For the past five years, a rare collaboration between communications scholars and practitioners has begun to evolve a new approach to explaining social issues to the public.
Strategic frame analysis™ is an approach to communications research and practice that pays attention to the public's deeply held worldviews and widely held assumptions. This approach was developed at the FrameWorks Institute by a multi-disciplinary team of people capable of studying those assumptions and testing them to determine their impact on social policies. Recognizing that there is more than one way to tell a story, strategic frame analysis taps into decades of research on how people think and communicate. The result is an empirically-driven communications process that makes academic research understandable, interesting, and usable to help people solve social problems.
This interdisciplinary work is made possible by the fact that the concept of framing is found in the literatures of numerous academic disciplines across the social, behavioral and cognitive sciences. Put simply, framing refers to the construct of a communication — its language, visuals and messengers — and the way it signals to the listener or observer how to interpret and classify new information. By framing, we mean how messages are encoded with meaning so that they can be efficiently interpreted in relationship to existing beliefs or ideas. Frames trigger meaning.
The questions we ask, in applying the concept of frames to the arena of social policy, are as follows:
This approach is strategic in that it not only deconstructs the dominant frames of reference that drive reasoning on public issues, but it also identifies those alternative frames most likely to stimulate public reconsideration and enumerates their elements (reframing). We use the term reframe to mean changing "the context of the message exchange" so that different interpretations and probable outcomes become visible to the public (Dearing & Rogers, 1994: 98). Strategic frame analysis™ offers policy advocates a way to work systematically through the challenges that are likely to confront the introduction of new legislation or social policies, to anticipate attitudinal barriers to support, and to develop research-based strategies to overcome public misunderstanding.
The domain of communications has not changed markedly since 1948 when Harold Lasswell formulated his famous equation: who says what to whom through what channel with what effect?
But what many social policy practitioners have overlooked in their quests to formulate effective strategies for social change is that communications merits their attention because it is an inextricable part of the agenda-setting function in this country. Communications plays a vital role in determining which issues the public prioritizes for policy resolution, which issues will move from the private realm to the public, which issues will become pressure points for policymakers, and which issues will win or lose in the competition for scarce resources. No organization can approach such tasks as issue advocacy, constituency-building, or promoting best practices without taking into account the critical role that mass media has to play in shaping the way Americans think about social issues. As William Gamson and his colleagues at the Media Research and Action Project like to say, media is "an arena of contest in its own right, and part of a larger strategy of social change."
One source of our confusion over communications comes in not recognizing that each new push for public understanding and acceptance happens against a backdrop of long-term media coverage, of perceptions formed over time, of scripts we have learned since childhood to help us make sense of our world, and folk beliefs we use to interpret new information. As we go about making sense of our world, mass media serves an important function as the mediator of meaning — telling us what to think about (agenda-setting) and how to think about it (media effects) by organizing the information in such a way (framing) that it comes to us fully conflated with directives (cues) about who is responsible for the social problem in the first place and who gets to fix it (responsibility).
It is often the case that nonprofit organizations want communications to be easy. Ironically, they want soundbite answers to the same social problems whose complexity they understand all too well. While policy research and formulation are given their due as tough, demanding areas of an organization's workplan, communications is seen as "soft." While program development and practice are seen as requiring expertise and the thoughtful consideration of best practices, communications is an "anyone can do it if you have to" task. It is time to retire this thinking. Doing communications strategically requires the same investment of intellect and study that these other areas of nonprofit practice have been accorded.
In his seminal book Public Opinion (1921:16), Walter Lippmann was perhaps the first to connect mass communications to public attitudes and policy preferences by recognizing that the "the way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do." The modern extension of Lippmann's observation is based on the concept of "frames."
People use mental shortcuts to make sense of the world. Since most people are looking to process incoming information quickly and efficiently, they rely upon cues within that new information to signal to them how to connect it with their stored images of the world. The "pictures in our heads," as Lippmann called them, might better be thought of as vividly labeled storage boxes - filled with pictures, images, and stories from our past encounters with the world and labeled youth, marriage, poverty, fairness, etc. The incoming information provides cues about which is the right container for that idea or experience. And the efficient thinker makes the connection, a process called "indexing," and moves on.
Put another way, how an issue is framed is a trigger to these shared and durable cultural models that help us make sense of our world. When a frame ignites a cultural model, or calls it into play in the interpretation, the whole model is operative. This allows people to reason about an issue, to make inferences, to fill in the blanks for missing information by referring to the robustness of the model, not the sketchy frame.
As Lippmann observed, "We define first, and then see." The cognitive cultural models that are sparked by the frame allow us to forget certain information and to invent other details, because the frame is now in effect. For example, if people believe that kids are in trouble, they will be drawn to facts in a news story that reinforce this notion, and will disregard those that deny it. If the facts don't fit the frame, it's the facts that are rejected, not the frame. Or, as one analyst of knowledge processing puts it, "understanding means finding a story you already know and saying, 'Oh yeah, that one'" (Schank, 1998, 71). The function of the frame is to drive us toward the correct identification of an old story: "Finding some familiar element causes us to activate the story that is labeled by that familiar element, and we understand the new story as if it were an exemplar of that old element" (Schank, 1998, 59).
