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The OCR Glossary

Framing Theory

Øyvind Ihlen

Framing theory is concerned with how when people talk about issues, they highlight certain aspects of the issues and make them more salient than others, leading to a particular interpretation. Framing theory has been used in a whole range of academic disciplines. While it originated in psychology and cognitive theory in the 1970s, it was introduced in sociology by Erving Goffman and in media studies by Gaye Tuchman and Todd Gitlin. During the 1990s and 2000s, there was a dramatic growth in papers on framing, in communication studies in particular. Framing has also been discussed in management literature as well as in public relations. These two literature strands typically emphasize how managers or public relations practitioners can engage in strategic framing to lead and/or enhance reputation or forward a particular reading of an issue. This entry first reviews the literature and past studies of framing and then discusses definitions and approaches to framing theory, before focusing on the notion of framing contests.

Framing theory has been characterized as a social scientific approach to textual analysis. While a focus on discourse units might be a unifying characteristic, the vast literature that mentions framing does this in myriad ways. Framing has alternately been seen as a concept, an approach, a perspective, a media effect, an analytical technique, a paradigm, and a research program. Frames have been studied inductively and deductively, as dependent and independent variables. To increase the confusion, scholars have researched and located frames at different levels, including that of the audience, news organizations, news sources, and news texts, as well as culture.

Some lament that framing research is a fractured and weak paradigm due to the diverse uses of the concept. It is argued that there is little cumulative learning that takes place and that theory building has suffered. The accusation is that analyses frequently are ad hoc based and that frame definitions are only valid for single studies. Others, however, have argued the case for a multiparadigmatic or pluralistic approach to framing. Subscribing to the latter perspective, scholars celebrate the diversity within framing research and argue that it has led to a comprehensive view, encompassing cognitive, constructionist, and critical outlooks.

Definitions and Approaches

While a clear-cut definition of the concept of framing remains a topic of discussion in the literature, scholars have drawn on the metaphor of a cropping frame around a picture: The border highlights and holds together certain aspects of reality. The frame also marks off competing, distracting, or contradictory elements. Scholars use the metaphor to talk about how “a frame” organizes and renders meaning to information and how this process can be called “framing.” Beyond this agreement, however, there is, as already mentioned, an array of different definitions and uses.

Frames often draw their power from how they are embedded in social culture. Using a so-called cultural approach, it can be said that frames make up a cultural stock of ways of thinking about issues. By appealing to a shared repertoire of cultural frames, the interpretations can seem so natural that the framing process goes unnoticed and thus unquestioned. In general, frames are particularly powerful when they become “naturalized” this way. Thus, frames are important for the analysis of power and the treatment of political issues. Successful frames can work on a subconscious level, in which the frame is felt as a given entity: An issue cannot be understood in any other way. Social and political actors attempt to influence public opinion through particular frames. For instance, illegal immigrants can be framed as a threat to social stability or as victims who have escaped hardship in their home countries. The former frame calls for expulsion, whereas the latter frame sees the issue as a humanitarian one implying that these people should be helped.

Some scholars have drawn on psychology when discussing framing. Working from psychological theory, they talk about how frames present cues that activate certain schemata in the brain. By offering contextual cues for processing information, frames bias cognitive processing and decision making. Through these cues, messages activate particular schemas, a process termed “priming.” This can prompt people to think in certain ways about a topic and to use only a portion of their knowledge when evaluating it.

The structuring element is repeated in many definitions. Frames have been defined as “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world” (Reese, 2001, p. 11). This means that a frame simplifies and condenses issues and functions as an organizing idea of a story line. Following this definition, it is crucial that frames not only exist in the mind of a particular individual but also are constructed in social settings.

The construction of frames, the framing, is given a lot of attention in the literature. The most cited definition in this regard belongs to Robert M. Entman, who argued that framing occurs when actors select “some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, 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, p. 52). Here, framing theory is largely focused on a different approach to issues or contested matters. Analyses have, for instance, posited the existence of frames for issues like nuclear power or abortion. The frames on these issues, however, have little relevance to other topics and hence they are called issue-specific frames.

Another approach to frames is looking for the existence of generic frames that can be employed across a large range of issues. Media scholars, for instance, have called attention to how journalists largely draw on a limited set of frames: the conflict frame, the human-interest frame, the economic consequences frame, the morality frame, and the responsibility frame. The journalist seeks to capture the audience’s attention by emphasizing a conflict between individuals, groups, organizations, or institutions; by presenting a human face or emotional cues; by pointing to economic loss or benefits for particular individuals, groups, or organizations; by invoking moral questions or values; or by attributing the responsibility for a problem or solution to someone.

