The case of Marissa Mayer's prohibition on telecommuting 

 Public Opinion; social and anti-social media

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together” read the confidential internal Yahoo memo leaked to the technology website’s AllthingsDigital journalist Kara Swisher on February 22. {cke_protected_1}[i]{cke_protected_2} The memo was originally issued by Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer, and was essentially a prohibition of telecommuting to work. The ban would affect approximately 200 people currently working from home requesting them to report to the office by June. During the past month, Mayer’s decision has stirred national discussion and attracted substantial amounts of criticism in the media. Apparently, Mayer wrote to her employees in hope to ignite a positive change through in-person interaction to increase collaboration and communication within the suffering company that has welcomed and parted with six different CEO’s over the past five years. The story, that has caused public turmoil, has particularly attracted the attention of working women that view Mayer’s decision as one that will hinder them to be able to combine careers and motherhood simultaneously. At least that is what the media is telling us. But whether the media or the public is responsible for the massive critique and attention the CEO has faced in the aftermath of this memo remains hard to be certain. Would the story have received the same amount of national attention if the gatekeepers and media had resisted publishing multiple stories fronting controversial headlines, neglected the various framing techniques and avoided to tactfully place their opinion editorials next to the “objective” news reporting?

In regards to Mayer’s role in the news environment; to what degree has the media set the public agenda, primed the readership and consciously utilized framing techniques to affect the public’s interpretation and judgment?


Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in the book Spiral of Cynicism claim that the trend amongst journalists is to carve out the good guys and bad guys, while maintaining an overall criticizing tone to the majority of news stories. They claim that the shift from issue-based stories to strategy-based stories legitimizes media critic’s proposition that the press is merely interested in conflict, not solutions. (Cappella & Jamieson. P.57) Rather than objectively reporting Mayer’s decision, the media has primarily focused on the conflict of whether Mayer’s move was strategically smart from a business standpoint, or if it is one with detrimental effects to the future of career women. 

To explore how the media has made Mayer a subject of national discussion it is important to recognize the various techniques utilized through gate keeping, agenda setting, priming and framing. Gatekeeping is a series of checkpoints that the news goes through before it reaches the public. News outlets, reporters, writers and editors act as gatekeepers of information and make choices about what to report and what not. What the public knows and cares about at any given time is mostly a by-product of media-gatekeeping. {cke_protected_3}[ii]{cke_protected_4}

Agenda setting is believed to occur because the press must be selective in reporting the news. Journalist Walter Lippman was the first to analyze the impact of the media on people's perceptions in 1922 in his book Public Opinion. He presented the theory that that people did not respond directly to events in the real world but instead lived in a pseudo-environment composed of "the pictures in our heads" and that the media dominates the creation of these. These reflections thus provide the basis for our perceptions about the world.   Therefore the agenda setting process is used to remodel all the events occurring in our environment, into a simpler model before we deal with it. [iii] 

According to the agenda-setting theory, first developed by Professor Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their Chapel Hill study (1968), mass media set the agenda for public opinion by highlighting certain issues. The theory explains the correlation between the rate at which media cover a story and the extent to which people think that this story is important. Political scientist Bernard Cohen made the following observation in 1963 “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”[iv] Agenda setting describes a very powerful influence of the media and is the ability to create public awareness and concern of what we perceive as salient issues. Mayer (37) has largely dominated the public agenda as a result of frequent headlines in the media environment since she accepted the role as CEO of Yahoo in June 2012; becoming the youngest Fortune 500 CEO at six months pregnant.

Following her inauguration the media has carefully monitored her every move, including stories about her pregnancy and subsequent two-week maternity leave, her failure and success as a female role-model, her effort to please Yahoo’s investors, her employees dissatisfaction and gossip, her privately funded in-office nursery, her unique technological intelligence accompanied by her attractive appearance, her ban on telecommuting and most recently- her $1.1 million dollar bonus after spending only five months as CEO. Once agenda setting has made an issue salient, priming is the process by which mass media shapes the considerations that people take into account when making judgments about issues. According to researchers Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder, media priming is part of a two-fold process with agenda setting that takes place over time. Both theories point to ease of accessibility of information in one's mind but priming is something that can occur over a period of time after exposure to a given media segment. {cke_protected_5}[v]{cke_protected_6}

According to Jamieson and Cappella, frames in the media are generally considered the way the story is written or produced including the orienting headlines, specific word choices, rhetorical devices employed and the narrative form. Researchers Zhongdang Pan and Gerald Kosicki describe rhetorical framing devices as stylistic choices to help convey the character of the account. The implication is how the news frames issues will invite certain inferences and suppress others, cognitively priming some information in the network of knowledge while surpassing others. They typically include strategic, conflict, personality, issue and episodic frames. (Spiral of Cynicsm, p.83). The frames highlight certain aspects of news and downplay others through selection, emphasis, exclusion and elaboration. Frames are not static, but enable people to understand how discourse constructs common meanings about particular issues. Professor Robert Entman explains that frames: 


