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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.


Framing Methodology: A Critical Review  

Dustin Carnahan, Qi Hao, and Xiaodi Yan

Since its emergence, framing has established itself as one of the most prominent areas of study within the political communication literature. Simply defined, frames are acts of communication that present a certain interpretation of the world that can change the ways in which people understand, define and evaluate issues and events. But while scholarly understanding of framing as a concept has been refined as a consequence of many years of constructive debate, framing methodology has evolved little since the introduction of the concept several decades ago. As a consequence, the methods employed to study and understand framing effects have not kept up with more modern conceptualizations of framing and have struggled to meaningfully contribute to framing theory on the whole. Specifically, analyses of the framing literature over the past two decades suggest framing studies often fall short in properly distinguishing framing effects from broader persuasion and information effects and the current state of the literature—characterized by inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies across individual works—has made generalization difficult, hampering further theoretical development. In light of these concerns, framing scholars must utilize research approaches that allow for a more precise understanding of the mechanisms by which framing effects occur and identify strategies by which broader insights may be gleaned from both current and future work on the subject in order to enrich framing theory moving forward.


Competitive Framing in Political Decision Making  

Dennis Chong

Framing effects are produced by political communications that emphasize certain characteristics or consequences of an issue or policy to the exclusion of other features. By increasing the accessibility of those characteristics in people’s judgments, individuals can be swayed between supporting and opposing a policy depending on the valence of the highlighted feature. The preference inconsistencies that define framing effects were generated initially in environments in which individuals responded to a singular framing of an issue (i.e., a one-sided frame) at the expense of alternative conceptualizations of the problem. An important question is whether framing effects can be diminished by the competition among ideas that is characteristic of democratic politics. The analysis of competitive framing has focused on the interaction between individual predispositions and processing styles and the combination of messages that individuals receive. The effectiveness of any particular communication strategy will depend on the characteristics of the target audience (specifically its values, knowledge, and processing style), the availability and applicability of the frames employed (i.e., whether they are strong or weak), and the degree to which there is competition and debate over the issues. Research has been based on increasingly realistic experimental designs that attempt to reproduce how people encounter and process communications about politics in natural environments. The competitive context affects how much information people receive as well as how they process that information. In noncompetitive political environments, individuals, especially those who are unmotivated, tend to apply whatever considerations are made accessible by the one-sided messages they receive. In contrast, competing frames tend to stimulate individuals to deliberate on the merits of alternative interpretations. The key difference between competitive framing in a single period versus over time is that when people receive competing messages about political issues over the course of a campaign or debate, their attitudes are affected not only by the content of the messages but also the sequence and timing of communications. The same set of messages will have a different impact depending on the order and combinations in which those messages were received. The most significant implication of these dynamics is that democratic competition—even when the opposing frames are balanced and of equal strength—may reduce or eliminate framing effects only when people receive the opposing frames simultaneously. The magnitude of framing effects at different junctures of a campaign depends on the extent of exposure to frames and the degree to which citizens learn and retain information derived from those frames. Individuals who more efficiently process and store information—the online processors and those with a strong need to evaluate—are less likely to be moved by the latest frame because they are stabilized by the attitudes they have developed in prior phases of the campaign. There are promising hints in over-time studies that longer-term exposure to debate (beyond the short-term campaigns simulated in experiments) could gradually familiarize motivated individuals with both sides of the issue and diminish the subsequent influence of one-sided frames.


Risk Assessment: Prospect Theory and Civil–Military Affairs  

Gregory Winger

Prospect theory is a behavioral theory that holds that human attitudes toward risk are not fixed but can shift dramatically based on how a decision is framed. Instead of assessing different options in the abstract, individuals form a point of reference and weigh decisions based on how the outcomes may impact that point. When a proposition is framed as a potential gain, individuals exhibit risk-averse behavior and prefer certain gains over potentially more lucrative gambles. Conversely, when an identical question is posited as a loss, people become risk acceptant and are willing to gamble on potentially significant losses rather than accept even modest setbacks. Since first gaining prominence through the works of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, prospect theory has provided a valuable analytical tool for analyzing political decision making. Within international relations, the theory has been leveraged to gauge individual leaders’ attitudes toward risk when making decisions under uncertain conditions. This approach has yielded keen insights into a diverse range of episodes and issues including economic reforms, crisis management, and casualty sensitivity. Prospect theory also holds significant potential within the field of civil-military affairs. Although political leaders and military commanders ostensibly serve national interests, each possesses distinct interests and responsibilities. This means that even when facing a similar situation, civilian and military leaders may assess the situation from contrasting frames of reference and consequently possess conflicting attitudes toward risk. Such situations will lead to competing policy prescriptions and engender civil-military conflict. Incorporating prospect theory into our analysis of civil-military affairs provides a valuable tool for identifying policy preferences within individual actors and explaining how different frames of reference and risk propensities can shape civil-military disputes.