Other studies have similarly pointed to “standard” ways of covering political issues and campaigns, namely, by the use of a horse race frame. In such a frame, the focus is on strategy, and the actors are judged by their performance and style. The media largely focus on winners and losers and employ metaphors from war, games, and competition. Journalists, for instance, report on who is ahead and who is lagging behind. The problem with such reporting is that it can potentially feed cynicism and not contribute to democracy since they provide little or no information on the issues themselves, the policy platforms, or the background of the candidates or the issues. This type of framing is also found in what has been called episodic framing, which has the same problem. Episodic frames lack the necessary context that thematic frames provide, which has the potential to increase the audience’s understanding.

Framing theory has been used in both quantitative and qualitative studies. The former will typically approach a discourse unit with a set of elements that are said to belong to a certain frame, and then code the text corpus and run different statistical tests quantifying the use of a particular frame. Such studies might also seek to measure the reputation effect that occurs when manipulating, for instance, message sources, information type, or reference points for performance. That is, much research will be directed to detecting the effects that framing has on the audience. Research has, for instance, concluded that negative framing of programs for corporate social responsibility typically hurts the reputation of a corporation.

Qualitative studies, on the other hand, are typically interpretive and research how frames are built across series of texts. Whereas quantitative studies would rely on intercoder tests to check for reliability, the qualitative approach follows the humanistic route of cross-checking, while also providing open interpretations, reasons, and examples.

Framing Contests

In the field of public relations, there have also been a growing number of framing studies, as strategic communicators strive to have their organizations’ frames prevail. Public relations practitioners can be said to engage in framing contests, which are also relevant for reputation.

In the literature, there is a small sociological tradition for studying frame sponsorship tied to analysis of media coverage of political issues. Successful frame sponsors will have the necessary knowledge and skill, for instance, knowing what constitutes a strong frame. A strong frame has certain potency as it strikes the audience as more compelling than alternative arguments. A frame can have more or less cultural resonance by drawing on emotions and deeply felt values. Strong frames evoke widely accepted beliefs, codes, myths, stereotypes, values, or norms that are considered relevant by the audience. Thus, the audience may be more willing to accept them as logical interpretations of an issue. Some of the psychologically oriented research concludes that frames that rely on affective cues are more effective than the ones relying on cognitive cues.

The types of frames held to be strong (effective) often concur with generic news values. Information packaged in a culturally resonant way, playing with well-known emotional and moral cues, will stand a better chance of crossing the news threshold and influencing public opinion and central societal actors, given sufficient magnitude. Savvy frame sponsors possess knowledge and skills concerning what the media are interested in, and they seek to conform to journalistic needs if this can gain favorable media interest. The news tends to be popularized and to rely on what is emotional and personal. Accounts are visually striking and tend to have a clear-cut conventional moral, presenting stereotypes such as victims, heroes, and villains. Savvy frame sponsors can identify and exploit generic news frames when they create case-specific frames. Public relations practitioners will attempt to connect their clients’ readings of issues to wider cultural phenomena and, thus, be able to extend the appeal of a particular frame beyond a single story. The more news values one can connect to an interpretation of an issue, the greater the chance that it will be published. To be conscious of framing strategies (thus exhibiting framing expertise) is not manipulative in itself but is rather an inevitable way for human actors to make sense of their experiences and engage in social interactions.

Recent research has investigated how the framing contests are played out between actors in different organizational settings, for instance, activists and journalists versus the bureaucracy that attempts to defend its reputation. These different organizational actors are offered different opportunities and challenges in the framing contest. To protect the bureaucratic reputation for professionalism and detachment, it is necessary to find a media strategy that balances efficient communication with bureaucratic regulations and values. Activists, on the other hand, have the opportunity to exploit the media conventions and pitch striking and emotional individual stories.

D’Angelo, P., & Kuypers, J. A. (Eds.). (2009). Doing news framing analysis: Empirical and theoretical perspectives. New York: Routledge.

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

Fairhurst, G. T. (2011). The power of framing: Creating the language of leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching: Mass media in the making and unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goffman, E. (1974/1986). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Ihlen, Ø., & Thorbjørnsrud, K. (2014). Tears and framing contests: Public organizations countering critical and emotional stories. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 8(1), 45–60. doi:

Reese, S. D. (2001). Prologue—framing public life: A bridging model for media research. In S. D. Reese, O. H. Gandy, & A. E. Grant (Eds.), Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world (pp. 7–31). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Reese, S. D., Gandy, O. H., & Grant, A. E. (Eds.). (2001). Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tuchman, G. (1978/1980). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.

See Also

Anticipatory Impression Management; Impression Management Theory; Media Effects Theory; Rhetorical Theory

See Also

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