Eran N Ben-Porath. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.
Framing is a concept that refers to the selection of words, topics, and ideas in communication and the effects of these selections on public opinion. The term itself is a metaphor, suggesting that media messages, such as news stories, are bounded by practices of inclusion (what’s inside the frame) and exclusion (that which we do not see). Communications researcher Robert Entman wrote in 1993 that “[t]o frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communication text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation.” This straightforward definition locates the act of framing in the newsroom, but the theory of framing is also rooted in psychology, where the focus of study is on how individuals interpret reality differently, in part as a result of media frames. Framing research therefore spans several disciplines such as communication research, psychology, sociology, and political science. This entry discusses several of the theoretical approaches to framing, illustrates their applications, and considers the importance of framing for journalism practice and criticism.
Framing as Practice
Framing practices are observed by studying the social organization of the news and by analyzing the linguistic and rhetorical organization of journalistic texts. The underlying implication of the frame concept is that a story has more than one way of being told and that editorial decisions affect the way reality is transferred from its actual occurrence to its symbolic representation in the news. Journalists collect a body of facts relating to an event or a series of events, such as the mayor’s visit to a local school or a presidential election campaign. They are then required to digest considerable factual information and incorporate it into fairly short news stories by choosing which elements to tell and deciding how to tell them. Reducing news occurrences into narrow frames allows journalists to deliver the news efficiently to their audience. The efficiency of framing has to do with brevity but also with the use of words and concepts that are already familiar to the audience and established in use. Otherwise, journalists would have to introduce and explain each occurrence they report, without assuming prior knowledge by their audience. As a result, journalists are less likely to frame the news in a manner that challenges their audience’s pre-existing beliefs.
The news media frame news by stressing certain aspects of issues or people on which they report while de-emphasizing others. They may choose to cover a new presidential initiative by emphasizing its merits and shortcomings, or discussing it as an election gimmick. Either approach may be justified, but the way in which the story is told (the policy-frame or the gimmick-frame) becomes socially important, since it can affect the way the public will consider this policy.
Framing as Effect
The expectation for framing effects is premised on the notion that frames are likely to shape the way people think about issues, persons, and events. This effect can be driven at times by choices of particular words, which activate distinct and predictable ways of thinking. The workings of this process are best understood through psychological studies, dating to the 1970s, which are the foundation for the study of framing effects. Economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky observed how seemingly minor changes in wording impact people’s support for policy choices. Famously, they found that people would prefer a program where 200 out of 600 people might be saved as opposed to one in which there is a one-third probability that all 600 will live but a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved. Even though the prospects for lives saved were mathematically identical, the way in which the options were worded, emphasizing risk or gain, activated biases that are inherent to human nature. In this case, the bias was against risk. Since people are, by and large, risk averse, they will likely oppose political candidates that are framed as more risky, even where the facts may not back this estimate of risk. Along the same lines, health information can affect behaviors differently when it centers on avoiding loss rather than on possible gains as well. For example, young women exposed to information about breast cancer were found more likely to conduct breast self-examinations when provided with negatively framed information, which emphasized the risks of not doing so, than when presented with the benefits of such action.
At the receiving end of the framing effect is the individual exposed to the news media message. For the effect to take place, the media frame needs to activate pre-existing mental “nodes,” or pre-existing frames, through which the person receiving the message might think about the world, such as risk and gain. Such pre-existing frames of thought are called “schemas.” Media frames make certain schemas more accessible to the receiver, which means the way the story is told becomes the way in which the individual thinks about the issue discussed. Thinking again about a presidential health initiative, if it is discussed by news media as a gimmick, the audience is likely to perceive this initiative as a political ploy. Once this skeptical schema has been activated, future initiatives are also likely to be regarded as political ploys. When frames are fresh in people’s minds and when they are often repeated, their effect extends beyond single instances of attitude-formation and into their broader outlooks on the world.
The evidence for framing indicates that editorial decisions about which terms to use in a news story, which attributes of a person or an issue to highlight, and what social values to invoke can impact the audience’s opinions. These decisions are not necessarily deliberate, but they can be of great consequence. The notion of framing effects covers a variety of topics and a multitude of ways in which “frames” appear in news stories. The examples below illustrate some of the types of framing effects that have been studied in recent years.
Types of Frames Value Framing
Media coverage can affect the types of moral, religious, or social values that people apply when processing a news story. When news reports stress values such as honesty or discuss which candidate can be an agent of change, they are also framing these criteria as central to the audience. Framing occurs through the salience afforded to different values and by subtle linguistic differences that favor one value or another. Consider, for example, the terms partial-birth abortion and late-term abortion, both of which refer to the same medical procedure. The first term stresses birth and would more likely lead people to consider abortion as it relates to the unborn fetus. Late-term abortion frames the abortion issue in the context of the pregnancy and perhaps the mother and her well-being. Such terms could trigger different sets of emotions and values that can be tied to the abortion issue. However, in order to maintain journalistic efficiency, reporting of the abortion debate often turns to just one of these terms, which can direct the audience’s thoughts about the issue in different directions.
