Economic Consequences, Conflict and Failure frames show no significant differences between the two time groups.


Table 5

Overall framing for press releases and news articles in each time group

Press Releases N = 39 News Articles N = 162

Frame M (SD) M (SD)

2011 - 2015 2016 - 2020 2011 - 2015 2016 - 2020 Economic

Consequences .53 (.52) .50 (.51) .58 (.50) .49 (.50) Human Interest .07 (.26) .17 (.38) .14 (.35) .39 (.49)

Conflict .20 (.41) .25 (.44) .32 (47) .32 (.47)

Success .60 (.50) .42 (.50) .39 (.49) .12 (.32)

Failure .13 (.35) .09 (.29) .20 (.41) .33 (.48)

Success framing is significantly higher in 2011 – 2015 (M = .39, SD = .49), than it is in 2016 – 2020 (M = .12, SD = .48), t(157.97) = 4.242, p < .001. The effect size is

moderately strong, d = .65.

The presence of Human Interest framing is significantly higher in 2016 -2020 (M = .39, SD = 49) than it is in 2011 – 2015 (M = .14, SD = .35), t(116.25) = -3.627, p < .001. The effect size is moderately strong, d = .65. We therefore confirm Hypothesis 2.

Table 6 shows a comprehensive overview of the statistical results for each frame between time groups.


Table 6

Framing differences between time groups for press releases and news articles

Press Releases N = 39 News Articles N = 162

Frame t DF p t DF p


Consequences 0.20 37 > .05 1.11 160 > .05


Interest -0.89 37 > .05 -3.63 116.25 < .001

Conflict -0.35 37 > .05 0.10 160 > .05

Success 1.10 37 > .05 4.24 157.97 < .001

Failure 0.49 37 > .05 1.82 132.73 > .05

Testing for overall convergence shows that Economic Consequences, Conflict and Human Interest frames do not significantly differ between press releases and news articles (See Table 7). Significant overall divergence between press releases can only be observed for Success framing, t(43.10) = 2.44, p < .05, d = .61, and Failure framing, t(80.06) = -2.61, p <

.05, d = .60.

Table 7

Overall convergence between press releases and news articles

Frame t DF p


Consequences -0.34 199 > .05


Interest -1.86 71.11 > .05

Conflict -1.16 61.99 > .05

Success 2.44 53.10 .018

Failure -2.61 80.06 .011

Comparing framing between press releases and news articles for each time group shows similar results (See table 8). Economic Consequences and Conflict framing shows no significant divergence between press releases and news articles in either time group.


Table 8

Convergence between press releases and news articles over time

Frame t DF p

2011 - 2015 2016 - 2020 2011 -2015 2016 - 2020 2011 - 2015 2016 - 2020


Consequences -0.34 0.06 106 91 > .05 > .05


Interest -0.78 -2.30 106 51.55 > .05 .026

Conflict -1.04 -0.63 20.29 91 > .05 > .05

Success 1.56 2.74 106 29.82 > .05 .010

Failure -0.64 -3.08 106 68.20 > .05 .003

While there is no significant difference in Success and Failure framing in 2011 – 2015, indicating convergence in framing between press releases and news articles, they diverge in 2016 – 2020.

Here, Success frames are significantly more present in press releases (M = .42, SD = .50) than in news articles (M = .12, SD = .32), t(29.82) = 2.74, p < .05, with a moderately strong effect size, d = .66.

The Failure framing in news articles (M = .33, SD = .48) is significantly higher than in press releases (M = .09, SD = .29), t(68.20) = -3.08, p < .05. The effect size is moderately strong.

When it comes to Human Interest framing, press releases and news articles converge in their levels of presence in 2011 – 2015, with no significant difference. In the second time period, the frame is significantly higher in news articles (M = .39, SD = 49) than in press releases (M = .17, SD = .38), t(51.55) = -2.30, p < .05. This is a moderate effect, d = .51. This is contrary to our expectation that Human Interest framing would converge more between press releases and news articles in the second 2016 – 2020 than in 2011 – 2015. Therefore, we reject Hypothesis 3.


Discussion & Conclusion

When discussing the results of this study, we must address its limitations and their implications first. The yield of press releases within the sample was overall and especially compared to the body of news articles very small. Exhausting the press releases’ sample frame for the sake of sample size by including them entirely, means that the body of press releases is not technically a sample, but accounts for the entire target population of that source. In a case like this, statistical testing becomes redundant, as we are not making inferences from a sample to the target population. However, given that the framing variables are operationalized as 0-to-1 values, we can interpret the descriptive mean values of them similar to standardized effect sizes and compare those to the statistical outcomes of the analyses. Furthermore, the t-testing outputs demonstrated that for all statistically significant results in this study, Levene’s test showed significant p-values, indicating that we can not assume equal variances between the groups tested. Interpreting these results, especially when verifying or falsifying hypothesized expectations, must be done cautiously so.

