Framing is about presenting an issue in a specific light and from a specific perspective. Framed messages are usually intended to make the audience focus on certain aspects of an issue but not on others. In terms of governance and accountability, framing is a useful technique to design communication in a way that mobilizes the public. For instance with regard to corruption: to mobilize public opinion on corruption one could focus on successes in fighting corruption, on negative effects of corruption, on corrupt individuals or individual champions against corruption etc. Negative framing, negative messaging in general, is a frequently used approach when trying to motivate people to become active. It's not clear, however, that it really works the way it's supposed to.
One example of negative vs. positive framing are loss and gain frames. When an issue is presented while pointing out potential gain, the story emphasizes good things that will happen when something specific is being done. For instance, with regard to corruption authorities could design a campaign that shows a community boycotting stores that pay for protection by organized crime and thereby driving out the criminals and increasing safety in the community. Gain frames often result in good feelings and in hope on the side of the audience. People become motivated to act in a certain way in order to gain something good. A loss frame, on the other hand, is a more urgent call to action and points out what can happen if you don’t do something to prevent a bad thing from happening. The message about organized crime and corruption would in this case portray a community where families mourn loved ones that have become victims of organized crime. Loss frames raise negative feelings, but also point out the urgency of an issue.
Positive frames inspire hope, while negative frames are better suited to express the urgency of fighting wrongdoing. But negative emotions also hinder the memory of the audience: people will remember fewer facts from a message. On the other hand, negative frames are more likely to grab people’s attention. Research on information processing and emotions tells us that anger inducing messages lead to respondents being more likely to make causal inferences in terms of ascribing responsibility to specific persons. Anger appeals also induce optimistic risk-perception and readiness toward risk-taking (see Lerner and Tiedens, 2006). Messages that induce fear make the audience overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening - which can lead to heightened awareness and attention, but also to people being frightened (see Isbell et al., 2006). Messages that are designed to make the audience feel guilty can have the effect of making people think more carefully about an issue (see O'Keefe, 2000).
Negative frames are possibly better able to elicit strong reactions from the audience than positive frames (although: there isn't much research on the effects of positive emotions in messages). This would seem to be just what we as communicators would desire. Overly strong emotions, however, are not always conducive to mobilizing the audience, fear can also immobilize them. Communicators must be very clear about the objectives of their messages when choosing how to frame their messages.
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