A blogger named Aluation posted this graphic showing how the New York Times changed the first line of a story about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.  The change subtly shifted the blame for the mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge from the police to the protesters.  In the first version of the story, police allowed them onto the bridge and then “cut off and arrested” them.  In the second, there was a “showdown” in which demonstrators “marched onto the bridge.”

Adding interest, the author of the piece was changed from “Colin Moynihan” to “Al Baker and Colin Moynihan.”  Who is Al Baker?  He is the guy in charge of the police bureau at the Times.

This is a great example of how important language is in framing events.  The difference isn’t dramatic, but a close look at the wording reveals a clear difference.

It’s also a great example of the power of certain individuals and institutions to shape how the rest of us understand reality.  We should be especially suspicious of the change in the authorship of the story.  When reporters have “beats,” they have to maintain good relationships with important sources on those beats. They rely on the same sources, over and over, to provide inside scoops.  If they alienate important sources, they have a much more difficult time doing their job.

What I’m trying to say is… there is good sociological theory, based on strong evidence, to suggest that an important person in the New York police department saw this story, called Baker, and told him to change the wording.  In which case, Baker might have done so to avoid alienating a source on which his job depends.  I’m not saying that’s what happened, I’m just saying that these kinds of things do happen.

Thanks to Jay Livingston for the tip.

For another example of framing, see the captions on a slideshow covering survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.