Define problems—determine what a causal agent is doing with what costs and benefits, usually measured in terms of common cultural values; diagnose causes—identify the forces creating the problem; make moral judgments—evaluate causal agents and their effects; and suggest remedies—offer and justify treatments for the problems and predict their likely effects.” (p. 52) {C}{cke_protected_7}[vi]{C}{cke_protected_8}


The Los Angeles Times published an article on February 26th with the headline “Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer causes uproar with telecommuting ban”. The headline is framed to set the stage for a dramatic narrative and the article starts by describing Mayer as “Corporate America's most famous working mother” and one of “Silicon Valley's most notorious workaholics”. The journalist activates cues in the primed readers and makes them recall former stories by addressing her as “not the role model some working mothers were hoping for”. The rhetorical frames that describe behavior will also tend to activate trait inferences easily and automatically. By describing Mayer as a workaholic, readers may turn to heuristics to form an impression of her by unconsciously adding other attributes to her personality typically associated with workaholics.

The LAT article writes “The former Google executive stirred up controversy by taking the demanding top job at Yahoo when she was six months pregnant and then taking only two weeks of maternity leave”. Without having to explicitly state it, this sentence cues the controversy that arose a few months earlier as a result of Mayer’s short maternity leave claiming it as setting a bad example for other mothers in similar situations. In analyzing how frames work Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin and Donald Jackson make the distinction between command and report aspects of communication. Command refers to what is said, while report refers to how it is said. Researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proved in a famous research study that even a slight change in wording could alter the outcome of a question. “Mayer built a nursery next to her office at her own expense to be closer to her infant son and work even longer hours.” The choice of words like “only two weeks” and “even longer hours”, implicitly argues the fact that she is a workaholic. Frames also alter the kinds of inferences made from well-established knowledge structures held by the audience and cued by the message presented. The inferences often allow an efficient form of communication where some things can be left unsaid because the viewer automatically supplies them. However, they can also be misleading, misdirected or simply false.

The LAT states “Many view telecommuting as the only way time-crunched women can care for young children and advance their careers without the pay, privilege or perks that come with being the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.” Framing is not restricted to how the journalists write the story; it focuses the viewer’s attention on its subject in specific ways by including, emphasizing, and excluding information. (p.38)

The LAT invites two professors to offer their professional, and not surprisingly, extremely critical opinion of Mayer’s move, and disregards people supporting Mayer’s decision.  It also refers to two research studies that prove increased productivity as a result of working from home, and neglects to inform the readership of studies suggesting the value of in-person interactions.{cke_protected_9}[vii]{cke_protected_10}.

An article like this, published by a renowned and national news source, sends the message that virtually “everyone” is critical of Mayer and covertly encourages readers to judge her as changing the work norm to her employees disadvantage without further reason. The article uses exclusion as a framing tool by devoting little emphasis to reason for the ban and to the suffering prospects of the company. In salience and selection, what the journalist chooses to leave out or treat as secondary or tertiary is an equally effective framing tactic as what parts of the story the journalist makes prominent. The journalist treats Yahoo’s challenges as secondary information, and neglects to note that Mayer’s objective may be to ensure 12000 jobs at the expense of a stricter work policy for approximately 200 people. The fundamental attribution error says that people generally have a tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. {cke_protected_11}[viii]{cke_protected_12} In short, journalists, critics and readers may attribute Mayer’s decision as a result of her personality, rather than consider the situation she is in and whether they might have made a similar decision given the situation of the company.

The article includes insinuations of sources referred to as “some observers” that believe her telecommuting ban is a way to  “ trim unproductive workers without the costs associated with layoffs”. Even though the article is not directly stating it, a cue is planted in the readers mind and may cause them to recall this speculation as a fact later.


Priming may also lead people to think more about an issue, which according to the principle of Cass Sunstein in{cke_protected_13}[ix]{cke_protected_14}, can cause polarization; where people seek information that coincide with their views and as a result develop more polarized attitudes. Sunstein points to the fact that some news sources function as intermediaries, and create balance and discussion, decreasing the possibility for polarization to occur (p.72).

