A decade of research in media effects would strongly suggest that the first article is unlikely to lead to policy solutions to the problems described later in the story, while the second story is far more likely to prioritize public policies and programs as germane to the problem definition. Importantly, both ways of framing the story are dramatic and newsworthy. But only one frame leads to collective action. Frames are important because research suggests people use mental shortcuts to make sense of new information and these mental shortcuts rely on small sets of internalized concepts and values that allow us to accord meaning to unfolding events. Put simply, the central organizing principle in any communication—the frame—triggers what is called “the pictures in our heads,” the models we have developed over time to make sense of our world. Once evoked, frames provide the reasoning to process information quickly and to solve problems, drawing upon our internal reservoirs of expectations about how the world works.
The relative use of episodic and thematic network frames and faces by the news media is a key factor in how public opinion is shaped. By contrast, thematic frames place public issues in a broader context by focusing on general conditions or outcomes, such as reports on poverty trends. The type of news frame used has a profound effect on the way in which individuals attribute responsibility. Because television news is heavily episodic, its effect is generally “to induce attributions of responsibility to individual victims or perpetrators rather than to broad societal forces.” And, while it is true that print media tend to be more thematic than broadcast media, the dominant frames used in many print news stories nevertheless reinforce a consumer stance on public issues such as health care, framing the issue as an individual product instead of as a societal problem.
Different Frames Set Up Different Policy Solutions
- Appeal to consumers
- Better information
- Fix the person
- Appeal to citizens
- Better policies
- Learn the condition
How common are episodic frames? In a comprehensive review of 10,000 local and national television news stories about international events and issues over six weeks in 1999, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found only 84 that took a thematic approach. Only one out of six national stories and one out of five local stories contained even one opinion on the cause or solution to the problem. In another study of how local television news stories on 15 stations over a month portrayed youth issues, the Center concluded that “thematic information about youth were quite rare, accounting for only one out every 14 stories (7 percent) overall.” Finally, a recent study of depictions of youth in local news programming in six cities found that only two in ten stories included significant thematic content. Our own research on framing effects associated with foreign policy and youth development suggests that people will be more likely to hold individuals responsible for problems and to understand and support individual solutions to these problems when exposed to the episodic frame. These findings further testify to the validity of the assertions of other researchers that the episodic coverage that dominates television news takes its toll on public understanding of policy issues. In sum, grantmakers would be wise to avoid a narrow focus on the “clipboard mentality” toward news, by which grantees are lauded for making as much news as possible without attention to the framing of that news.
Rather, the ability to move the frame from episodic toward thematic narratives about a given social problem should be a key factor in evaluating an organization’s media success. At the same time, a healthy realism about the difficulty involved in doing so should temper grantmakers’ goals. A key lesson from communications thinking is that organizations enter a public dialogue that is already in progress, in which patterns of expectation about social issues have been formed over time by news frames. Reversing that process is both necessary and lengthy. The questions that campaigns like these ask include: What attitudes prevent the individual from taking action? Would the target be better motivated by a positive or a negative appeal? Would an authority figure or a peer serve as a more convincing messenger to engage the target in the individual action? These questions, then, drive the type of research that is used to inform the campaign design. It is important to distinguish between the individual outcome and the collective action associated with social movements, in which people mobilize to change the opportunity and reward structure of a society which is seen to constrain behavior change in the first place.
Persuasion campaigns focus on the impact of a small number of factors on the target individual’s desired behavior, including such inputs as source credibility, rewards within the message, repetition, and intelligence of the receiver. These factors add up to the “input” in the model. Analyzing the “hierarchy of effects” of the persuasion process: [T]he public must be exposed to the message and, having been exposed to it, must attend to it, like it, learn what and how, agree, store and retrieve, and decide on the basis of it, down to behaving on the basis of that decision, getting reinforced for so behaving, and engaging in post compliance activity (such as proselytizing others or reorganizing one’s related beliefs) that consolidates the new position induced by the communication. Persuasion theorists focus on the responses of the target audience to messages which are largely seen as “pushed out” through media, but not interactive to the degree that cognitive theorists would suggest is the case.
From the cognitive theory literature comes the popular concept of “inoculation”—overcoming the target’s resistance to a message by anticipating and including the rebuttal in the original message. For example, a persuasion campaign oriented to improving children’s health might adopt a message like, “Oral health: it’s not just about your teeth,” building off the documented impression that one of the major personal obstacles to brushing is the erroneous belief that the health of the mouth does not influence overall health. Evaluated from a framing perspective, critics of this approach would say that reminding people of what they believe simply allows them to make the fast and frugal cognitive connection to their enduring belief system and to be done with the message. Moreover, the call to action ignores the biggest obstacle to better oral health—lack of access to dentists—and is, therefore, misplaced energy as it further reinforces personal responsibility in place of public solutions.
The application of persuasion versus agenda-setting communications strategies can be illustrated by considering whether the desired outcome is in the realm of personal or public behavior. Garbage recycling, for example, would be a prime candidate for a persuasion campaign if the goal were to use media strategically to change the garbage handling behavior of individual householders. Such a hypothetical campaign might use one’s standing in the community to induce the target to make sure their recycling bins show they are a good neighbor. By contrast, an agenda-setting campaign would try to get voters to support environmental legislation, such as tax credits for businesses that recycle. This type of campaign might calculate the potential savings to the community if its three major employers were to institute recycling campaigns and would call on voters to make recycling everybody’s business by supporting tax incentives. The difference between these two approaches would be largely determined by the type of media frames used, with the persuasion frame defining the problem as personal and the agenda-setting frame defining it as public in nature.
There is another important distinction between agenda-setting and persuasion. Persuasion tends to focus on the people who have the problem, while agenda-setting focuses on the people who have the power to change the problem through political power. Thus, persuasion campaigns are oriented almost exclusively to at-risk populations, even though “our knowledge of who is at risk for a problem is imperfect, and persons at risk usually constitute only a small proportion of the total audience in the
coverage area of most media campaigns.” In this view, the agenda-setting approach to communication strategy speaks to the empowerment of individuals over their situations whereas the persuasion approach suggests blaming the victim and ignoring the power structure of social rewards. The most sophisticated persuasion campaigns use framing research and techniques, often unconsciously, to establish individual responsibility for a problem and to underscore individual efficacy in addressing it. In this sense, persuasion tends to ignore certain types of frames—thematic or “collective action” frames—as irrelevant to the goal of motivating individual behavior. When a literacy campaign adopts a slogan along the lines of “Read to Your Children,” it implicitly chooses to ignore such critical literacy factors as the state of the public schools, the unavailability of libraries in a given community, the lack of qualified teachers or caregivers, the amount of free time available to dual-job families, and the level of literacy in the home. By presenting the challenge as a matter of choice and placing responsibility on the parent, such a persuasion campaign distracts attention from the broader social conditions that constrain choice.
SOCIAL GOOD MESSAGE
Sparrows by morning, live in peaceful nests! Design shouldn’t dominate things, shouldn’t dominate people. It should help people. Don’t spend your time solving your favorite problems, solve problems that need to be solved, generically. A home is a place where you live, and society is a place where your story begins. Honesty shares honesty, as it is honesty’s nature. Stay always in Ablution and get back to the trust you have been, with.