WESTERN MEDIA FRAMING THE KOSOVO WAR 1
Western Media Framing the Kosovo War
Public Opinion – COM 564
May 29, 2014
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Politics are “altogether too big, too complex and too fleeting for direct
acquaintance,” people must depend on others for their news concerning national and
international affairs alike (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006). Such matters are unavoidably
complex and are always subject to alternative interpretations through the grape vine of
communication. Due to no fault of our own, we construct our understandings of current
events based on defined ideas and our already perceived realities.
The fall of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s led to multiple
wars in Eastern Europe. Kosovo, a province of Serbia in the Former Republic of
Yugoslavia, had struggled for its independence ever since it was annexed to Serbia in the
early twentieth century (Ke, 2008). Western media outlets covered the War in Kosovo,
delivering their versions of the conflict half way across the world. Walter Lippmann
stated, it is impossible for us to fully understand complex matters; therefore, we create
our own truth based on preconceived ideas and realities. This coincides with the Framing
Theory, specifically media framing, which is used by media outlets. Framing the story a
certain way to give the general public ideas to relate to and even concepts to think about
the even being described. Since we’re not physically capable to view events ourselves
that are occurring across the globe, we rely on stereotypes and bridge knowledge gaps by
relating them to previous events and ideas.
In regards to the Kosovo War, Western media framed the events in various ways,
some in which misrepresented the events on that side of the world. Framing took place by
U.S. media outlets in various ways but there were three techniques when framing the
issues one way or another: the theme of the story, comparing the Kosovo War to other
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historical events, the language and wording used to make the consumers feel a certain
way about the issues and events, as well as the imagery selected to accompany the text.
These specific forms of framing have been analyzed and interpreted to conclude that
framing U.S. news reporting international affairs, specifically the Kosovo War.
History of Kosovo
Historically, the Slavs (Serbs and Bulgars) dominated Kosovo in the 5th
(Yang, 2003). In the early 20th
century, the Ottoman Empire was driven out of the
Balkans and Serbia having gained an independent state status, asserted control over
Kosovo in 1912. After the First World War, Serbia and Kosovo were integrated into
Yugoslavia, with Kosovo as a providence of Serbia (Yang, 2003).
In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic, who was president of Serbia at the time, denied
Kosovo independence from Serbia, beginning the struggle for independence (Ke, 2008).
The Kosovo War, represented by two opposing sides, the Kosovar Albanians and the
Serbians, resulted in violence through out the country, as the Kosovar Albanians fought
for their freedom from Serbia. While Serbia felt that Kosovo was a part of their reign,
there is an unarguable statistic of 90% of the population in Kosovo having originated
from Albania, a country that borders Kosovo as well as a few other countries in the
Former Republic of Yugoslavia (Ke, 2008). Albanian in the national language in Kosovo
and there is a very strong brotherhood between Kosovo and Albania.
As the fall of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia progressed, Kosovar Albanians
saw an opportunity to rise against the current leadership and became violent with their
protesting. Milosevic counteracted these disruptions by initiating an ethnic cleansing,
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which if successfully completed would end by eliminating Kosovar Albanians. 20,000 –
30,000 Kosovar Albanians were pronounced dead or had gone missing by the beginning
of 1999, drawing international attention to the affair (Ke, 2008). In March of 1999, the
confrontation between Serb security forces and Albanians reached the peak of violence as
tens of thousands of people fled from their homes from Serbian military ransacking cities
and villages through out Kosovo (Yang, 2003). This eventually led to NATO intervening
to end the ethic cleansing, which was compared to the Holocaust of World War II.
NATO initiated an airstrike where they began bombing areas where Serb military forces
were camped out. On June 5, 1999 NATO and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia came
to an agreement to ceasefire (Lalli, 2002).
Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008. The Republic of Kosovo is
currently 6 years old and is informally recognized as a country by 108 out of 193
members of the United Nations (Ke, 2008).
Framing the Kosovo War
“Media framing shapes the social construction of reality and provides a
conceptual and theoretical framework for analyzing the news content… Framing involves
selection and salience; it is an unavoidable part of the process of choosing what aspect of
reality to describe and how to describe it (Ke, 2008).”
Frames not only enhance understanding; they influence opinions (Berinksy &
Kinder, 2006). The theory of framing states in order to make sense of events, we
categorize them based on preconceived ideas and realities that we’ve already been
exposed to (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006). The Framing Theory is commonly used in
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regards to media covering current events and how reports are presented through certain
In the case of the Kosovo War, the question arises about Western media covering
the issues and events in Kosovo and through what lens. Did the media represent
accurately the happenings during the Kosovo War or were the actual events
misrepresented through Western media based on generalizations and stereotypes.
Theme in the Frame
Themes began to arise in media reporting the Kosovo War. The Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan conducted an experiment by
presenting people with news reports on the Kosovo War framed either in order to
promote or prevent U.S. intervention (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006). This experiment took
into consideration the overall theme that news articles used and how they swayed their
readers into having varying opinions on the current event occurring; this was proven by
presenting articles with the same facts but through different themes.
