by Matthew Nisbet
WHAT IS FRAMING?
In this section, I briefly review the research on framing as it applies to understanding the media and its influence on audiences, policymakers, and other societal actors. At the end of this section, I provide a list of recommended sources. In a separate section, I review a generalizable set of frames that appear across science-related policy debates. (For more on both, see Nisbet & Schefuele, 2007)
Packaging reality. The concept of framing turns on what observers have understood for centuries: When it comes to storytelling, communicators can select from a plurality of interpretations, with these preferred meanings filtered by the predispositions of the audience, shaping their judgments and decisions. The earliest formal work on framing traces back four decades to the anthropologist Erving Goffman. In his ethnographic research examining how individuals make sense of their environment and interpersonal interactions, he described frames as "schemata of interpretation" that allow individuals to "locate, perceive, identify, and label" issues, events, and topics. Words, according to Goffman, are like triggers that help individuals negotiate meaning through the lens of existing cultural beliefs and worldviews.
In the 1970s and 1980s, cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky applied framing in experimental designs to understand risk judgments and consumer choices. The two psychologists discovered that the different ways in which a message is presented or "framed"--apart from the content itself--can result in very different responses, depending on the terminology used to describe the problem or the visual context provided in the message. They concluded in their Nobel Prize-winning research that "perception is reference dependent."
More recently, the linguist George Lakoff has popularized research related to framing by drawing attention to the failures of progressives to effectively communicate their preferred policies, arguing that metaphors related to the family and morality, when activated by language, structure citizens' interpretations of politics.
Framing has also become the topic du jour of political strategists and pundits, serving as a buzzword to describe what is sometimes referred to as either effective communication or what critics decry as "false spin." GOP pollster Frank Luntz is widely credited with figuring out much of the language that has been effective at promoting the preferred policies of conservatives. For example, in a strategy memo on how to downplay the urgency of climate change, Luntz recommended emphasizing repeatedly that the "scientific debate remains open" and that any U.S. policy action would lead to "unfair" economic consequences since countries such as India and China were not also adopting such actions. (The subtitle of Luntz's recent best-selling book, Words that Work, echoes the conclusions of Nobel Prize winners Kahneman and Tversky: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear.")
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Popular Science vs. Framing
by Matthew Nisbet
"For the most part, we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see....There is economy in this. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question."
--Journalist/philosopher Walter Lippmann, 1922
When it comes to effective public communication in policy debates, nothing fundamentally separates science from other political issues. For example, in the controversies over stem cell research, global warming, and intelligent design, advocates “frame” messages in ways that resonate with public values and popular culture. These tactics play on the perceptual biases of the public, making it easy for citizens to reach decisions and articulate opinions with little or no technical understanding of the underlying issue.
Despite the widespread use of framing tactics, an idealized view of the public still predominates. The assumption is that the best way to communicate with citizens is through science-laden messages: if the public knew more about the technical complexities involved, citizens would be more likely to view issues as scientists do, and controversies would go away.
However, this idealized “popular science” model runs up against the reality of how citizens actually use the news media to reach judgments about public affairs. More than sixty years of research in political science, sociology, and communication shows that citizens are rarely well enough informed, or even motivated, to weigh competing ideas and arguments. Instead, most citizens are “cognitive misers.”
Faced with a daily torrent of news, it is quite reasonable for citizens to employ a form of “low information rationality,” actively using short-cuts such as partisanship and religious identity to make up their minds about otherwise complex debates.
In this respect, science-related issues are no different than any other public affairs topic. Across survey analyses, knowledge only explains a small amount of the variance in public attitudes about controversial science, while value predispositions such as partisanship, religious beliefs, and ideology are stronger influences on opinion.
Whether it is the war in Iraq or the battle over stem cell research, citizens are likely to use their value predispositions as “perceptual screens,” cutting down on their choices about which news stories to pay attention to and which arguments to accept as valid.
Strong “preference gaps” also exist, as citizens not only select among media choices based on ideology or religious views, but also based on their preference, or lack thereof, for science-related content. As a result, in a modern media system suffused with information sources of varying degrees of credibility and value, traditional science coverage only reaches a relatively small audience of science enthusiasts.
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A great resource for keeping up on science/technology issues/policies: