“Global problems require global solutions,” a newspaper editorial recently asserted in its analysis of the current economic crisis. From a communication studies perspective, stressing a particular aspect of an issue – in this case, the global nature of the crisis -- is called “framing.” To further one’s position, advocates frame an issue by emphasizing some aspects of the phenomenon and deemphasizing others. Contrasting frames on economic issues have been ubiquitous in the media for some time. Compare, for example, the ways in which The Economist and CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight interpret economic realities. Given the current crisis, the framing battle is even more apparent. Protectionists might prefer to focus on a country’s deteriorating local job market and claim that the most pressing need is for government to protect domestic employment or a “domestic jobs frame.” In contrast, those who believe in free markets might argue that protectionist policies will lead to contracting national economies and that the solution is greater liberalization or a “free trade frame.”
This may all seem intuitive and blindingly obvious. But the ability to frame issues effectively in the public arena requires arming oneself with the best we know regarding the concepts and mechanisms at play. For decades, framing has been a matter of serious academic research in communication and the allied social sciences. Studies include detailed discussions on what really constitutes a frame as well as the (non)effects of alternative frames on audiences’ opinions, attitudes, and behaviors. Applied research has also revolved around relationships between the framing of problems/issues and, based on the frame used, whom audiences blame for the problem as well as what solutions make more sense than others. An organization based in Washington, D.C. called the Frameworks Institute has done a good job at translating academic findings into pragmatic advice relevant to real-world practice. Their website includes sections that explain the art and science of framing to non-specialist audiences as well as “how to” guides for those who would like to publicly advocate for their positions more effectively. Hopefully, those who make use of these resources will frame issues for the broader public interest, not for narrow vested interests. How’s that for contrasting frames?
Photo credit: Flickr user Hawaii Kai Ohana