In this section, I briefly review the research on framing as it applies to understanding the media and its influence on audiences, policymakers, and other societal actors. At the end of this section, I provide a list of recommended sources. In a separate section, I review a generalizable set of frames that appear across science-related policy debates. (For more on both, see Nisbet & Schefuele, 2007)
Packaging reality. The concept of framing turns on what observers have understood for centuries: When it comes to storytelling, communicators can select from a plurality of interpretations, with these preferred meanings filtered by the predispositions of the audience, shaping their judgments and decisions. The earliest formal work on framing traces back four decades to the anthropologist Erving Goffman. In his ethnographic research examining how individuals make sense of their environment and interpersonal interactions, he described frames as "schemata of interpretation" that allow individuals to "locate, perceive, identify, and label" issues, events, and topics. Words, according to Goffman, are like triggers that help individuals negotiate meaning through the lens of existing cultural beliefs and worldviews.
In the 1970s and 1980s, cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky applied framing in experimental designs to understand risk judgments and consumer choices. The two psychologists discovered that the different ways in which a message is presented or "framed"--apart from the content itself--can result in very different responses, depending on the terminology used to describe the problem or the visual context provided in the message. They concluded in their Nobel Prize-winning research that "perception is reference dependent."
More recently, the linguist George Lakoff has popularized research related to framing by drawing attention to the failures of progressives to effectively communicate their preferred policies, arguing that metaphors related to the family and morality, when activated by language, structure citizens' interpretations of politics.
Framing has also become the topic du jour of political strategists and pundits, serving as a buzzword to describe what is sometimes referred to as either effective communication or what critics decry as "false spin." GOP pollster Frank Luntz is widely credited with figuring out much of the language that has been effective at promoting the preferred policies of conservatives. For example, in a strategy memo on how to downplay the urgency of climate change, Luntz recommended emphasizing repeatedly that the "scientific debate remains open" and that any U.S. policy action would lead to ünfair" economic consequences since countries such as India and China were not also adopting such actions. (The subtitle of Luntz's recent best-selling book, Words that Work, echoes the conclusions of Nobel Prize winners Kahneman and Tversky: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear.")
Framing and media influence. Over the past two decades, research in political communication and sociology has added to previous anthropological, psychological, and linguistic work on framing to explain how media portrayals in interaction with cultural forces shape public views. Frames are used by audiences as "interpretative schema" to make sense of and discuss an issue; by journalists to craft interesting and appealing news reports; and by policy-makers to define policy options and reach decisions. In each of these contexts, frames simplify complex issues by lending greater importance to certain considerations and arguments over others. In the process, they help communicate why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done.
Frames appearing in the media or in campaign messages are most influential when they resonate with a particular audience's interpretative schema. These "perceptual lenses" are typically world views such as religious beliefs, political partisanship, or ideologies acquired through long-term socialization processes or other types of social learning.
What is a frame device? The latent meaning of any frame is often translated instantaneously by specific types of frame devices such as catchphrases, metaphors, sound bites, graphics, and allusions to history, culture, and/or literature. Frame devices are used strategically in almost any policy debate. Consider just a few prominent and successful examples of such devices that have been used to alter the focus of policy:
1. Republicans have used the frame device "death tax" to recast estate tax policy in populist terms and to trigger wider public concern.
2. Democrats have used the phrase "gun safety" to shift the traditional debate over "gun control" away from a focus on civil liberties and instead toward an emphasis on public health.
3. Greenpeace has used the term "frankenfood" to redefine food biotechnology in terms of unknown risks and consequences rather than the industry-promoted focus on solving world hunger.
4. Religious conservatives have relabeled the medical procedure know as "dilation and extraction" as "partial birth abortion," pushing decision-making on whether to use the procedure away from doctors and into the hands of Congress and the courts.
5. Anti-smoking advocates have promoted the term "big tobacco," a headline-friendly phrase that immediately emphasizes considerations of corporate accountability and wrongdoing.
6. Anti-evolutionists have coined the slogan "teach the controversy," which instantaneously signals their preferred interpretation that there are holes in the theory of evolution and that teaching rival explanations for life's origins is really a matter of intellectual freedom.
In the video interview below, I explain some basics about framing research as applied to a specific policy topic or issue. In a separate section, I review a generalizable set of frames that appear across science-related policy debates. (For more on both, see Nisbet & Schefuele, 2007)
Introductions to framing and media/policy influence:
Chong, D. & Druckman, J. (2007). Framing Theory. Annual Review of Political Science 10, 103-126.
Ferree, M.M. (1992). Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Gamson, W.A. (1992). Talking politics. New York, NY:Cambridge University Press.
Gamson, WA. & Modigliani, A. (1989). Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.
Nisbet, M.C. (2007). Communicating about Poverty and Low Wage Work: A New Agenda. Report to Inclusion and the Joyce Foundation, Washington DC.
Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Agenda-building. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Communication. New York: Blackwell. Contact me for a copy.
Nisbet, M.C. & Huge, M (2006). Attention cycles and frames in the plant biotechnology debate: Managing power and participation through the press/policy connection. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11, 2, 3-40.
Price, V., Nir, L., & Capella, J.N. (2005). Framing public discussion of gay civil unions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, (2), 179-212.
Scheufele, D.A. & Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Framing. In L. L. Kaid & C. Holz-Bacha (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Contact me for a copy.
Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, agenda-setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9-20.