Let’s consider these questions…
Should the poor be blamed for their poverty?
Should the government or citizens be responsible for the cost of health care?
Shall we expect only developed countries to deal with climate change?
Before you start searching for your own answers, the media, believe it or not, have already planted theirs in your mind.
News media set the public agenda every day by telling us what is important to know and how to think about it. When it comes to global challenges such as poverty, climate change, and the refugee crisis, the media often play a decisive role in defining both the problem and responsibility. Attribution of responsibility in media reporting should not be underestimated, as it suggests the source of problems and who should fix them, shapes the public discourse and opinions about issues, and subsequently influences local and global policy approaches to public concerns.
Let’s consider these questions…
Corruption is perceived by many to be an impediment to development. But, it can be difficult to tackle since it is often a systemic problem. Duncan Green recently attended a seminar on corruption and development and provides some impressions.Went to a seminar on corruption and development on Monday – notable in itself as corruption is something of a taboo topic in aid circles. Aid supporters often cite framing – George Lakoff’s ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ or Richard Nixon’s ‘I am not a crook’ (below)- as justification for avoiding the topic; even if you raise it to dismiss it, the connection between aid and corruption will be established in the public mind.
Unfortunately ignoring it/leaving it to the Daily Mail hasn’t worked too well – David Hudson’s research (still unpublished, but previewed here) shows that the % of the UK public agreeing with the decidedly clunky (DFID-drafted) statement ‘corruption in poor country governments makes it pointless donating money to help reduce poverty’ has risen rapidly from 44% to 61% since 2008. He also found that talking to members of the public about how aid is trying to tackle corruption can undo the damage of raising the issue in the first place (and help immunise people against the barrage of press reports).
The way in which news stories are framed can influence the attitudes and intentions of audience members- especially if emotion is involved.
We’ve all been there. We’re watching the news and something tragic appears on the screen. We immediately feel sadness and empathy for the victims of the suffering unfolding before us. Alternatively, something infuriating is being said or insinuated by a newscast and we immediately feel anger well up inside.
These emotional responses demonstrate the powerful effect the media, and in particular the news media, can have on audiences. They depend, in large part, on how a news story is framed.
In a seminal paper, Robert Entman (1993) wrote, “[t]o frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (p. 52). Thus, by highlighting certain aspects of an event or issue, news frames influence which cognitive concepts the recipient accesses and regards as relevant. Nelson, Oxley, & Clawson (1997) agreed and wrote that “frames influence opinions by stressing specific values, facts, and other considerations, endowing them with greater apparent relevance to the issue than they might appear to have under an alternative frame."
Framing is a concept derived from the field of ‘media effects’ which studies how the timing, duration, and valence of news stories can affect the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors of audience members. More and more research is showing that news stories that are framed to elicit emotional responses are especially influential because they can influence the attitudes of people as well as their intentions.
Recently, researchers at the University of Zurich conducted a study that investigated how framing would affect the emotional reactions of participants as well as their tendencies to support various policy solutions. The participants were divided into three groups, an anger frame group, a sadness frame group, and a control group. All groups read a policy paper, which discussed a proposed public policy to increase road safety and which listed various measures designed to accomplish that goal. They were then asked to evaluate the options.
I recently began an interesting conversation with our new campaigns and policy czar, Ben Phillips, who then asked me to pick the FP2P collective brain-hive for further ideas. Here goes.
The issue is ‘cold’ v ‘hot’ campaigning. Over the next couple of years, we will be doing a lot of campaigning on climate change and inequality. Inequality is flavour of the month, with an avalanche of policy papers, shifting institutional positions at the IMF etc highlighting its negative impacts on growth, wellbeing, poverty reduction, and just about everything else. That makes for a ‘hot campaign’, pushing on (slightly more) open doors on tax, social protection etc.
In contrast, climate change is (paradoxically) a pretty cold campaign. Emissions continue to rise, as do global temperatures and the unpredictability of the weather, but you wouldn’t think so in terms of political agendas or press coverage (see graph). The UN process, focus of huge attention over the last 15 years, is becalmed. Politicians make occasional reference to ‘green growth’, but that is becoming as vacuous as its predecessor ‘sustainable development.’