“The best way to determine how citizens use frames to comprehend political
issues is to examine what makes certain frames successful. A good frame is the heart of
the story (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006),” Berinsky and Kinder argue for their experiment.
Their attempt to determine if citizens can in fact make sense of situations better than they
other wise could when presented the news that is organized to emphasize a particular
hook or theme.
The three scenarios that were presented to groups framed the Kosovo Crisis as a
humanitarian crisis, a risk to America and a basic factual article. The participants were
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asked to complete a brief questionnaire and then presented with five news articles that
would represent one of the conditions. All of the newspaper articles were drawn from the
Washington Post (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006). “These frames were intended to capture the
ways in which different media outlets could present the same information qualitatively in
different ways (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006).”
Results from the experiment concluded that participants’ recall of pro-
intervention and anti-intervention facts varied by experimental conditions, meaning
participants in the risk to America story condition remembered significantly more anti-
intervention facts than participants assigned to the humanitarian crisis treatment
(Berinksy & Kinder, 2006).
This experiment took into consideration the overall theme that articles used and
how they affected their readers into having varying opinions on the current event
occurring. This was proven by presenting the same articles with different frames:
humanitarian, risk to America and factual.
One main media framing technique includes comparing the current event to
previous events that are similar. The Kosovo War was not exempt from these
generalizations, and were frequently compared to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.
While all of these wars had varying trigger points and history that was unrelated, they
were all categorized into similar events that took place in three extremely different areas
of the world.
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When comparing the Kosovo War to the Holocaust opinion leaders framed the
need for intervention from Western countries by comparing the Kosovo War to World
War II. “The imperative of stopping a genocide would lend support to some kind of
American intervention in Kosovo (Paris, 2003).” The same was done when comparing
the Kosovo War to the Vietnam War, “unpleased memories of the Vietnam conflict
would likely produce countervailing pressures against intervention (Paris, 2003).”
These comparisons were used by such news outlets as the New York Times, the
Washington Post and discussed on national television in the United States by influential
opinion leaders. Making such references and metaphors provided the public to activate
conscious and subconscious, rational and emotional responses to these other current
events, due to strong emotions that are associated with the just the mention of Hitler’s
name or American intervention of the Vietnam war, thus swaying the publics opinions on
the Kosovo War (Paris, 2003).
Historical metaphors that appear frequently identify as trigger phrases that
reporters and politicians a like used to evoke emotion and something that the audience
can relate to (Paris, 2003). Certain common phrases that were used in comparison were:
Vietnam, quagmire, Holocaust, genocide, never again, concentration camps, loading
innocent people onto trains, Hitler, appeasement, Munich, stand up to Nazi aggression,
Balkan powder keg and Balkan tinderbox (Paris, 2003).
The Clinton Administration also linked Kosovo to the Holocaust by repeating
certain trigger phases in their public statements. For example, Holocaust-survivor Elie
Wiesel visited the White House in a forum entitled “The Perils of Indifference: Lessons
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Learned from a Violent Century,” where Hillary Rodham Clinton directly compared the
Holocaust to the Kosovo War:
“I never could have imagined that when the time finally came for him [Wiesel] to
stand in this spot and to reflect on the past century and the future to come, that we
would be seeing children in Kosovo crowded into trains, separated from families,
separated from their homes, robbed of their childhoods, their memories, their
humanity. It is something that causes all of us to pause and reflect…how could all
this be happening once again at the end of this century? When we see people
forced from their homes at gunpoint, loaded onto train cars, their identity papers
confiscated, their very presence blotted from the historical record, it is only
natural that we world think of the events which Elie has chronicled tonight in his
In other words, the war in Kosovo might not be the new Holocaust but should be
thought of as a similar event when international intervention is concerned. These are
statements and comparisons that were continuously made by the Clinton Administration
as well as with other politicians and opinion leaders in the media.
By making these comparisons in the media, it’s only natural to relate what you
know of other events to the ones being compared to them. This, however, does each
country an injustice because it takes away the identity of each country and generalizes
their issues into something less complicated, therefore deprecating the authenticity of the
issues. While this seems fairly negative, this relates back to the Framing Theory, in
general, because we are not able to comprehend complex ideas and political issues
without somehow relating them to what we already know.
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Wording in the Frame
Another conclusion that was drawn from this experiment is the importance of
wording and how it swayed general understanding and perception of events. In regards to
the Kosovo War and this experiment, framing language in the risk to America stories
generalized the Kosovo War as similar happenings in World War II, Milosevic
comparing to Adolf Hitler, the Kosovar Albanians comparing to the Jews and the term
‘ethnic cleansing’ in direct comparison with ‘Holocaust.’ Both readers of the Risk to
America articles and the Humanitarian treated articles showed an outstanding 75% of
participants agreeing that Western intervention needed to happen (Berinksy & Kinder,
Another example of language framing the general understanding of the Kosovo
War through media would be found by analyzing the over all word choice of articles
produced on the Kosovo War. A “Narrative Analysis of U.S. Press Coverage of Slobodan
Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo” notes that four themes captured journalist attention
and common language began occurring including (a) Serbs as terrorists, (b) Serbs as evil,
(c) Milosevic as a dictator and (d) Kosovo refugees as fearful victims of the Serbs (Did
A study on the Washington Post and the Washington Times objectively reporting
the reality of the Kosovo War concluded that while neither news outlet showed a blatant
political slant in their reporting, they did frame the articles in specific ways (Berinksy &
Kinder, 2006). Neither the Washington Post nor the Washington Times presented the
total truth or reality of the events happening in Kosovo nor, based on the framing theory
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and Lippmann’s theories, should they have been capable to. Frames not only enhance
our understanding, they influence our opinions (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006). “Frames
therefore do not need to present strong arguments for one side or another in order to
change public opinion. Small subtle differences in the presentation of information can
sometimes do the trick (Berinksy & Kinder, 2006).”
