Framing Political Scandals: The Functioning of ‘Trial by Media’

The rise of mediated communication has fundamentally changed how the world is experienced by society, perhaps no more so than in the realm of politics.  In fact, “the media have become a main source of information and opinion for the public” (McQuail, 2010, p. 526).  As such, political actors have an increasing reliance on the media to shape their public image, set their political agenda, and to provide the arena with which political events are played out (McQuail, 2010).  While politic actors spend a great deal of time and energy using the media to provide “a basis of support for their power and policies…mediated visibility is a double-edged sword” (Thompson, 2005, p. 41), insofar as increased visibility also creates increased risk.  Of course, the most significant risk facing politicians is that of the political scandal, or ‘trial by media’.  Thompson (2000) describes a political scandal as a situation where previously invisible behaviors that violate social norms, become visible, are seen as contrary to the politician’s carefully crafted image, and are characterized by an ensuing public outcry or demand for justice.  Of course, Thompson’s (2000) definition of political scandal in a era of mediated visibility presumes that the media is the cause, in terms of increased scrutiny, visibility and construction of the scandal event, and also creates effects, in terms of audience reaction.  Arguably, Thompson (2005) does little to describe how the construction of the scandal event creates the effect on audiences.  However, recent empirical research by Kepplinger, Geiss, and Siebert (2012) describes how media-constructed frames of political scandals provide cues that determine how message recipients process the scandal information to draw conclusions and form behavioral intentions.  What follows is an analysis and critique of Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) work to understand its explanatory power for how ‘trial by media’ affects audiences and discuss the implications of their findings.

Framing Scandals: Overview and Method

            Whereas the existing literature on framing effects infer a strong relationship between journalistic frames and audience influence, McQuail (2010) suggests that “it is not obvious how framing will work as an effect process” (p. 511).  To explore how media constructed scandal information influences the audience, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) used “three strands of research to develop a model of individual-level opinion formation in scandals: a) scandal research, b) framing theory, and c) appraisal theory” (p. 600).  The authors appear to use Scheufele’s (1999) process model of framing effects, whereby journalists construct the frames, the frames are transmitted to the audience, and the audience accepts certain frames “with consequences for their attitudes, outlook, and behavior” (McQuail, 2010, p. 511).  Moreover, the authors recognized that framing theory did not describe the link between specific media frames and the resulting inferences (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  Therefore, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) ‘filled the gap’ with appraisal theory (Nerb & Spada, 2001) which identifies relevant cognitions that lead to the creation of opinion in negative events including five aspects, a) whether the damages are large or small, b) the degree to which the transgression was caused by human behavior, c) whether the people followed selfish or altruistic goals, d) whether they were aware of the consequences of their actions, and e) whether there was an opportunity to act differently.  These cognitions are understood to form the basis of people’s beliefs, and moreover, will influence an audience frame of guilt or excuse.  The author’s model integrating these theories were used to test how the type of frame, amount, and completeness of frames affected the audience to arrive at a guilt frame or an excuse frame (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

With their model as the basis for the research, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) designed the research with the following hypotheses:

H1:  Media depict the cases using primarily fragmentary frames, blaming the public figure with regard to some components (e.g., selfish motives) but not with regard to all (e.g., prior knowledge).

H2:  Cognitive reactions of individuals result from a) learning from the media and b) conclusions of individuals, drawn from an overall impression.

H3:  Individuals will develop one of two polarized individual frames: a guilt frame or an excuse frame.

H4:  A person will call for more severe punishment if he or she a) believes the public figure is guilty and b) feels angry; an individual will call for milder punishment if he or she c) excuses the public figure and d) feel sad about the case.

H5:  Individuals will tend to develop a(n) (individual) guilt frame (a) the more complete guilt frames they receive and (b) the more fragmentary guilt frames they receive.

H6:  A model of opinion formation in scandals accounting for learning from the media and information processing of individuals will adequately model the relationships between cognitive reactions, emotional reactions, and calls for punishment. (pp. 662-663)

In order to test their hypotheses, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) conducted a content analysis of how the four political scandals were depicted by media according to the five aspects, damages, human agency, selfish goals, prior knowledge, and freedom of action, and combined them with individual survey data by calculating the individuals media input.  The combined data demonstrate the extent to which journalist frames influence audience information processing.

Framing Scandals: Findings

            Indeed, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found support for much of their hypothesis.  Only rarely did the media portray complete frames across all five aspects, instead typically providing fragmentary guilt frames in one or more aspects, with human agency being the most dominant, resulting in support for H1 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  More importantly, the researchers found that learning accounted “for a low share of variance in cognitive reactions” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 671), whereas information processing to form a consistent impression explained as much as 92% of variance, suggesting that all five journalist frames positively and significantly influence the cognitive reaction, providing empirical support for H2.  In addition, the audience cognitions led to the formation of a guilt frame or excuse frame, depending of the audience perception of damages, which also influenced audience views on punishment, providing support for H3 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  The support for H4 was weaker, with some evidence of a relationship between the degree of perceived damage and calls for punishment, with cognitive variables accounting for 40% of calls for punishment, while emotional reactions of the audience did not significantly contribute to calls for punishment absent cognitions (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

Moreover, the Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found the more guilt frames an audience received, the greater the tendency to develop their own guilt frame, with as much as 9% of the development of a guilt frame explained by guilt frames the audience received.  Furthermore, “although recipients received fragmentary frames, they complemented the picture and developed a coherent guilt frame by themselves” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 675), suggesting that audiences elaborate on fragmentary information to arrive at their own conclusions, providing support for H5.  Finally, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) were able to construct a structural equation model “spanning from media input, via cognitions and emotions, to behavioral intentions” (p. 675).