Value-framing research often finds that framing is contingent on individuals’ predispositions, suggesting that framing is not inevitable. One experiment found that people’s support for national security policies is affected differently when the story’s wording centers on individuals impacted by the policy than when it focused on groups. Media framing in this case affected the type of values (national security or individual rights) activated by the individuals in conjunction with their own ideological leanings. Liberals were more likely to be affected by the individual rights frame than conservatives, while the national security frame affected conservatives more than liberals.
The study of attribute framing (sometimes called “second-level agenda setting”) demonstrates how news media emphasis on particular characteristics of an issue or a person can affect attitudes. When a desirable attribute of an object is stressed it will lead people to think about it more positively than when an undesirable feature is emphasized. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that research has found that people prefer beef that is 75 percent lean to that which is 25 percent fat, even though it is exactly the same product. Simply put, the label attached to an object, meaning whether it is “good” or “bad,” affects the way people think about it, no matter what its actual qualities are. In electoral campaigns, attribute framing refers to those characteristics of public figures that are made salient for prospective voters. For example, the coverage of Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign centered on his perceived tendency to exaggerate. This became the frame through which the public came to view him. To the extent that this was perceived as a negative attribute, voters were less likely to support him. In this manner, the news media can frame candidates by the emphases they put on candidate traits. Since political reporting tends to center on candidates’ shortcomings, attribute framing can affect not only the way people think about particular candidates; persistent framing of negative attributes can foster negative outlooks on political life as a whole.
A long-standing body of research illustrates how the framing of news stories affects the way people attribute responsibility for various social problems. Consider two ways of discussing a problem such as homelessness. Stories may provide straightforward facts and figures as to the underlying cause of this problem, such as an economic downturn. Or news organizations may choose to personalize a story, as they often do, by centering on the individuals affected by homelessness in order to illustrate the issue. Political communication researcher Shanto Iyengar’s experiments found that viewers exposed to a problem through the travails of particular victims (“episodic framing”) are more likely to attribute responsibility to dispositional or individualist factors, while stories that focus on the problem itself (“thematic framing”) are more likely to lead viewers to fault systemic factors and ultimately the government. As a result, this difference in media framing has undeniable political implications.
Strategy and Issue Framing
In the course of political campaigns, candidates make countless speeches, issue numerous position statements, and offer a set of policies and promises for the voters. Political news coverage, however, often seems more interested in “horse race” matters such as poll standings and tactical maneuvering by the candidates. Communications researchers Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson studied the effects of these two types of frames (“issue” and “strategy”) on people’s sense of political trust. Experiments they conducted reveal that when people watch politics discussed through the strategy frame they express higher levels of political cynicism, or distrust, than when the campaign is discussed by focusing on the issues at hand.
Framing and Individual Factors
While framing research has been able to produce significant results in several research traditions, some studies have lacked necessary explication of the conditions attenuating the effect or eliminating it altogether. People tend to process information in accordance with their pre-existing outlooks, rather than by invariably reacting to new information as it is transmitted to them. At times, individuals may resist or ignore this new information and they will tend to see, understand, and remember things as they always have. Therefore, media effects, such as framing, may be conditional on the extent to which a frame is compatible with individuals’ pre-existing knowledge structures and with the prevailing beliefs in a given culture. Some frames may simply not register with their audience. The less congruent the media frame is with an individual’s schemas, the lesser the likelihood of frame transfer.
Framing research does not assume automatic frame transfer. This is evident in a study that exposed participants to political messages that were focused on either candidate traits or the issues. As framing theory would predict, those in the trait-frame condition expressed more thoughts about candidate traits than those in the issue-frame condition and vice versa. However, the effects were particularly strong for those who were more likely to think that way to begin with: people who thought traits were most important (“trait schematics”) in politics were more affected by the trait frame than the issue schematics, while those who considered issues most important were more affected by the issue frame than the trait schematics. In this way, framing reinforces existing conceptions.
Most of the research on framing discussed above took place in lab settings that do not amount to an exact replication of the way people actually receive media messages. Some scholars have demonstrated that framing effects are short lived and may dissipate quickly, especially if people discuss the media messages with others, who may have different viewpoints.
The fact that framing may be conditioned by individual factors as well as by the setting in which the message is received should not, however, diminish framing’s importance. There is an overwhelming body of evidence that indicates that how a story is told can have a significant effect on how broader social concepts and central political figures are considered by the public. In some cases, the way news media frame a story can affect not only opinions but also actions and behaviors.
While somewhat context- and person-dependent, the evidence for the effects of framing poses a challenge to news reporting. Many journalists still aim to provide an impartial account of an actual reality. But the process of reporting the news involves a series of decisions as to which attributes of an occurrence or person are brought to the forefront and which are to be excluded. Each one of these decisions can affect the type of concepts activated in the minds of news consumers, which, in turn, affect public perceptions about issues and persons and could perhaps transform general outlooks on policies or social institutions. With this in mind, media framing should be considered as one of the most important sources for media-driven cognitive effects, bearing individual and social consequences.