Framing Theory

Political ads provide valuable lessons in framing. In one ad, President Obama touts his job creation record, citing over 4 million jobs added to the economy since he took office. In another ad, Governor Mitt Romney criticizes President Obama’s job creation by pointing out that unemployment is still hovering around 8 percent and the economy still lacks 261,000 jobs that were lost during the president’s tenure. Both ads rely on the same set of facts. However, one ad frames the numbers in a positive manner, while the other frames it negatively.

Framing, as a theory of mass communication, refers to how the media packages and presents information to the public. According to the theory, the media highlights certain events and then places them within a particular context to encourage or discourage certain interpretations. In this way, the media exercises a selective influence over how people view reality. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson is credited with first positing the theory in 1972. Framing is sometimes referred to as second-level agenda setting because of its close relation to Agenda-Setting Theory.

Assumptions

The following concepts are associated with framing:

1. Journalists select the topics they will present and decide how they will be presented. This determines the issues audiences think about and how they think about them.

2. Audiences interpret information through their own frames. Audiences’ frames may overlap or contradict the media’s frames.

3. Frames are reinforced every time they are evoked, whether positively or negatively.

4. Frame building is a systematic process that occurs over time.

Framing occurs in the media mostly because of time and resource constraints on what can be reported. Journalists must choose which events to cover and which to ignore. They must also decide which facts, values and perspectives will be mentioned or given prominence. This means journalists apply their own interpretive frames when packaging news. Reporters are also influenced by social norms, pressure from interest groups, journalistic routines and their own ideological or political orientations. As a result, some definitions, evaluations and recommendations contained within news reports are promoted over others. This affects audiences by limiting how they perceive and interpret events.

What are Frames?

Frames are systems of pre-conceived ideas used to organize and interpret new information. They function as heuristics, or “rules of thumb,” that allow people to quickly process news. In psychology, frames are also known as scripts or schemata.

Frames are mostly cultural in origin; people develop them at a very early age. Nearly every word of one’s language evokes a frame. For instance, the word “war” in English conjures up images of death, blood, gunfire, bombs, explosions, planes, tanks and ranks of marching soldiers. Therefore, when someone refers to “war,” these images provide a shared point of reference between the speaker and the listener. Even the word “communication” has a frame. Its elements include a messenger, a message, a recipient, a medium and a context. Common frames used by the media include “war on terror,” “battle with cancer” and “job outsourcing.”

How Frames Work

Rather than selecting a frame to process information when confronted with news, people instead view the world through their frames and make new information fit into them. Information that contradicts a frame is usually written off as an exception to the rule or distorted to fit the frame. As a result, people are most likely to notice information that fits into their frames and ignore facts that do not.

Journalists or politicians who want to introduce a new frame to audiences must, therefore, reference culturally popular ideas and develop novel phrases that link existing frames in a compelling way. A professor at UC Berkeley, for example, points to the appearance of the words “tax relief” during George W. Bush’s administration. In the frame evoked by the word “relief,” there exists several ideas: a crime or accident that has occurred to inflict suffering, a perpetrator of the crime, a victim, a reliever of the suffering and the method of relief. By using this frame in conjunction with taxes, taxes become associated with crime, or the cause of suffering. As a result, those who promote “tax relief” are seen as heroes, or the relievers of suffering. Those who call for increased taxation, however necessary it may be, are viewed as criminals.

What makes frames so powerful is how easily they are evoked and, therefore, reinforced. To reference the “war” frame, one only has to mention an idea contained within that frame, such as “tanks.” Negating a frame—such as stating, “There’s no such thing as war”—only reinforces that frame by calling up the images associated with it. The only way to combat a frame is to reframe an issue in another, more powerful way.

Framing’s Effects

Framing affects audiences in startling ways. Aside from restricting the information by which people judge events, framing can motivate people to make riskier decisions than they otherwise would. Researchers have found that when problems are expressed negatively, to imply a loss, people tend to choose the riskiest option for solving the problem. Problems framed positively result in safer decisions.

Framing can also cause audiences to deflect responsibility for solving social and political problems away from elected leaders. In his studies of framing, communications professor Shanto Iyengar identified two types of media news coverage: episodic and thematic. Episodic coverage treats issues as individual events, while thematic coverage links events together in a type of case-study format. When audiences are exposed to episodic news frames, they fail to make logical connections between the issues being covered—such as crime and poverty—and elected leaders or economic realities. Iyengar found that when reporting on poverty in particular, the media is more than twice as likely to frame the issue episodically than thematically. As a result, audiences place responsibility for poverty on the poor and hesitate to support government efforts to solve the problem.

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