The Power of Framing: Pitching Science in a Mass Media Age

By McCune, Cynthia A. | Science & Spirit, July-August 2007 | Go to article overview

The Power of Framing: Pitching Science in a Mass Media Age


McCune, Cynthia A., Science & Spirit


To understand "framing"--a powerful new advocacy tool--consider how an out-of-favor former vice president brought global warming to the forefront of public debate. Framing--the use of familiar words, symbols, and images to trigger the desired interpretation of an issue or idea--was key to Al Gore's success.

Americans had been hearing about global warming for years, but the message did not stick. After all, who wants to listen to a bunch of climate scientists talk doom and gloom when other prominent voices (including the president) are saying that nothing has been proven and no real scientific consensus exists on the problem or how to deal with it? In addition, skeptics were aplenty: Fixing the problem would be expensive, disruptive, and almost impossible, and it would ruin the economy.

In the face of all the negative "frames," implying global warming was not real or not a big deal, the public tuned out. But since then, other frames have come to the rescue.

As a general rule, the factions that use frames best usually win the debate. Once people's perceptions are established, it is very difficult to get them to change their minds. But Al Gore managed to do just this by reframing the issue through An Inconvenient Truth--his book, slide show, and documentary.

Consider the title, An Inconvenient Truth, as a frame for getting people to reconsider an issue. It suggests that although truth may be inconvenient, and it may not be what you want to hear, it is the truth and you should listen.

Many did. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that a majority of those surveyed--ninety percent of Democrats, eighty percent of independents, and sixty percent of Republicans--now favor "immediate action" on global warming.

Part of the reason for this change is that Al Gore and the 2,000 climate scientists cited in the latest U.N. Climate Change report are no longer the only ones sounding alarms about global warming. In the past few months, new voices have joined the chorus of concern about climate change. In April, for example, a group of retired U.S. generals and admirals warned that global warming "presents significant national security challenges to the United States," adding a compelling new frame to this debate.

Then there is the emerging religious frame, which harkens back to Gore's framing of global warming as "a moral imperative."

"Environmental degradation must become a major focus of the church's mission in the world ... God's earth itself is in jeopardy," said David A. Thomas, a professor emeritus at the University of Richmond, in the December 2006 issue of Christian Ethics Today. He also described An Inconvenient Truth as "a secular sermon about saving the environment." In May, religious leaders representing more than twenty Christian, Jewish, and Muslim denominations sent an open letter to President George W. Bush and Congress urging action on global warming. They declared climate change a "moral and spiritual issue" and warned, "We are mobilizing a religious force that will persuade our legislators to take immediate action to curb greenhouse gases."

This illustrates another powerful function of framing. Not only can it add relevance to an issue by linking it to people's lives and values, framing can also attract and motivate potential allies. Both of these elements are crucial to advancing a cause or winning a public debate.

Framing used to be considered the province of academics, primarily researchers in mass communications and the social sciences. It was originally seen as something journalists did and academics studied. Then some smart folks in public relations and politics realized that framing wasn't rocket science, and it moved into the public sphere. Now framing is recognized as something we all do.

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That is why the recent debate over whether scientists should get involved in publicly framing issues of science (a debate stirred by Matthew C. …

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