That being said, the results of this study show that the two frames that we put special emphasis on, when establishing the theoretical framework, i.e. Economic Consequences and Human Interest frames, build the upper and lower ends regarding levels of presence, with Economic Consequences showing the highest, and Human Interest the overall lowest levels.

The predominance of Economic Consequences frames holds true for both the United Nations’

press releases and news articles, across both time groups, so before and after the transition from Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals. This mirrors Bracken’s (2018) findings on the framing of the MDGs, and might be an indication that humanitarian and development communication still operate under mainly scene-based,


economic principles (Wilkins & Mody, 2001; McPhail, 2009; Brigham & Nolan, 2014), while the news media seems to readily adopt this kind of messaging.

The same holds true for Conflict framing, which showed overall lower levels of presence within both press releases and news articles. However, looking at Success and Failure framing, shows that media outlets do not simply regurgitate any PR messaging for development issues. Especially after the MDGs hit their 2015 deadline and transitioned into the SDGs, media framing took on a more critical role towards the UN’s development initiatives, by diverging from an emphasis on their successes, and more readily pointing out certain failings and shortcomings of humanitarian and development efforts. This is not surprising, considering that the SDGs are still in their early stages and any success narrative this far before their 2030 deadline would be fairly premature.

Based on Bracken’s (2018) findings that Human Interest framing increased towards the end of the MDGs, we hypothesized that this trend continues into the SDG era. For

organizational press releases, Human Interest framing did indeed double here. However, that increase is marginal at best, accounting for only .1 on a 0-to-1 scale, making it even less surprising that statistical testing yielded no significant results.

News articles did show significantly higher levels of Human Interest framing post- MDG, diverging from organizational press releases. While this indicates that news media become less reluctant to depart from past paradigms, and seem to put more value on an individual focus in development reporting, the overall very low presence of Human Interest framing does not support the notion of a “tyranny of intimacy”, as suggested in Orgad &

Seu’s (2014) study (p. 925).

Given the limitations and findings of this study, future research efforts like this should expand their scope, not only in sample size but also variety. Even though the United Nations are arguably the biggest player in global development, it is not monolithic in the field.


Including press content from other humanitarian and development organizations, e.g. NGOs, as well as news media content that is geographically more diverse, might give a more

comprehensive and nuanced understanding of framing in humanitarian and development communication.


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Appendix 1

Codebook: Framing in UN press releases and news media articles of the MDGs/SDGs

This codebook serves as an instruction manual for the analysis of our sample, consisting of the United Nations’ press releases and news media articles regarding the Millennium Development goals / Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from 2010 to 2020.

When coding an item, please follow the order as it appears here.

The framing variables are not mutually exclusive within an item, i.e. multiple frames can be coded as present in one.

If any questions, uncertainties or problems arise during coding, mark the article within the sample document and contact the main researcher about it.

Further instructions for each individual variable are provided below, as well as examples, where deemed necessary.

General Item Characteristics V0: Coder

Enter accordingly to who is coding the item.

• Bernd (1)

• ICR Test Coder (0)

V1: Item identification number

Enter the item’s identification number, as it appears in the file name (001, 002, …).


V2: Source

Indicate whether to item is a UN press release, Guardian article or Economist article.

• UN press release (0)

• Guardian article (1)

• Economist article (2)

V3: Date

Enter the publication date of the item, in MMYYYY format (e.g. 122019, for a publication in December of the year 2019).

Framing variables V4 Economic Frame

Does the press release/news article mention or report on an issue or event revolving around economic aspects, e.g. financial losses or gains for an individual, group or organization in the past, present and/or future by actions taken or not taken? Or is there a clear emphasis on such economic consequences and/or expenses over social aspects? If so, code yes. If there is no mention of economic aspects in such a form, code no.

• Yes (1)

• No (0)


V5 Human Interest

Does the press release/news article mention or report on an issue or event with a clear individual-focused, human angle? For example, by clearly including individuals that are affected by the issue in some way, beyond just mentioning their respective group, region or country in more generalized terms.

Interviews with stakeholders, such as politicians, policy makers, can show human interest framing, if the narrative goes into aspects of their private lives or the reporting is clearly dramatizing / emotionalizing. Code yes if any of these framing devices apply, otherwise code no.

• Yes (1)

• No (0)

V6 Conflict

Does the press release/news article mention or report on a conflict or disagreement between two or more individuals, groups or parties? If there is a clear and emphasized mention of two or more conflicting sides to a problem or issue and/or ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ regarding it, code yes. Otherwise, code no.

• Yes (1)

• No (0)


V7 Success

Does the press release/news article mention or report positively on the achievement of the MDGs/SDGs? If there is a clear emphasis on the positive impact of the goals on their respective targets, e.g. in improved numbers/statistics or more general conditions, code yes.

Otherwise, code no.

• Yes (1)

• No (0)

V8 Failure

Does the press release/news article mention or report on any failure of the MDGs/SDGs in achieving their goals, or worsening conditions in any of their target areas despite, or even because of their efforts? If so, code yes. Otherwise, code no.

• Yes (1)

• No (0)




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