Why Framing Matters: A Review of the Basics

By Evans, Tracy Wareing | Policy & Practice, October 2016 | Go to article overview

Why Framing Matters: A Review of the Basics


Evans, Tracy Wareing, Policy & Practice


Framing is a key element of our theory of change, and we believe it is a critical shared strategy for anyone interested in moving system transformation in health and human services. Over the past couple of years--drawing on the expertise of framing scientists at Frameworks Institute and the mutual commitment of partners like the National Human Services Assembly--we have deepened our understanding of why framing matters. We are learning how to develop a new narrative that more effectively tells the core story of our business--what human services is, why we have it (what is it good for), what can impede its outcomes, and what will improve it. Through this column, and our more frequent Blog posts, we will continue to share this understanding and knowledge with you, starting in this issue with a review of the basics.

What is Framing?

Frames are organizing principles that are social, shared, and persistent over time. We use them to provide meaningful structure to the world around us. We selectively respond to things we hear (e.g., news story, commercials, a candidate's speech) by cueing up the networks of associations we have stored to help us make meaning of our world. Information "feels" more true the second time we hear it, and more and more true each subsequent time. Our mind has a whole set of preexisting patterns and we are constantly mapping new information in a way that appears to "fit" that existing mindset.

The science of framing helps us understand the dominant frames Americans use to reason about issues we care about, and then identify what frame elements might allow us to shift old beliefs and provide "thinking tools"--i.e., ways people can think more productively about issues, particularly those that involve understanding systems and structures.

What are Shared American Values?

Americans have many dominant frames when it comes to human services, poverty, government, charity--dominant frames that can overwhelm and defeat our intended messages. When we talk about our business or tell individual stories of families served through human services, we tend to reinforce these unproductive dominant frames. When we talk about human services, we want to "land in" the shared values that may not be as dominant but are more relevant to seeing the full picture. We want to "pull" those beliefs forward, letting the others recede.

To create a well-designed frame we need to start by setting up what is at stake and why it matters. We need to help our audience see themselves in the issue by connecting them to a shared value. …

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