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Reporting from Turkey frame shift: From “good-Moslem-democrats against bad-secular-autocrats” to “bad-Moslem-autocrats” against “good-secular-democrats”

(Paper presented at TASAM Meeting in March 2017, in Istanbul)

The events of July 15th, the attempted coup d’etat, caught most people by surprise – journalists included, both domestic and foreign. This was evident in the coverage they provided. Especially the performance of the Western media came under a great deal of criticim here in Turkey. Turks with very different political and ideological orientations converged in criticising the Western media outlets for the poor job they did in telling their audiences about what was really going on. There was a widespread feeling that the Western media
Underreported this very significant event by not devoting enough space to it
Misreported it by focusing on what the government did at the expense of what the people did in the streets
Distorted it by not giving much attention to the involvement of Gülenists.

For instance two columnists writing for the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah reflected some of these criticisms:

“All in all, Western media coverage of the attempted coup was less than helpful and indeed, debilitating, as it mostly focused its attention on the Turkish government and the President rather than putschists. The bravery of the people who took to the streets in protest of the coup at the risk of losing their lives was an epic success for democracy and should have received due respect and acknowledgement in the Western media.” (İbrahim Efe-Osman Ülker, August 9, 2016)

As a long-time observer of the foreign media’s coverage of Turkey, I found myself in general agreement with these assessments. I, however, disagree with some of the reasons offered as being behind this poor performance. I
will try to explain here that the reasons are more complex than identified..

Most explanations put forward by the pro-government media were of a conspiratorial nature. Many of them presented the coup-attempt as the final episode of a grand conspiracy against Turkey and its “independent-minded leader”, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The media behaviour was a part of it, – they had been instructed to behave that way by whoever was behind the it all, they said: “The supreme-intelligence”, “the Zionist circles”, “the crusading mentality”, and number of other Western suspects “envious of Turkey’s emergence as an economic power”. But the chief culprit, the one most overtly condemned, was the United States, the puppet master of Fethullah Gülen whom it has been protecting for a long time.

These conspiratorial explanations, as interesting as they might be, fell short of being convincing on a number of points, especially for those who are familiar with the way the Western media operates. The vulgar “command-and-cover” approach to the Western media is obviously too simplistic; the causes of Western media’s attitudes to Turkey and its cırrent government should be sought in deeper layers. As for day-to-day journalistic practices, we may gain an insight by applying what we call in news research, “frame analysis.” This approach acknowledges that news is not a direct reflection of events but a socially and institutionally manufactured product open to a variety of influences. These external influences are kept under control by certain mechanisms of professionalism.

Naturally, what I am describing here is true for democratic societies with a competitive media, and not authoritarian systems where news, like most other things, is defined and dictated from the top. In other words, in democratic societies, and here we are talking about the Western contries known as democracies, basic news decisions are not dictated by governments, but by professionals who are acting according to a set of canons and traditions. This should hold true for the coverage of July15th events as well.

I don’t want to be misunderstood or blamed of being naive at this point. I have been in the news business too long not to know that in certain countries at certain periods the relations between governments and the media can be too close for comfort from the democratic viewpoint. “Liaisons dangereuses” do occur. But on the whole, in most stories we read or watch, basic decisions are made by media professionals. The final output is a lot more likely to be a product of reporters and editors acting as journalists rather than government officials acting as conspiracy implementers.

Which is not to say that these stories are not predictable of predetermined to a some extent. They are. We can predict with high accuracy how the press of a certain country is likely to cover the events is a certain country at a given priod of time. This is where the concept of news frames become useful. Much of the time, not the government, or the adviser, or the owner tell journalists how they should cover a certain story. New frames do. Or rather, dominant new frames do.So, in order to understand why a particular story is covered in a certain way we need to discover and analyze the news frame in which it is presented.