            Rather than supporting the notion of ‘trial by media’, whereby the media determine public perception of guilt during a scandal, Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) findings suggest that the media provide fragmentary information, which is then elaborated on by an audience to create an impression of guilt or an impression that excuses the behavior.  These findings are therefore consistent with Petty and Cacioppo’s (1986) Elaboration Likelihood Model suggesting that people with will be motivated to achieve cognitive consistency drawing on both knowledge and experience, or ‘incidental cues’ to fill in information gaps.  In this sense, individuals as well as media are equally responsible for the formation of an individual guilt frame.

Insofar as the media operates on a 24-hour news cycle, scandal stories often begin with fragmentary information and are updated frequently as new information is discovered.  In such a setting, the audience is subjected to repeated fragmentary guilt frames increasing the likelihood that individual audience members will arrive at a guilt conclusion, despite the lack of a complete picture.  Therefore, in this sense, the 24-hour news cycle and associated journalistic business model contribute directly to the formation of public opinion in scandal events, contributing to the development of a ‘trial by media’.

Moreover, the initial framing of a scandal event can have serious consequences on the formation of public opinion, whereby reported levels of human agency or degree of damage can provide incidental cues to the audience that support the formation guilt or excuse audience frames.  In a situation with a perceived high degree of damage, the notion of ‘trial by media’ becomes a distinct possibility, much akin to the notion of a ‘witch hunt’, with serious potential consequences for political actors caught up in the scandal event.  Arguably, Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings raise serious ethical questions about the media’s coverage of scandal events, particularly in the era of 24-hour news.


            The research of Kepplinger et al (2012) is an important addition to media effects research, insofar as it demonstrates a relationship between journalistic framing of scandal events, audience cognitions and emotions, and the audience’s behavioral intentions.  However, there are opportunities to further their research to draw more conclusive findings.  First, the research focused on solely on political scandals, to the exclusion of financial, criminal, or sexual scandals.  This author wonders whether audience elaborations would exhibit the same consistency in the face of a sexual scandal, where audience morals may play a more salient role in the creation of guilt or excuse frames.  Moreover, would the same journalistic framing norms apply during a media investigation of powerful political figures, as they would for others with less power?

In addition, the research did not explore the role of confirmation bias in an individual’s elaboration process.  To what degree do political leanings affect the media effects described? Are individual’s more or less likely to elaborate according to their own established views?  To what extent are journalist more or less likely expand on the journalist guilt frames based on their bias?   In an analysis of scandal events, Puglisi and Snyder (2008) found that Democratic leaning newspapers provided relatively greater coverage to Republican scandals and Republican leaning newspapers provided greater coverage to Democratic scandals.  Given Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings, is greater coverage inherently biased?  More importantly, does the combination of greater coverage and the workings of confirmation bias all but assure an individual will arrive at a guilt frame?

In addition, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) suggest that their work could benefit from more investigation into how opinions form over time to understand their malleability.  Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that more work is needed to understand the sources, beside media content, upon which individual frames are based (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  This author concludes the findings are sufficiently compelling to warrant further investigation to advance this line of media effects research.


            Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) research into how media-constructed frames of political scandals can cue message recipients to elaborate and draw conclusions in absence of complete information.  Moreover, the greater the number of guilt frames the audience receives, the higher the likelihood the audience will draw a guilt conclusion, a disturbing finding consider the character of the 24-hour news cycle.  Accordingly, the greater visibility of today’s heavily mediated reality is fraught with risk for political actors seeking to manage their image, where the simple association with scandal could very well minimize their ability to advance their agenda, or even destroy their career.


Kepplinger, H. M., Geiss, S., & Siebert, S. (2012). Framing Scandals: Cognitive and Emotional Media Effects. Journal of Communication, 62(4), 659-681.

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Nerb, J., & Spada, H. (2001). Evaluation of environmental problems: A coherence model of cognition and emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 15, 521-551.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). ‘The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion’. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 132-205). New York, New York: Academic Press.

Puglisi, R., & Snyder, J. M., Jr. (2008). Media coverage of political scandals. Washington DC: The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.

Thompson, J. B. (2000). Political scandal : power and visibility in the media age. Cambridge

Malden, MA: Polity Press ;


Thompson, J. B. (2005). The New Visibility. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(6), 31-51.

One Comment on “Framing Political Scandals: The Functioning of ‘Trial by Media’”

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