Book Review: Framing War

Francesco Olmastroni, Framing War. Public Opinion and Decision-Making in Comparative Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2015). 272 pp., £90,00 (hardback), ISBN: 9780415724661.

The book focuses on the relation between political elites, the mass media, and public. Its main goal is premised on examining whether governmental responsiveness occurs in foreign policy, both at framing and implementation levels. Specifically, this book analyzes the process of framing in the case of the war in Iraq in relation to three democracies—France, Italy, and the US from April 2002 to March 2007. According to the author’s arguments, the analysis of the context of the Iraqi war may have some important advantages in addressing the topic of the book. First, it allows for comparisons in different national contexts in which decisions-makers held different positions about the war. Second, it contributes to a poorly explored area of analysis, despite the availability of large amounts of data. Third, it allows a diachronic analysis.

The book is organized into six chapters: 1) A Cyclical Model of Framing; 2) “Going Public” for Framing in Different Political and Media Systems; 3) Methodology; 4) The Three Actors and the War of Frames in the United States; 5) The Three Actors and the War of Frames in France and Italy; 6) Conclusion.

The first chapter concerns the theoretical framework of the research presented in this book. The chapter starts by describing different definitions of frames and a literature-based perspective of the evolution of this concept. Most importantly, the author highlights the opposition between a “top-down” view of the relationship between political elites and the public, versus a cyclical model of framing. In the latter case, different actors—such as the public, political elites, and media—affect each other’s contribution to the final representation of a political issue. Within this cycle, a “framing contest” occurs, with governments tending to create dominant framing positions to gain public support of their policies. However, different frames may oppose both the views and decisions of governments. Theoretically, the “framing contest” shapes both specific support on policies and governments’ responsiveness.

The second chapter focuses on two key contextual aspects, thereby, adding more complexity to the cyclical model of framing. The first aspect concerns the phenomenon of “going public” (as presented by Kernell), which describes the evolution of framing from institutionalized pluralism to individualized pluralism. Accordingly, political leaders tend to “involve” the public and mass media in bargaining processes to affirm their leadership role. As the author points out, this phenomenon affected both the US and presidential/governmental leaders in the two European countries being analyzed. At the same time, “going public” may have different forms in different “media systems.” The second contextual aspect of framing concerns the relation between the media and government, as well as the types of media systems. The author proposes that the types of media systems and the media–government relationship affect the resulting cycle of framing in different phases of the war.

Chapter three describes the main methodological aspects of the book. This chapter first focuses on the measurement of public attitudes about the Iraqi war. In the second paragraph, the author describes the variables used in measuring different dimensions of the media’s framing. Finally, he describes the measurement of elite framing and policy choices.

Chapters four and five present the empirical analyses of the United States, France, and Italy, respectively. Within the US itself, the Iraqi war attracted large spells of attention. The American public shows high levels of saliency for the whole period under investigation. Framing by the American elite was dominant in the early phases of the war. Later, critical views appeared and contested the dominant presidential framing. When the critical views gained momentum, the Bush administration changed its framing position.

The same issue produced different results in France and Italy, where the war raised public concern only during the critical moments. Elite attention follows a similar path, with peaks of references to the crisis and long periods of silence about the issue. The same pattern prevailed with regard to media attention. It followed basically elite raising peaks during crucial moments (with high correlation indexes), such as during the early phases of the war, specific attacks, and international operations. Public reactions to the elites’ framings, however, show different results in France and Italy. In France for instance, “the public agreed with the central argument of the president’s discourse” (pg. 195). In contrast, the Italian government’s framing incurred the wrath of growing criticism. As opposed to the US, the Berlusconi government adopted a position of “simulated responsiveness” (pg. 196). Only when elections drew nearer, did the government propose a reduction of troops, consequently reducing the growing levels of opposition asking for withdrawal of Italian troops from the war.

Chapter six draws the conclusions of the study. First, the author highlights that true governmental responsiveness only occurs in the event when the governmental frame and policy strategy change under the pressure of public opposition. As a result, the flow of influence becomes reciprocal; with the elites influencing people’s views and the latter affecting the elites’ strategies. In the case of the Iraqi war, this flow has proved to be influenced by contextual factors such as the “liberal” (US) or “polarized” (Italy) nature of the media, as well as the various phases of the war. Both Italy and the US demonstrated a change in governmental frames and policies but with different dynamics. Bush changed the frame and his strategy only in the last period of the war, under the pressure of a growing opposition. Otherwise, the “polarized” Italian system showed opposition from the early phases of the war and a countertrend policy only in the last period, just before Berlusconi’s electoral defeat. Both contexts have been affected by closeness to the election time, especially since the electorate supporting those governments showed criticism about the strategies in Iraq.

Altogether, the study presented in this book provides a solid methodological and theoretical analysis of the relation between the government, citizens, and media in the case of the Iraqi war. This book also presents the merit to analyze responsiveness in the context of foreign policy: an area of the phenomenon still under investigation.

Danilo Di Mauro, University of Catania

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