Framing 101


Much of our work at BMSG centers around a concept known as framing. When we conduct research or provide trainings, we do so with the understanding that there are no blank slates. All people come to new information they see or hear with ideas already in their heads about the way the world works. Those existing notions form the mental structures, or conceptual frames, that allow us to integrate new information into our brains into a coherent way. Without even knowing it, we use frames to categorize information, identify patterns and derive meaning from them.

Frames matter because they can foster certain understandings and hinder others. Often, all it takes is a single word or image to activate an entire frame that then determines the deeper meaning of that word or image. Once activated, frames trigger emotions, associations, values, judgments, and causal explanations. They create tracks for a train of thought. And once on that track, it’s hard to get off.

News frames

Frames don’t just exist in our minds. They also exist in our language in the way we talk and write about the world around us. In news coverage, the frame is the way an issue is defined, packaged, and presented in the story. When covering stories, journalists select certain arguments, examples, images, messages, and sources to create a picture of the issue. This selection -- or omission -- of arguments and voices functions similar to a frame around a photograph, telling us what information is important and what information we can ignore. One way to distinguish types of news frames is to think of the difference between a portrait and a landscape. In a news story framed as a portrait, audiences learn a great deal about an individual person or event. A landscape story, on the other hand, takes a broader view to include the context or environment surrounding them. News stories tend to be framed as portraits, reinforcing a strong American cultural tendency to focus on the role individual behavior plays in most situations. This can work against public health goals, which require pulling back the lens and looking at the context of a given problem, including its root causes, to find its solution.

Implications for advocates

Because much of what we know about the world -- beyond what we see or hear firsthand -- is crafted in newsrooms, it is especially important for advocates to understand how journalists frame public health issues. Understanding how an issue is framed can help advocates anticipate what people think about the issue and what they’ll need to do to help people see the issue differently. This is especially important when policies are being considered. Advocates should also be aware that people can hold multiple, even contradictory, frames in their heads at the same time. The one that gets triggered and repeated more often has a better chance of influencing people’s interpretation of the text.

Frames, values and strategy

Effectively framing and communicating a message is a delicate balancing act. While there is no exact formula and the details will differ depending on the situation, in general, the message must be rooted in policy goals aimed at structural, environmental changes. But communicating those goals using only landscapes and detailed policy language is almost sure to lose audiences. To connect with their audiences, advocates need to establish their shared values (e.g. community, justice) and link those values back to the issue at hand and the policy changes needed. The story should be framed as a landscape to highlight the systemic or structural nature of the issue but peppered with individual quotes and anecdotes to help readers connect to the story.

Putting framing to work

Advocates can use what they know about existing health arguments to frame -- or reframe -- them. At BMSG, that's exactly what we help them do. For example, BMSG provides Healthy Eating Active Communities, an Initiative of The California Endowment, support for framing food and activity issues from a public health perspective. BMSG has also recently helped the California WIC Association and UC Davis Human Lactation Center analyze the frames present in its reports on hospital breastfeeding rates and the way those reports have been characterized in the news. We helped them find out to what extent their messages were supporting or working against their broader goal of creating an infrastructure that makes it easier for women to breastfeed.

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