Media Framing of the Park51 Community Center

By Amal Abbass

Sociology 100  

Borough of Manhattan Community College




Fall 2010

Prof. K. Ganu


In 1997, American Political Science Review published an article titled “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and Its Effect on Tolerance.” In the article, two professors and one Ph.D. candidate describe a study they did in which college students were tested on their tolerance toward certain issues after watching two different news broadcasts (Nelson, Oxley, and Clawson, 1997). Both broadcasts centered around one event: a Ku Klux Klan rally in an Ohio town. The broadcasts had much in common: both featured a reporter on location, images from the rally and quotes from observers. Fundamentally, though, the broadcasts were different, for each had an overarching theme.

One broadcast featured this quote from an observer: “I came here to hear what they have to say and I think I should be able to listen if I want to,” and a sign held by a protestor reading: “No free speech for racists.” During that segment’s interviews, three of the four people interviewed were supporters of the Klan who wished to hear what the group had to say (Nelson et al., 1997, p. 571).

In the other broadcast, the reporter observed, “The tension between Klan protesters and supporters came within seconds of violence,” and a bystander stated, “Here you have potential for some real sparks in the crowd.” The images in that segment were of police at the rally, and the people interviewed all spoke about the violence they had seen (Nelson et al., 1997, p. 571).

            Both news broadcasts were covering the same event, but clearly they conveyed different messages. One focused on the issue of free speech for the Ku Klux Klan, while the other focused on the potential for violence and the disturbance in public order that the rally inspired. When a media organization “defines and constructs a political issue or public controversy” it is called framing (Nelson et al., 1997, p. 567). The news broadcast that emphasized the Klan’s First Amendment rights was a “Free Speech frame,” turning the narrative of the rally into that of an issue over free speech, whereas the one emphasizing violence was a “Public Order frame” (Nelson et al., 1997, p. 571).

Is “media framing” common among today’s news organizations? What is its purpose and effect on the news consumer? In an effort to better understand media framing, let us examine a more recent issue that captured the attention of the media, and subsequently the country.


            The TriBeCa community center that is now formally called Park 51 was first covered by a prominent news organization in December 2009 (Blumenthal and Mowjood, 2009). The New York Times published an article detailing the use of a downtown Manhattan building, blocks from Ground Zero, as a Muslim prayer space. The article describes the plan to turn a former Burlington Coat Factory into an ambitious community center. The article’s tone is set by the headline: “Muslim Prayers Fuel Spiritual Rebuilding Project by Ground Zero.” All of the quotes in the article are in support of the plans for the prayer space, with words such as “tolerance,” “community” and “peace” appearing once or more. The chairman of the real estate investment firm that owns the property says he hopes the space will become “a place of peace, a place of services and solutions for the community, which is always looking for interfaith dialogue” (Blumenthal and Mowjood, 2009, para. 24). The article is not slanted toward a conflict perspective, but rather, frames the community center as a symbol of interfaith dialogue.  After the Times article was published no debate erupted.

News reports that contain an element of controversy are more likely to be picked up by the national news cycle. Perhaps the initial report about the center didn’t take off because the center was framed as a peaceful, community-oriented project and lacked the kind of inflammatory quotes that tend to catch news outlets’ attention.

            The story did not gain traction until some five months later, in May 2010, when the Associated Press ran a story about the site getting a thumbs-up from the local community board (Salazar, 2010). The AP story is quite different from the initial New York Times article. One notable difference is that the reporter sought out and printed quotes from families of 9/11 victims. Says one, “I think it's despicable, and I think it's atrocious that anyone would even consider allowing them to build a mosque near the World Trade Center” (Salazar, 2010, para. 14). The article also includes quotes in support of the community center, (then known as Cordoba House), from members of the two organizations funding the project, a member of the community board, and a survivor of the 9/11 attacks (Salazar, 2010). The AP piece was the first to present the building of the Cordoba House as possibly a negative step.

According to an article in the online magazine Salon (Elliott, 2010) about the media coverage of the Cordoba House, the AP reporter called the 9/11 victims’ families in order to get their quotes. Thus, the reporter sought quotes that fit into his chosen frame for the story. There is nothing ethically unsound about that practice, but it does illustrate that the reporter chose to frame the story in a far different light than the original New York Times article had. The AP piece was also the first to use the term “mosque” somewhat inaccurately. The AP headline states: “Building damaged in 9/11 to be mosque for NYC Muslims,” and the lede[KSG1]  inaccurately states that the building would soon become “a 13-story mosque” (Salazar, 2010, para. 1). The story fails to bring up the interfaith aspect of the project and the many other services that would take place in the community center, instead focusing almost solely on the Islamic religion. The clear shift in the framing of the AP story foreshadows the ferocious national debate around the project that soon followed.

