Emphasis Framing and Political Decision Making
- Thomas E. NelsonThomas E. NelsonDepartment of Political Science, Ohio State University
Frames are distilled and coherent representations of complex social and political issues. A frame defines what an issue is about. Emphasis frames give special prominence to one aspect or feature of an issue. An example is the “reverse discrimination” frame for the issue of affirmative action, which emphasizes the potential costs of affirmative action to the superordinate group. Emphasis frames have attracted attention from several disciplines, including political science, sociology, psychology, journalism, and communication, with each contributing theoretical insight and empirical demonstration. Emphasis frames manifest themselves in communicated messages and in the minds of individuals. Emphasis frames often originate in political actors such as social movement organizations, interest groups, and leaders. These actors hope to effect political change by disseminating framed messages that represent the actors’ positions on the issue. News organizations transmit emphasis frames, in whole or in part, in the course of covering an issue. Organizational norms and procedures within the mass media can also shape the frames that ultimately appear to the audience.
Research has linked several political outcomes to emphasis frames, not the least of which is the influence that a communication frame has on the frame in the audience’s mind. Frames can influence the interpretations of the issue, judgments about what is most relevant to the issue, and even opinions about the issue. Framing has also been linked to changes in public policy. At the same time, there are a number of individual and contextual factors that can govern how strong a frame’s impact will be. Frames that harmonize with an individual audience member’s values or schemata might be especially effective, while individuals with strong prior opinions might be less affected by frames.
Researchers have proposed different psychological models of how emphasis frames influence audiences. Some have argued that framing overlaps considerably with other communication effects such as agenda-setting or priming. The key argument is that the frame activates specific beliefs, feelings, values, or other components of political judgment and opinion. Other models propose that framing affects the perceived importance, relevance, or applicability of activated considerations. Still other models stress the impact of frames on the attributions audiences make about who or what is responsible the origins of a social problem and its solution. A final category of models includes emotional response as a key mediator of frame effects.
Several significant challenges confront emphasis framing researchers. Scholars should seek to better integrate research at different levels of analysis of framing. They must also demonstrate framing’s relevance in the modern communication landscape, along with its distinctiveness from other familiar communication phenomena.