September 23, 2015

Reframe Issues

framing

Engagement Object: Framing Science to Resonate with People’s World Views

Overview:

Good: Communicators should try to be cognizant of how they are framing an issue.

Better: Communicators should try to understand how their framing resonates with the people with whom they are communicating, including through qualitative (e.g. focus group, case studies) evaluation.

Best: Communicators should test the impact of specific framing choices in systematic, social scientific experimentation in controlled or field contexts.

Always: Communication should always be open and transparent about the framing
choices they make (e.g., be prepared to explain why you talk about your subject
in the way you do versus some other alternative).

Description of the object: When people communicate about any subject, they automatically invite the people with whom they are communicating to think about that subject in specific ways. This process is called framing. For example, if we describe how one polar bear is experiencing climate change, we invite our audience to think about that issue at the individual “episodic” level. On the other hand, if we talk about the same problem in terms of statistics for all polar bears we encourage those with whom we communicate to think at a broader, more thematic level. Further, these two different frames could have different impacts on views about whether something should be done or who should do it (Hart, 2011).

Many communicators—including scientists and journalists—often do not intend to suggest the interpretations their messages suggest. It is impossible to communicate without some sort of frame (i.e. context) so the real question is: Do we allow ourselves to frame things naively or should we consciously suggest how we want our audiences to think about our content? Strategic framing is about setting a object for how we want people to interpret what we say and finding a way to frame our subject to maximize the likelihood of having the desired impact. Taking charge of framing also lets communicators be open and transparent about the framing choices they make.

What this object affects

  The ubiquitous nature of framing means framing has a wide range of potential effects on attitudes and behavior.

The available research suggests that suggesting a different frame of reference can have an impact on, for example, who people will blame for a problem and the solutions that people will call to mind. This shift in perception and impact is at the core of one of the best known definitions of framing. In this regard,  framing can be understood as selecting “some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient … in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (Entman, 1993). Other scholars have noted that while salience (i.e., what’s top of mind) is important, framing is mostly about making associations between subjects (i.e., suggesting context).

In some cases, framing efforts can involve communicating the exact same information in two different ways such as in the “half-full” versus “half empty” idiom. Within the social and behavioral sciences, this idea is captured by the famous “Asian disease” experiment—within which participants are asked to choose between mathematically identical options wherein a certain number will die or be saved—and its brethren that clearly shows that people will choose different solutions depending on how a problem is structured (Kahneman, 2011).

In most cases, however, the framing involves inviting others to think about some issue in one of several potential ways. One of the best catalogued examples of this is showed in how the news media has, at different times, varied the frames they use to talk about nuclear energy. In some cases, news stories tacitly invited audience members to think of nuclear energy as an issue of scientific progress or economic development. In other cases, however, stories framed the nuclear issue as a question of whether or not the technology was likely to “runaway” or focused on issues of regulatory oversight (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989). Similar framing categories have also been applied to analyzing media discussions about subjects such as agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology. In the science policy  realm, a common question is the degree to which journalists frame debates or elections as a “horse-race” between multiple sides versus a debate over important ideas, a question that also sometimes affects coverage of scientific issues (Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, 2003).

Example evidence that framing science matters

A number of recent projects have attempted to highlight how different frames can affect how people perceive scientific issues. The below articles are some of the most cited.

One straight-forward projects questions whether the term “global warming” vs. “climate change” affects how people think about the subject and suggests conservatives may be less likely to reject the phenomenon when it is described as climate change (Schuldt, Konrath, & Schwarz, 2011).

Another project asked respondents to evaluate an emerging technology (GMOs or nanotechnology) and found that framing issues in specific ways (e.g. GMOs in terms of world hunger) can increase shape support but that adding additional facts make little difference and that positive facts have little impact in the presence of a negative frame (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011). These same researchers have also shown that highlighting the political aspects of issues can lead people to hold on to their existing opinions, negating the impact of evidence (Bolsen, Druckman, & Cook, 2014).

A well-cited experiment embedded with a wide-scale survey suggests that framing climate change as a public health issue – rather than as a national security issue –  was the most effective at getting a broad range of audiences to have more positive views about climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012).

What it means to science communicators

Good: Communicators should try to be cognizant of how they are framing an issue.

Better: Communicators should try to understand how their framing resonates with the people with whom they are communicating, including through qualitative (e.g. focus group, case studies) evaluation.

Best: Communicators should test the impact of specific framing choices in systematic, social scientific experimentation in controlled or field contexts.

Always: Communication should always be open and transparent about the framing
choices they make (e.g., be prepared to explain why you talk about your subject
in the way you do versus some other alternative).

Key online resources

Frameworks Institute’s e-workshop on frame analysis and use: http://sfa.frameworksinstitute.org/

http://talkingclimate.org/guides/values-frames/ (Note: Frameworks focuses on advocacy but underlying principles are outlined)

Talking Climate’s discussion on frames and values: http://talkingclimate.org/guides/values-frames/

References

Bolsen, T., Druckman, J. N., & Cook, F. L. (2014). How frames can undermine support for scientific adaptations: Politicization and the status-quo bias. Public Opinion Quarterly, 78(1), 1-26.

Druckman, J. N., & Bolsen, T. (2011). Framing, motivated reasoning, and opinions about emergent technologies. Journal of Communication, 61(4), 659-688. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2011.01562.x

Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.

Gamson, W. A., & Modigliani, A. (1989). Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95(1), 1-37.

Hart, P. S. (2011). One or many? The influence of episodic and thematic climate change frames on policy preferences and individual behavior change. Science Communication, 33(1), 28-51. doi: 10.1177/1075547010366400

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Myers, T. A., Nisbet, M. C., Maibach, E. W., & Leiserowitz, A. A. (2012). A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change. Climatic Change, 113(3-4), 1105-1112. doi: 10.1007/s10584-012-0513-6

Nisbet, M. C., Brossard, D., & Kroepsch, A. (2003). Framing science: The stem cell controversy in an age of press/politics. Harvard International Journal of Press-Politics, 8(2), 36-70. doi: 10.1177/1081180X0225104

Schuldt, J. P., Konrath, S. H., & Schwarz, N. (2011). “Global warming” or “climate change”?: Whether the planet is warming depends on question wording. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(1), 115-124. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfq073

One thought on “Reframe Issues

  • This is process, not objective. Scientists convey understanding by putting facts in a framework, although the public thinks of science communication as primarily conveying facts. Reframing a problem is how science advances. Most people resist this because of the inertia in reexamining principles and changing a thought process. It is also often misunderstood as an arbitrary act either in defiance of convention or a declaration that past belief is wrong, instead of what it is, a fundamental step forward in explaining reality.

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