            According to the Salon article (Elliott, 2010) that traces the origins of the controversy, an anti-Islam blogger who mounted a campaign against the community center, (or, in the blogger’s words, “the Monster Mosque”) inspired columnist Andrea Peyser to write a piece in the notoriously conservative New York Post (para. 9). Peyser’s column (2010) is an outright criticism of the center, framing its construction near Ground Zero as an issue of basic human compassion. She quotes a community board member who compares it to the Germans “opening a Bach choral society across from Auschwitz” (Peyser, para. 8). 

            The Salon timeline (Elliott, 2010) goes on to show how, shortly after the Post column ran, the story was picked up by other conservative news organizations, eventually moving into the national mainstream news cycle (para. 10). Soon enough, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” was a topic of conversation all across America.


In a 2007 article for The New York Times Magazine, political writer Matt Bai gave readers a fascinating glimpse at how the process of framing works. Bai explains that in fall of 2004, Senate Republicans were threatening to “strip Democrats of their ability to filibuster” (Bai, para. 6). Democrats were relying on the filibuster to stop a possible confirmation of one of President Bush’s future Supreme Court nominees (Bai, 2007, para. 6). Geoff Garin, a pollster commissioned by the Democrats, created a poll on judicial nominations. Says Bai of Garin’s objective: “He was looking for a story – a  frame – for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives” (para. 7). The one that stuck focused on the filibuster as a time-tested tradition imperative to the political system. “When… you told voters that … Republicans were ‘changing rules in the middle of the game’ and dismantling the ‘checks and balances’ that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness,” Bai writes (2007, para. 7).

            Garin then organized focus groups and found that voters, when referring to the Republican Party, used the terms “arrogant” and “abuse of power” (Bai, 2007, para. 8). Garin shared his findings with a group of Democratic senators and a strategy team was convened to help figure out how to effectively spread the message in the media. Talking points were written that included all the phrases Garin had found striking and prominent in his research among voters, and Democratic senators were dispatched to the morning and evening news shows, repeating their rhetoric about Republicans’ “abuse of power.” By the time the filibuster debate had reached it’s peak, a Time magazine poll showed that 59 percent of voters opposed the G.O.P.’s proposed elimination of the filibuster. The Republicans were forced to compromise (Bai, 2007, para 10).

            This incident illustrates how a few catchy phrases culled from a handful of polls and focus groups can, when entered into the mainstream media, effectively focus and define the American public’s point of view on an issue. Merely covering a certain issue in the media, in this case the elimination of the filibuster, is not “framing” by definition. Media framing is constructing the narrative around the issue. Garin’s research showed him what aspect of the filibuster debate would resonate with the American people. Once that frame was fed to the media, and repeated in various forums by influential people, it became part of the American dialogue. In this case, the Democrats created the frame and the media simply repeated it, whereas in the Park 51 debate, the media constructed their own frame. The outcome is the same, though. Whether it is politicians or news reporters constructing them, news frames will define many American’s understanding of an issue.

         In an article titled “News Framing: Theory and Typology,” Claes H. de Vreese (2005), an European Political Communications scholar, states, “By virtue of emphasizing some elements of a topic above others, a frame provides a way to understand an event or issue” (p. 53). When a news frame underscores one issue over another, it is subtly telling the viewer what to care about. Consider the experiment mentioned earlier, in which two groups of people watched news broadcasts on a Ku Klux Klan rally, each broadcast framing the rally differently (Nelson, Oxley, and Clawson, 1997). After watching the “Free Speech frame,” viewers expressed greater tolerance toward the Klan than those who watched the “Public Order frame” (Nelson, et al., 1997, p. 572). Furthermore, those who watched the “Free Speech frame” ranked free speech values as somewhat more important than public order values (Nelson, et al., 1997, p. 574). The “Public Order frame” viewers ranked public order values as considerably more important than free speech values (Nelson, et al., 1997, p. 574). In its conclusion, the article maintains that “these alternative portrayals, or frames, can exert appreciable influence on citizens’ perceptions of the issue, and ultimately, the opinions they express” (Nelson, et al., 1997, p. 576).  