What's in a frame? At the FrameWorks Institute, we've developed a short list of elements typically found in news segments that often signal meaning:
Together, these elements help people connect the new information to the "structure of expectation" in their heads. If the messenger in a TV news story is a teacher, for example, the viewer is likely to assume that this is about education or about a problem that should be solved by schools. If the visuals show people sitting around doing little, the viewer may decide this is about laziness, regardless of what the narrator is saying about unemployment statistics among rural peasants in a certain country.
As we apply these findings from the cognitive, behavioral, and social sciences to the arena of social issues — children, poverty, the environment, human rights, etc. — we see the importance of the way responsibility is implicitly communicated as part of these framing elements. As Charlotte Ryan has pointed out, "Every frame defines the issue, explains who is responsible, and suggests potential solutions. All of these are conveyed by images, stereotypes, or anecdotes." (Ryan 1991:59)
Most people rely on news reports to learn about public issues. The evening news frames issues — using these same elements listed above — in order to tell a story. Shanto Iyengar has described news frames as being of two types: episodic and thematic. Episodic news frames, which comprise by far the predominant frame on television newscasts, focus on discrete events that involve individuals located at specific places and at specific times (e.g., nightly crime reports). By contrast, thematic frames place public issues in a broader context by focusing on general conditions or outcomes (e.g., reports on poverty trends in the U.S.). Researchers have shown that the type of news frame used has a profound effect on the way in which individuals attribute responsibility. Iyengar concludes that "episodic framing tends to elicit individualistic rather than societal attributions of responsibility while thematic framing has the opposite effect." (Iyengar, 1991).
But there are many traditions of journalism that affect the way we process news reports, that signal to us not only what issues we should think about, but also how we should think about them. The metaphors chosen to describe the issue drive public reaction and reasoning. For example, the "horse race" metaphor applied to political elections has been shown to reduce attention to specific issues in favor of character, strategy and poll results. The two-sides rule, in which opposite messengers are chosen to satisfy journalistic balance, has been shown to create the notion that politics are divisive and disingenuous. The choice of public officials as spokespersons on foreign policy issues signals to the public that ordinary people should leave the discussion to experts.
The work of the FrameWorks Institute is to translate the relevant literature on each element of the frame, helping stakeholder groups understand what ordinary Americans are likely to take away when a social problem is described in a certain way.
And, while our recommendations are aimed first and foremost to the medium of news, the communications research we review and explain is also pertinent to public discourse in general - presentations to civic groups, written communiques from annual reports to direct mail, and public statements of all kinds.
In sum, we do not need to be subjected to a freeze frame of "rats" to be unduly influenced by the presentation of subliminal information. It is happening every day, all day long, as we seek to process the news that is presented to us. While those frames may not be intentional, they are no less effective in telling us how to think about the great issues of our day.
The effective advocate must incorporate this way of thinking and seeing into his or her communications with constituencies, policymakers, and media. It is to this end that we have attempted to itemize the elements of a frame, to explain the options advocates have in framing their issues for the public, and to apply these principles to a wide array of research conducted on specific social issues. In this sense, the FrameWorks research is an unusual marriage of theory and practice, translating the work of scholars and demonstrating its practical application to the questions that policy advocates must ask and answer.
Strategic frame analysis™ is both a perspective and a methodology.
As a perspective, it can be taught to advocates and incorporated into their everyday advocacy practices. In this sense, strategic frame analysis™ helps you understand how your issues are being framed by your opponents and in the media, and roots your responses in a body of research that applies the cognitive, behavioral and social sciences to the art of public discourse.
As a methodology, it requires a multidisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners to ask and answer important questions about how the public perceives a specific issue and what consequences those perceptions hold for the policies that advocates wish to promote. Working across methods and disciplines, FrameWorks researchers probe such specific issues as the environment, human rights, global infectious disease, and women and children's health and education. In all this work, a team of researchers apply the principles of strategic frame analysis to an array of methods, from focus groups to surveys and interviews in order to arrive at a situation analysis of what advocates are up against on these particular issues, and which reframes hold the best potential to galvanize public support for their positions and policies.
We encourage you to understand the unique perspective that strategic frame analysis™ affords on public opinion research, and to carry it with you as you approach future work on your specific areas of interest. It has revolutionized the way we do research; we humbly suggest that it may also revolutionize the way you evaluate strategies and create communications.
Dearing, J. and E. Rogers. 1996. Agenda-Setting. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Gamson, W. and Goodson, A. 2000. "Social Movements and Children's Policy," in Insight. Washington, D.C.: Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families.
Iyengar, S. 1991. Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Iyengar, S. and Donald R. Kinder. 1987. News That Matters: Television and American Opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lasswell, H. 1948. "The Structure and Function of Communication in Society," in L Bryson (ed.), The Communication of Ideas. New York: Harper.
Lippmann, W. 1921. Public Opinion. New York: The Free Press.
Ryan, C. 1991. Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grass Roots Organizing. Boston: South End Press.
Schank, R. 1990. Tell Me A Story: Narrative and Intelligence. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.