It is therefor important to recognize the differences between general intermediaries and the niche media news reporting of this story. The distinctions between a “digital technology” niche website like allthingsD and a news reporting from the renowned New York Times are vast. The New York Times reported the story on February 25th by stating; “In trying to get back on track, Yahoo is taking on one of the country’s biggest workplace issues: whether the ability to work from home and other flexible arrangements leads to greater productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration.” The introduction of this article objectively presents the case while acknowledging the conflicting outcomes. The article invites comments from various researchers with differing opinions and includes research studies that prove both the benefits and disadvantages of telecommuting. The article also mentions a variety of other companies that have made similar decisions, in addition to recognizing that even though this ban has caused tension amongst working women, it equally effects men and other personality types that are more comfortable with a work-at-home environment.  {cke_protected_15}[x]{cke_protected_16}

In comparison, a niche website like AllthingsD generally allows their stories to be tainted by the journalist’s personal views. In the initial reporting of the story, AllthingsD describes the memo’s wording as “painfully awkward” concluding that it essentially meant “every Yahoo get to your desks stat!”.  The article further includes reactions merely from Yahoo employees unsatisfied with the ban calling it “outrageous and a morale killer.”{cke_protected_17}[xi]{cke_protected_18} This is an example of how AllthingsD functioned as a gatekeeper and framed their article by emphasizing and including information that could alter the outcome of the public’s initial judgments.


Business and women’s leadership journalist Jenna Godreau published an article on February 26th on the business and leadership website with the headline; “Back to the Stone Age? New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer bans working from home”.{cke_protected_19}[xii]{cke_protected_20} The headline immediately sets a negative tone and the article refers to several women deeply unsatisfied with the direction the company is taking and includes studies essentially concluding that Mayer’s decision is wrong. Godreau frames the article by reaching out to the editorial director of Working Mother Media and the CEO of FlexJobs (a service that helps job seekers find flexible professional positions) to comment on the issue; sources that most likely will support her thesis. Godreau concludes with the following remedy; “With increasingly effective mobile and video conferencing technology there’s less and less need to be present in the physical workplace. Certainly, Yahoo could find alternatives to alienating hundreds of workers. Isn’t it a technology company?”

Cass Sunstein points out that people are not only drawn to the way a news story is delivered, but also to the source delivering it, typically sources that coincide with the readerships existing views. In the article above, the journalist projects certain viewpoints that coincide with the readership that densely represents women interested in business and leadership. If Sunstein’s group polarization theory applies, the result of the framing techniques utilized may be that the readers harden their existing views and become more agitated as a result.


Frames provide context to a situation that in turn activates prior knowledge. Frames then serve as explicit context within texts that are interpreted causing judgment based on interpretations and information recalled. According to Jamieson and Cappella, sexual stereotypes are often a well-established part of an audience’s knowledge and when present, are easily activated by some simple framing devices with consequences for judgment and evaluation (p. 43). The media has treated this story as yet another opportunity to arouse conflict between the glorified images of Mayer as a role model and creates cognitive dissonance amongst certain readers with the stories that portray Mayer as a contrast to the female stereotype.


The prohibition of telecommuting is not exclusive for Yahoo. To put it in perspective, CNN recently reported that the large electronic company Best Buy made similar changes, but in their reporting excluded the fact that the male CEO Hubert Joley was responsible and rather choose to focus on “Debates over the merits and drawbacks of working from home raged last week after Mayer ended telecommuting at Yahoo” and “Critics say the policy is outdated considering today's technology, and it negatively affects women more than men.” [xiii]

In regards to Mayer’s prohibition of telecommuting, the focus of various media news sites should have been issue-based by objectively informing the public of the cause. Instead many news sites, and particularly ones tailored for niche audiences, have hyped it up to become an issue of everything from backwards thinking, a lack of support of working mothers, an act to condemn telecommuters as lazy, or simply an ingenious act to save the future of Yahoo, stepping up to the challenge, leading by example and making her employees prove their commitment.


There are multiple reasons for why this public and media frenzy has occurred. In today’s competitive mass media market, the conflict and strategy based stories typically take the front seat to issue-based ones. The media is known to “build you up and then tear you down” and the public outcry, particularly coming from working mothers, may be a result of the media’s tactics to first glorify Mayer as a superhero-woman, one that will break the glass ceiling and open opportunities for other women, and then tear her down by emphasizing her short maternity leave and telecommuting ban, decisions that don’t fit in with her image and is used as another tool to arouse conflict. In addition, the media now frequently recites Mayer saying that “she wouldn’t call herself a feminist” in a recent Makers documentary about “Women Who Make America”.[xiv] All these small elements are used as framing techniques and function as primed cues when encountering Mayer in the news environment.

There is no doubt that the media and it’s gatekeepers set the media and public agenda. However, Jamieson and Cappella acknowledge that framing a story does not guarantee that the same message that is sent out will be received. Nor does it prove a correlation between consuming frames and accepting framed information. Moreover, one cannot claim that viewers aren’t reflective enough to detect the framed information presented and make their own conclusions.

The commenting forums below the mentioned articles generally reflect a wide variety of participants with differing opinions- an indication that the readership is capable of adjusting their judgments based on their own interpretations.



[i]{C} (


[iii] Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. 1922. Chapter 1.


[v]{C} (Scheufele & Tewksbury (2007). "Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models". Journal of Communication (57): 9–20.) 

{C}[vi]{C} Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication,  p 52.



[ix] Cass Sunstein. Princeton University Press 2001.