Hi friends,

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, news coverage of the attacks proliferate. Whereas last week we focused on racist coverage and what makes a life “grievable” to western media, today’s newsletter focuses on how many U.S. media narratives have (already) turned inward. That includes a bit about “no-fly zones” as well as a deeper-than-usual headline chat about gas prices.

There’s so much news and so little space in an email. A pandemic is still raging, after all, and attacks on human rights and democracy continue apace. These letters will, for the foreseeable future, be an uneven-at-times balancing act. If you have any questions or suggestions for Freeze Frame, reply to this newsletter or find us on Twitter.

Talk soon,
Aubrey Nagle
Reframe editor

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Headline Check ✅

Here we analyze and reframe a news headline to demonstrate how this important real estate can be optimized for user experience.

Rising gas prices due to disruptions in the global oil market thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made many headlines this week, and for good reason. U.S. society as many experience it is built around cars. Expensive gas will be a true financial problem for many families.

There are many different ways to explain this event to audiences. Some local U.S. news organizations have run full steam into tracking the daily rise in prices like they’re election polls — as in, too aggressively and with too little context to be anything but emotionally triggering.

What communities need when faced with a collective problem is accurate framing, i.e. what the problem is, who is responsible for creating it, what solutions are possible, and who is responsible for solving it.

Americans are paying dearly for gas as prices reach fresh highs

The above headline from CBS News addresses what the problem is but not where it came from. Who’s to blame, then? Whoever you want.

Soaring gas prices are a cost of Russia’s war – and Britain can’t avoid them

The Guardian headline above is a bit better. It addresses how Russia’s war on Ukraine is to blame — and accurately calls it Russia’s war.

Gas prices above $4 per gallon as Russia-Ukraine war impacts supply, disrupting global market

Finally, this Fox Business headline goes a step further to explain the connection between (what it should call) Russia’s war on Ukraine and prices. That’s the context we like to see.

Below, from the Washington Post, we have another frame entirely: that the problem at hand is not gas prices themselves but how they will impact Democrats’ election chances. (That’s not to say the Post hasn’t covered the issue of prices for consumers; it’s just an example.) This story covers how President Biden decided to ban Russian oil to punish them for their violence and sought to publicly connect rising prices to Vladimir Putin.

Democrats embrace politically risky strategy on rising gas prices

But the headline could just as easily suggest that the strategy is, if not popular, at least understandable to many Americans who support Ukraine. After all, recent polls show Americans broadly support taking action to stop Russia’s attacks without direct military action. Calling the decision “politically risky” without clarifying the origin of the problem actually implies a more damning frame — Democrats chose a risky policy so they must be partially to blame for rising gas prices — before a reader even gets to the story.

Politicians are willing to pay the price of supporting Ukraine as higher gas costs bite consumers

The above headline from CNN, in contrast, is a more responsible take on the same problem frame. It underlines the origin of rising prices without presupposing what the political costs will be or for whom.

This all, of course, is to say nothing about the complete lack of solutions presented in these examples. Rising gas prices present an opportunity for the U.S. to reconsider its dependence on fossil fuels, not only for the geopolitical implications but for its challenge to a livable Earth. It also presents the opportunity for the overlapping conversation of reliance on privatized transportation (with gas prices falling on consumers) over public investment in environmentally-friendly mass transit. The agenda-setting role of news media means greener solutions could be the core public narrative of this problem ahead of us, if we wanted it to be.

One Good Tweet 🐥

It’s just what it sounds like: a good Tweet that we think everyone should see!

One reason "no-fly zone" polls well, I think, is that the name refers to a great outcome while concealing a terrible process.   Everybody should want Ukraine to be a zone where Russian planes don't fly.  But "no-fly zone" practically refers to the U.S. engaging Russia in warfare.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson is referring to recent polling by Reuters that asked Americans whether the U.S. should work with NATO to create “no-fly zones” over Ukraine to protect it from Russian attacks, without explaining what that protection truly entails. Thompson is correct that the phrase is a tricky bit of language that conceals a lot of danger. It’s journalistic malpractice to amplify such a poll without establishing an understanding of the consequences of such a move.

A Link to Make You Think 🤔

Our must-read of the week.

What is an oligarch?

If you’ve been keeping an eye on sanctions sought by the U.S. and EU on Russia, you may have heard about efforts to capture the assets of Russian oligarchs. Poynter does a good job of quickly explaining Russian oligarchy (aka how the rich and powerful influence the government) in the link below. But I think it’s equally important to consider how using the term “oligarchs” to denote a nefarious cabal in an enemy country stands in contrast to how we describe the U.S. elite who amass great wealth and use it to influence the government. For more context, I’d highly recommend the Guardian’s “Big Money” series on America’s super-rich; ProPublica’s deep dive into how the wealthiest avoid U.S. income tax; and an essay from Abigail Disney (yes, that Disney) on the ideology of dynastic wealth.

Read the Story

P.S. Another recommendation this week: The Washington Post’s How journalists decide which images from Ukraine are too awful to publish (which does begin with a graphic image).

Questions with Answers 📫

Each week we’ll seek to answer a question facing the news industry about language, style, or framing — including answering questions sent to our inbox! Need advice? Send a note to and your question could be featured in a future issue.

Question: What does “culture war” mean? How can journalists use it accurately when reporting on topics of increased public debate?

Answer: “Culture war” is a phrase popularized by sociologist James Davison Hunter some 30 years ago to describe conflict over culture — our values, beliefs, and how we live — playing out in the political sphere. Issues recently given the “culture war” label by news media include laws that target parents of trans children for prosecution, barring LGBTQ and racial injustice education for children, abortion rights, and COVID-19 mitigation.

Defining these as issues of “culture” is misleading. Conflict over such issues is not debate for debate’s sake. Erasing racism and queer communities from our education system is a step toward erasing people of color and LGBTQ people from existence. Eliminating gender-affirming healthcare for kids is a step toward erasing trans adults. Barring access to abortion is a step toward controlling women’s bodies and lives. Banning measures that diffuse the effects of a deadly pandemic costs lives. These issues aren’t about “values” or “how we live,” they’re about who gets to live.

Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term “culture wars” dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose “values” are enshrined into law. Journalists should avoid using this shorthand and apply the language of human rights and their violations when the issue is life and death for the “loser” of said war.