         When one applies those findings to the case of the debate surrounding Park 51, it makes sense that Americans’ views on the community center would be overwhelmingly negative, given that the way in which the issue was framed in the media cycle was overwhelmingly negative. Media Matters for America, a self-described progressive, nonprofit research and information center that “monitors conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” found that nearly 75 percent of guests on one of America’s most-watched news channels, Fox News, who discussed the community center opposed it (Media Matters for America, 2010). News coverage of the center became increasingly hostile. One emergent frame insinuated that funding for the center might come from Islamic extremists (Dean, 2010).  An article in Newsweek even associates the community center with the Taliban (Yousafzai and Moreau, 2010). “The Taliban vs. The Mosque” extensively quotes a Taliban operative who posits that the more people who oppose the mosque, the more recruits the Taliban gets due to America’s demonstration that it is vehemently anti-Islam (Yousafzai and Moreau, 2010, para. 3-4). While some news coverage stayed fairly balanced, offering quotes from both sides of the debate and using unbiased language, the majority of the coverage continuously referred to the community center as a “mosque” in headlines and news crawls.

         A column in The Boston Globe is headlined: “A mosque at Ground Zero?” (Jacoby, 2010). It’s lead sentence reads, “Is Ground Zero the right place for a mosque and Islamic cultural center?” (Jacoby, 2010, para. 1). The reporter goes on to mention that the space is not actually at Ground Zero, but nearby (Jacoby, para 1). Yet, the last line leaves the reader with the inaccurate impression that the mosque is on the grounds of the former World Trade Center. “Will a mosque at ground zero make reconciliation more likely? Or will it needlessly rub salt in the unhealed wounds of 9/11?” the reporter writes (Jacoby, para. 12). A piece published by the New York Daily News is headlined: “President Obama hedges on endorsement of Ground Zero mosque: Supports right, questions wisdom” (Goldsmith, 2010). Again, the headline connotes that the community center is primarily a mosque, and that it’s location is at Ground Zero. The article goes on to describe that President Obama is wavering in his earlier endorsement of the project, and all but one of the quotes opposes the community center. A piece in The New York Times (Haberman, 2010) highlights the error in making it sound as if the community center is at Ground Zero. It reads,

The center is routinely referred to by some opponents as the “mosque at ground zero.”… There’s that ‘at.’ For a two-letter word, it packs quite a wallop. It has been tossed around in a manner both cavalier and disingenuous, with an intention by some to inflame passions. Nobody, regardless of political leanings, would tolerate a mosque at ground zero. “Near” is not the same, as anyone who paid attention back in the fourth grade should know. (Haberman, 2010, para. 9)

The constant use of the word “mosque” and the insinuations that the center is at Ground Zero were clearly meant to capitalize on Americans’ fears of Islam post 9/11. 

         The media’s framing of the project turned the debate almost exclusively to one of cultural sensitivity versus freedom of religion. Broadcasts and news articles on both sides of the debate tended to keep with their stock arguments. Those who chose the “Ground Zero Mosque frame” emphasized the need for cultural sensitivity, constantly using the language detailed above and employing quotes from 9/11 victim’s families. Those who chose the “First Amendment Rights frame,” and therefore a more pro-community center stance, had their own common language. Articles in The New York Times (Barbaro, 2010), The Baltimore Sun (Marbella, 2010), the Economist (Lexington, 2010), and TIME magazine (Ghosh, 2010) all repeat similar arguments: that constitutional rights take precedent over cultural sensitivity, that Muslims died in the September 11th attacks also, and that the community center’s location is not as close to Ground Zero as many might think.

         In the case of the Park 51 controversy, media outlets focused and guided the debate. Research cited in this paper supports the idea that when the media frames a story effectively, the frame will influence the opinions of those who watch or read it. Media organizations frame stories in ways that will increase their ratings or circulation; the longer the story stays “hot,” so to speak, the more readers or viewers the outlet gains. Therefore, it is in their best interest to frame a story in a controversial light, whether it is completely accurate or not. The early framing of the community center story was positive and focused on tolerance, but once the media found that the “Ground Zero Mosque frame” would incite strong emotions from both sides, they ran with it. Articles and news broadcasts that skewed toward either side of the debate tended to bring certain values to the forefront and bury others. Therefore, both the “Ground Zero Mosque/ Cultural Sensitivity frame” and the “First Amendment Rights frame” did not offer a broad perspective of the issues at hand. By August of 2010, three months after the controversy erupted, 68 percent of American’s opposed the construction of the community center (CNN, 2010). The poll that reflects this finding was done by CNN. The question reads: “As you may know, a group of Muslims in the U.S. plan to build a mosque two blocks from the site in New York City where the World Trade Center used to stand. Do you favor or oppose this plan?”

         A mere eight months after it was first reported on, the community center had shifted from a “symbol of interfaith dialogue” to “the Ground Zero mosque.” Despite some balanced reports, the media coverage that gained the most traction was overwhelmingly negative. The media’s framing of the community center, and the country’s reaction to that frame, demonstrates that media consumers are susceptible to adopting the views of the news frames they encounter. An educated consumer must ask himself or herself: how much of this story is fact versus framing?



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 [KSG1]Do you mean “lead?”