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Five Questions about Framing

June 8, 2020

1. What is Framing?

Framing is about the choices we make in what we say, how we say it, what we emphasize, and what we leave unsaid, and how these choices shape how people think, feel, and act.

Framing plays a major role in social change. As Walter Lippman, a founder of public opinion research, observed in 1921:  “The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what people will do.”

The way the media, political leaders, and advocates frame issues shapes how the public sees the world. Frames affect whether we think an issue is important, whether we think of it as a private, personal problem or a shared social concern, and the kinds of solutions we support.

We can see how much framing matters by considering the difference between a charity and a justice frame. Charity framing on social issues encourages us to focus on “the needy” and the visible symptoms of that need. This frame invites sympathy and asks for individuals to take steps to help those experiencing difficulty. Justice framing, in contrast, highlights the set-up of society and our shared commitment to fairness. This frame emphasizes systems and the conditions of wellbeing, and asks for collective action to make things right.

2. Should my mission-driven organization try to frame our issue?

We’re all already framing our issue, whether we realize it or not. Every website blurb, press release, email announcement, or social media post advances a story about what our issue is about, who it affects, and what society should do about it. There’s no such thing as an unframed communication.

Since we’re always framing, we should always frame strategically. A good place to start is  learning about the framing choices that make the most difference – like values, explanations, and tone.

3. Am I framing my issue effectively?

The only way to tell is to test. Frames often have surprising effects. When we rely on intuition to make communications choices, we leave an important element of social change to chance.

Since 1999, FrameWorks has studied how people think about numerous social issues – and conducted original, empirical research to uncover what framing choices spark change. We live to our mission by sharing our research and recommendations at To learn about the frames that advance your cause – and those that set it back – you can explore our research on your issue.

4. What does it mean to “reframe” a social issue?

Reframing an issue means creating widespread change in the way people think and talk about it. These changes are rarely total or complete; there is usually more than one frame in play on any public issue. That said, if we can see our frame being repeated by others, and if we can see related shifts in public perceptions and public policy, it’s fair to say we have “reframed” the issue.

5. Can you give examples of issues that have been reframed successfully?

History offers many examples of successful reframing. In the 19th century, American expectations about product safety changed dramatically. By using a range of communications strategies, advocates moved the nation from a “buyer beware” approach to policies to one about “consumer protection” that held companies accountable and implicated the government. In the mid 20th century, the Civil Rights Movement reframed the issue of racial hierarchy. Movement strategists advanced a human equality frame that led increasing numbers of people to question, and ultimately reject, laws and practices that disenfranchised Black citizens.

These examples also illustrate the way that powerful frames drive change over time, as issues evolve. At first, our product safety policies only regulated food. As more people “imagined the world” as a place where government has a role in protecting consumers, our policies expanded to cover virtually every product sold today. Now, advocates are using the consumer protection frame to position intangible things, like financial transactions and personal data, as “products” that should be held to safety and ethical standards. The human equality frame that upended legalized racial apartheid in the US has, over time, been used to press for greater fulfillment of civil rights for Black Americans – and to call for inclusion and equality for women, people who identify as LGBT+, immigrants, and other social groups facing marginalization.




©2020, FrameWorks Institute.