So what is a news frame? A news-frame is a ready made box or tray into which the elements of the story are placed so that they can become meaningful as an ensemble.. The world is too complicated and confusing – so instead of treating each event as unique, we look at them an instance of a set. It is usually presented in a narrative form as narratives are easier to understand and remember. Frames help us see some things anf not see others. When we go to another country we go with a frame in our minds and see things accordingly. The foreign journalist comes to Turkey expecting to see certain things. Let us say, the dominant frame is “Turkey is a country where the forces of secularism and the forces of political İslam ore locked in a fierce battle,” what does he/she see? What kind of pictures does he/she take? What kind of questions does he/she ask? Probably those that conform to the dominant frame. Out-of-frame stories are difficult to sell not only to the readers, but to the editors as well. Dominant frames can be very powerful at a subconscious level!

Of course, like all things in life, news frames are not eternal. They change over time. The chande is usually gradual and may take a long time. But, in times of upheavels, they can change rapidly,sometimes almost instantly. So, we ask students of news to identify the the time of the frame shift. How and why did the old frame weaken? How did it change? And why? What has taken its place?

Now, with this conceptual background we can look at July 15th as an incident bringing about a frame-shift about Turkey.

What was the dominant frame before? We can discern two dominant frames during the 15 years of AKP rule extending from 2002 to 2016. From 2002 to 2013 the AKP and its leaders benefited from a tremendously positive dominant frame. That frame could be summarized as follows:
“In Turkey, good Moslem democrats are pushing out the bad secularist autocrats.”

What they meant by the bad secularist autocrats was principally the Army and the Kemalists. Stories coming out of Turkey that did not go along with this dominant frame were ignored or minimized. Turkey was presented as a model for other countries in the region proving that democracy and Islam could co-exist succesfully. When the circumstances began to change after 2007, when journalists were put in jail and thousandas of people began to be arrested for murky reasons, the opposition parties and press associations had a hard time to attract attention in the foreign media. They were dismissed as remnants of the “old autocratic, army dominated regime.”

It is always difficult to register things that contradict the dominant frame. They just don’t show up.

This positive frame which blacked out most controversial developments in the country began to change in 2013. Gezi protests were one of the reasons. It was a pictoreresq affair. Hundreds of foreign journalists came to Turkey and had a chance to speak to their colleagues directly. They began to qoestion the old frame. Turkey was not a democratic garden of roses after all. The “good Moslem democrats” of yore were doing “bad things” to people asking for more freedom. So a new frame began to take shape. And over time, it became the new dominant frame. It can be summarized as:
“The bad Moslem autocrats are trying to suppress the good forces of democracy.”

Now they began looking for pictures and stories corroborating this new frame. It was the turn of the pro-AKP press and party supporters to become frustrated with the “negative” coverage. The Western press was turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to their side of the story while opening their pages and screens to forces of “division and evil.” They began to explain it terms of a conspiracy because conspiracy theories are the easiest way out since they cannot be neither proven nor disproven.

15th of July events were automatically perceived within the new dominant frame. It took the foreign media a little while before they realized that, again something different, “out of the frame”, had happened in Turkey. The old frame was inadequate and had to be replaced. The “Moslem sutocrats” were not fighting against the forces of democracy this time, but against evil coup-plotters of mysterious connections. There was obviously a lack of information about the Gülen movement. (Why was that the case deserves separate study.) Weren’t they partners of the “good Moslem democrats” during the period of the poisitive frame? What had changed? Who were they any way? There was a lot of confusion for a few days, which began to lift after the massive Yenikapı rally that included the leaders of the opposition in a show of national unity. This was the crucial period of “tabula rasa” when a new positive frame could have been constructed. But for a number reasons, that did not happen.

Frame-shifitng and new frame building are communication issues that deserve closer attention not only by communication experts but also by diplomats and policy makers in these turbulent times. Explaining away complex events by means of fantastic conspiracy theories are poor policy guides.

(Presented at a TASAM meeting, Istanbul, March, 2017)

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