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A Revisionist Perspective on Framing Effects  

Jiawei Liu and Dietram A. Scheufele

There is a dichotomy in framing research that can be traced back to its multidisciplinary origins in psychology and sociology. Definitions of framing rooted in psychology are concerned with the differential presentation of the otherwise identical information and are often referred to as equivalence framing. Definitions rooted in more sociological traditions investigate how a message can be constructed with different sets of information to highlight contrasting perspectives on the same issue. The latter is typically referred to as emphasis framing. Although often subsumed under the same label, equivalence framing and emphasis framing are systematically different, both conceptually and operationally. Therefore, the two traditions need to be carefully distinguished in terms of their origins, conceptualization and operationalization of frames, underlying mechanisms, cognitive outcomes, and their relationships with other media effects theories. Categorizing existing studies revealed two major pitfalls in framing effects literatures. First, many political communication studies to date have adopted the emphasis framing approach. However, as substantial manipulation of information introduces confounding variables making it difficult for researchers to attribute the effect on the audience to the change of frames, this approach has relatively low internal validity in experiments and can hardly be distinguished from other cognitive media effects models, such as agenda setting and priming. Thus, the bias toward emphasis framing needs to be addressed by conducting research with equivalence frames so that a more concrete causal relationship between message framing and its effects can be established. In addition, little attention has been given to visuals in framing effects research so far. Considering that people consume information in a multimedia environment online, visual frames and verbal-visual interactions need to be further investigated.


Framing and Political Decision Making: An Overview  

Zoe Oxley

Political communicators have long used framing as a tactic to try to influence the opinions and political decisions of others. Frames capture an essence of a political issue or controversy, typically the essence that best furthers a communicator’s political goals. Framing has also received much attention by scholars; indeed, the framing literature is vast. In the domain of political decision making, one useful distinction is between two types of frames: emphasis frames and equivalence frames. Emphasis frames present an issue by highlighting certain relevant features of the issue while ignoring others. Equivalence frames present an issue or choice in different yet logically equivalent ways. Characterizing the issue of social welfare as a drain on the government budget versus a helping hand for poor people is emphasis framing. Describing the labor force as 95% employed versus 5% unemployed is equivalency framing. These frames differ not only by their content but also by the effects on opinions and judgements that result from frame exposure as well as the psychological processes that account for the effects. For neither emphasis nor equivalence frames, however, are framing effects inevitable. Features of the environment, such as the presence of competing frames, or individual characteristics, such as political predispositions, condition whether exposure to a specific frame will influence the decisions and opinions of the public.


Emphasis Framing and Political Decision Making  

Thomas E. Nelson

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.