The distinction is not so clear cut, of course. Hot campaigns can suddenly go cold and vice versa (politicians and officials are able to go from saying ‘no, don’t be ridiculous’ to ‘we’ve always supported this’ with bewildering ease, when the moment is right). You could argue that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign was one of those. But a campaign needs to get seriously hot if it involves a major redistribution of power and influence (like taxation/inequality or climate change, but not, I would argue, the Arms Trade Treaty).
So the essay question is: do you campaign differently on hot v cold campaigns, and if so, how? Here are some initial thoughts:
It’s environment week, kind of. Tuesday was World Environment Day and tomorrow is World Oceans Day. Both days were institutionalized through United Nations resolutions to draw attention to the environment and the threats it is exposed to. For communicators in development, climate change is one of the most relevant issues. Communication scholars also have thought a lot about how to effectively communicate climate change. I am not quite sure, however, whether the two sides are working together. Let me therefore discuss how framing can influence our understanding and acceptance of climate change.
Matthew Nisbet from American University has written an interesting article on “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement”. He argues that the enormous divide between the factual reality of climate change and citizens’ perception is partly due to the way interest groups have been framing the issue. He identifies a number of frames that are being used in the public discussion (p. 18):
We see donation appeals everywhere these days - to help the people in Japan, to help the people in Darfur, to help the people in Haiti. What influences our decision to give? An interesting study comes from British psychologists, who analyzed how individuals respond to donation appeals in the wake of man-made disasters - like war - versus natural disasters. The authors around Hanna Zagefka from Royal Holloway University in London found that natural disasters elicit more donations than those caused by people. Their explanation: people tend to assign some blame to the victims of man-made disaster, while they blame no one for being overrun by a Tsunami.
Wharton Professor Galit Sarfaty just published a paper on changing norms in international institutions, using as an example the advance of the human rights agenda in the World Bank. The study describes the process of how new norms are adopted - or not - in large organizations and how different factions negotiate their positions. It's well worth a read and spells out the difficulties of reforming organizations and establishing new norms.
- world bank
- Wharton School of Economics
- University of Pennsylvania
- Turf War
- Socializing Norms
- Organizational Reform
- Organizational Culture
- Organizational Communication
- Norm Change
- International Organizations
- Internal Reform
- institutional diffusion
- human rights
- Galit Sarfaty
After introducing agenda setting and priming, I want to complete the "holy trinity of media effects" with a short introduction of framing, which I consider to be the most important effect of this threesome. Whereas agenda setting tells us what to think about (by putting issues on the public agenda), framing tells us how and why to think about an issue. To frame means to communicate in a way that leads audiences to see something in a certain light or from a particular perspective. Aspects that are not included in the frame do not come to the audience's attention. Framing determines where the audience puts its attention. Effective framing taps into preexisting beliefs, attitudes, and opinions; it highlights certain aspects of an issue over other aspects.
The holy trinity of media effects research is "agenda setting - priming - framing." We've used all of these terms at some point in this blog. Since they are central to all kinds of communication work - and policy work, to quite some extent - we'll introduce all three a little more thoroughly, starting with agenda setting.
Agenda setting means the ability of the mass media to bring issues to the attention of the public and, related, of politicians. The basic claim is that as the media devote more attention to an issue, the public perceives the issue as important. When the media take up a specific topic - such as climate change, or manager bonuses - they make us think about it. The theory was introduced in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their seminal study of the role of the media in the 1968 Presidential campaign in the US ("The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media").
A reader's response to the blog post "Shock and Awe? The Effects of Negative Framing":
In political matters, the focus should move away from attitudes; since Robinson (1976) study investigating negative news effects, we have known that low involvement citizens (involvement with the issue) are influenced first by information or cognitive change, which produces behavioral change, which eventually produces attitudinal change. While high involvement citizens move from cognitive change to attitudinal to behavioral. The power of negative information has more to do with cultural expectations, however. Within western democracies, research has shown that negative information is far more attention-getting than positive information. In addition, people not only attend to the information, but they talk about the information with others, creating a spiral effect, in that when people talk about negative information with others, they may serve as influentials, bringing news to those who have not attended to the news through the mass media, or they may assist in concretizing the significance of news reports, through their discussions with others. For this reason, negative information tends to be more suasive, and as a result, people retain the information; furthermore, because of its cued negativity, they are able to access that information far more readily than positive information. In short, negative information saves time, money and
effort; it is far more economical, efficient and effective than positive information, within western democracies (see Lau's considerable research).