Another example of wording changing the frame of a story is when the media
described the unfortunate but predominate occurrence of rape during the Kosovo War.
By describing rape as a “war crime” without informing the public on the war crime
debates, the media indirectly circulates the myth that victims of war sex crimes would
somehow be protected by international law, when in fact, they are not (del Zotto, 2010).
Media framing in its essence refers to respondents only reporting fragmented and
non-specific information about the main characters in the event. Albanians and
Kosovars, Balkans and Muslims, Serbs and Yugoslavians often overlapped in the
language that was reported, resulting in a culturally blended and incorrect representation
of various groups of people (Lalli, 2002).
Imagery in the Frame
Since framing in the media is generally expected, some common themes have
arisen when discussing framing political or current events. Time and Tradition, Money
and Patriotism are three overlapping theories that are widely accepted by both scholars of
media and media workers for how media select their stories (del Zotto, 2010).
Time and Tradition discusses staying with traditional ways of selecting and
editing stories that allow journalist to cope quickly with time restrictions and the pressure
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of getting editorial approval. The media tends to rely on familiar imagery, sometimes
blatantly stereotyping cultures so that the audiences have something to relate to (del
Zotto, 2010). The Money theme builds consensus with consumers to remain loyal to the
media they’re consuming. This is more of a product driven method of presenting the
news (del Zotto, 2010). Lastly, Patriotism relates to with holding certain standards and
policies for the country correspondents are reporting for. Even in democratic societies
where freedom of the press is existent, not wanting to stir the pot by contradicting the
government’s official position on certain issues is always top priority (del Zotto, 2010).
When it comes to the Kosovo War, there were many ethnic Kosovar Albanians
that were uplifted from their homes, children were orphaned and families were separated.
The media portrayed these cases almost as features through the imagery that was used.
Specifically with Kosovar Albanian women, stories were enveloped with imagery of
heartaches and displacement.
A study published in the Journal of Gender Studies reports that women were
generalized into six specific frames through imagery in Western media during the
Kosovo War: The Passive Refugee, The Waiting Wife, The Female Body Torn Apart,
The Rape Survivor, the Touchy-Feely Peace Activist and the Non-Stereotypic Woman in
War (del Zotto, 2010). These categories framed all women involved in the conflicts
experience, according to Western media.
No matter what the framing of the images were that were being released, the
images of the Kosovar Albanian refugees inspired a feeling of distant suffering for
consumers of the media (Lalli, 2002). The feeling of war stock photography is embraced
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and the general publics begin to become immune to the images, no matter how graphic,
which is a result of media framing (Lalli, 2002).
Most scholastic researchers perceive Western intervention in Kosovo negatively,
but these studies on Western media during the Kosovo War have proved what bias is,
across the board, represented through media outlets based on the theme of the story,
comparing the Kosovo War to previous well covered conflicts in the media, the language
used and the imagery used to accompany the articles. While these forms of framing in
the media might not have one hundred percent accuracy, framing in the media is
considered, by all standards, an ethical form of journalism. It allows the general publics
and consumers of media to relate certain preconceived ideas and notions to other, similar
There is no foolproof way of recording only the facts of a story or event because
everyone’s truth varies. Two correspondents at the same event, standing in the same
location, witnessing the same incidence could have two completely different opinions
about what occurred. While Western media framed the Kosovo War, whether it was
through the theme, in comparison, language or imagery, it was all to help Westerners
understand the occurrences more clearly in this exotic country.
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Del Zotto, A. C. (2010, August 3). Weeping Women, Wringing Hands: How the
Mainstream Media Stereotyped Women’s Experiences in Kosovo. Journal of
Gender Studies, 11. DOI: 10.1080/09589230220139773
Ke, J. (2008). Did the US Media Reflect the Reality of the Kosovo War in an Objective
Manner? Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Berinsky, A. J., Kinder, D. R. (2006, August). Making Sense Of Issues Through Media
Frames: Understanding The Kosovo Crisis. The Journal of Politics.
Lalli, P. (2002, 1 September). Media and War Events: The Influence of Media
Information about Kosovo war.
Paris, R. (2003, November 3). Kosovo and the Metaphor War. Political Science
Quarterly, 423-450. DOI: 10.2307/798263
Yang, J. (2003, June 1). Framing the NATO Air Strikes on Kosovo Across Countries:
Comparison of Chinese and US Newspaper Coverage. International
Communication Gazette, 231-249. DOI: 10.1177/006549203065003002