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Health News and Responsibility

How Frames Create Blame


Lesa Hatley Major and Stacie Meihaus Jankowski

Who the public blames for health problems determines who the public believes is responsible for solving those health problems. Health policies targeting the broader public are the most effective way to improve health. The research approach described in this book will increase public support for critical health policies. The authors systematically organized and analyzed 25 years of thematic and episodic framing research in health news to create an approach to reframe responsibility in health news in order to gain public support for health policies. They apply their method to two of the top health issues in world—obesity and mental health—and conclude by discussing future research and plans for working with other health scholars, health practitioners, and journalists.

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Chapter Two: Good Pictures vs. Talking Heads: Iyengar’s Episodic and Thematic Frames


chapter two

Good Pictures vs. Talking Heads: Iyengar’s Episodic and Thematic Frames

Although those who are reading this volume may be familiar with Shanto Iyengar’s book Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues, we would like to provide a quick overview of the work for those who need a primer or review.

Iyengar’s (1991) book proposed the way journalists frames stories matters for the ways audiences attribute responsibility for the causes and solutions of political issues. Iyengar specifically examined two types of storytelling frames—episodic and thematic. Iyengar argues news generally takes either an episodic or thematic frame. “The episodic news frame focuses on specific events or particular issues, while the thematic news frame places political issues and events in some general context” (Iyengar, 1991, p. 2). Episodic frames might detail the journey of an individual experiencing a health issue, focusing on their personal experience, while thematic frames might provide background about the health issue at large, with statistics explaining things like the national rate and cost of the issue. Iyengar said, “Visually, episodic reports make ‘good pictures,’ while thematic reports feature ‘talking heads’” (1991, p. 14).

Iyengar’s two types of frames—thematic and episodic—are attractive for journalists and for journalism researchers. Journalists use these frames. For example, one way we, the authors of this book, learned how to write trend stories in our own journalism education was through deliberately pairing these frames—while we were taught to explain...

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