Thursday, March 23, 2017

FRAMING Bad News About Declining Longevity in Terms of Individual Sins

The bad news is that new analyses of the US mortality statistics reveals a significance decline in life expectancy for white Americans, the "nation's largest population group" according to research  by two Princeton University economists recently published by the Brookings Institute. The latest study - available here - also finds lagging, but not yet declining, longevity for whites with college degrees.

I've been following this story on declining longevity since it was first reported in the press several years ago. I've been particularly interested in how the story has been FRAMED by the researchers and by the media.

Frame analysis looks at how choices about language, symbolism and imagery shape audience interpretation. You can read about this method, as developed by the renowned sociologist, Erving Goffman:
Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience,
Today I was struck by the framing of declining longevity across across print and electronic editions of the Wall Street Journal's coverage. Although the text of the electronic and print editions of the story are largely the same, there is an important difference.

The electronic version of the story includes a byline that reinforces the central framing device, an underlying causal framework that attributes declining longevity largely, if not exclusively, to the "sins" (i.e., heavy drinking, drug overdoses, and suicides) of a disaffected, white working-class.

Although both the print and electronic narratives share the same underlying causal logics, the inclusion of the byline in the electronic version symbolic forecloses alternative interpretations of causality(ies).

The Wall Street Journal PRINT edition of the story does not attribute causality from "deaths of despair" until the 5th paragraph.  Moreover, 1 of the 4 graphs (far right) notes that the rising death rate could only be explained by deaths of despair "in part," leaving open the possibility that other factors are driving this collapse in longevity:

McKay, Betsy (2017, March 23). Whites’ Mortality Rate Worse Than Thought. The Wall Street Journal (print ed), p. A6. NO BYLINE

In contrast, the Wall Street Journal ELECTRONIC edition of the story emphasizes "deaths of despair" in the byline, framing readers' interpretation during their first engagement with the story:
Betsy McKay (March 23, 2017). Death Rates Rise for Wide Swath of White Adults, Study Finds The Wall Street Journal,
BYLINE: Increases in ‘deaths of despair’—from drugs, alcohol-related liver diseases and suicide. 
 I find it interesting that the electronic version, which has much greater chances for going viral (Viral Video Wikipedia), is more insistent in its framing.

NOW, I would like to RE-FRAME the declining longevity among white working-class people (and slow down in longevity across the population) using the content of an editorial from the New York Times:
Nicholas Kristof MARCH 11, 2017 Are Your Sperm in Trouble? The New York Times,
“There’s been a decrease not only in sperm numbers, but also in their quality and swimming capacity, their ability to deliver the goods,” said Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who notes that researchers have also linked semen problems to shorter life expectancy. ...

I think we are at a turning point,” Niels Erik Skakkebaek, a Danish fertility scholar and pioneer in this field, told me. “It is a matter of whether we can sustain ourselves.”

One recent study found that of sperm donor applicants in Hunan Province, China, 56 percent qualified in 2001 because their sperm met standards of healthiness. By 2015, only 18 percent qualified.

“The semen quality among young Chinese men has declined over a period of 15 years,” concluded the study, which involved more than 30,000 men.

This editorial has a disturbing description of mishapen sperm and attributes causality to endocrine disruptors, including those found in plastics and pesticides.

There are other stories that I could add describing the rising incidents of neurological disorders in adults and children, rising immunological problems, etc. These other stories would suggest other factors, beyond self-inflicted sins, potentially contributing to rising mortality.

I must ask: Why is the mass media narrative of declining longevity being framed almost exclusively in terms of self-inflicted sins when other indicators - such as sperm quality and neurological issues - point to dramatic declines in human biovitalities?

Does the "blame the victim" frame derive from inadvertent factors and unconscious biases or does it derive from a deliberate strategy of power?