Threat Framing  

Johan Eriksson

What is “threat framing”? It concerns how something or someone is perceived, labeled, and communicated as a threat to something or someone. The designation “threat,” notably, belongs to the wider family of negative concerns such as danger, risk, or hazard. Research on threat framing is not anchored in a single or specific field but rather is scattered across three separate and largely disconnected bodies of literature: framing theory, security studies, and crisis studies. It is noteworthy that whereas these literatures have contributed observations on how and under what consequences something is framed as a threat, none of them have sufficiently problematized the concept of threat. Crisis analysis considers the existence or perception of threat essential for a crisis to emerge, along with a perception of urgency and uncertainty, yet crisis studies focus on the meaning of “crisis” without problematizing the concept of threat. Likewise, security studies have spent a lot of ink defining “security,” typically understood as the “absence of threat,” but leave the notion of “threat” undefined. Further, framing theory is concerned with “problem definition” as a main or first function of framing but generally pays little or no attention to the meaning of “threat.” Moreover, cutting across these bodies of literature is the distinction between constructivist and rationalist approaches, both of which have contributed to the understanding of threat framing. Constructivist analyses have emphasized how threat framing can be embedded in a process of socialization and acculturation, making some frames appear normal and others highly contested. Rationalist approaches, on the other hand, have shown how threat framing can be a conscious strategic choice, intended to accomplish certain political effects such as the legitimization of extraordinary means, allocation of resources, or putting issues high on the political agenda. Although there are only a handful of studies explicitly combining insights across these fields, they have made some noteworthy observations. These studies have shown for example how different types of framing may fuel amity or enmity, cooperation, or conflict. These studies have also found that antagonistic threat frames are more likely to result in a securitizing or militarizing logic than do structural threat frames. Institutionalized threat frames are more likely to gain and maintain saliency, particularly if they are associated with policy monopolies. In the post-truth era, however, the link between evidence and saliency of frames is weakened, leaving room for a much more unpredictable politics of framing.


The Media and Political Behavior  

Hajo G. Boomgaarden and Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck

Media are key for the functioning of democracy. It is the essential link between politics and citizens, providing critical information and interpretation of politics and room for debate. Given this central role of the media for democratic political processes, questions about how mediated political information would affect citizens’ perceptions of and attitudes toward politics, as well as ultimately political behavior, have been dominant in research in the field of political communication. While vast amounts of mid-range theories and empirical insights speak in favor of influences of media on citizens, there is little in terms of a universal theoretical framework guiding political media effects research, which makes it difficult to give a conclusive answer to the question: how and, in particular, how much do the media matter? It may matter for some people under some conditions in some contexts relating to some outcome variables. Technological changes in media systems pose additional challenges, both conceptually and methodologically, to come to comprehensive assessments of media influences on citizens’ political cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors. Research needs to be clearer as to which conceptualization of media is followed and how such conceptualization may interact with other dimensions of media attributes. Measurement of media use and reception needs to take into account the increasing complexities of how citizens encounter political information, and it requires alignment with the conceptualization of media. Political media effect theories should not continue developing side by side, but should attempt to find a place in a more comprehensive model and take into account how they relate to and possibly interact with other approaches. In sum, the field of political media effects, while vast and covering a range of aspects, would do well to consider its role and purpose in increasingly complex media environments and, accordingly, provide more integrative perspectives, conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically.


Media-Effects Experiments in Political Decision Making  

Bryan Gervais

Recognizing its causal power, contemporary scholars of media effects commonly leverage experimental methodology. For most of the 20th century, however, political scientists and communication scholars relied on observational data, particularly after the development of scientific survey methodology around the mid-point of the century. As the millennium approached, Iyengar and Kinder’s seminal News That Matters experiments ushered in an era of renewed interest in experimental methods. Political communication scholars have been particularly reliant on experiments, due to their advantages over observational studies in identifying media effects. Although what is meant by “media effects” has not always been clear or undisputed, scholars generally agree that the news media influences mass opinion and behavior through its agenda-setting, framing, and priming powers. Scholars have adopted techniques and practices for gauging the particular effects these powers have, including measuring the mediating role of affect (or emotion). Although experiments provide researchers with causal leverage, political communication scholars must consider challenges endemic to media-effects studies, including problems related to selective exposure. Various efforts to determine if selective exposure occurs and if it has consequences have come to different conclusions. The origin of conflicting conclusions can be traced back to the different methodological choices scholars have made. Achieving experimental realism has been a particularly difficult challenge for selective exposure experiments. Nonetheless, there are steps media-effects scholars can take to bolster causal arguments in an era of high media choice. While the advent of social media has brought new challenges for media-effects experimentalists, there are new opportunities in the form of objective measures of media exposure and effects.


LGBTQ Politics in Media and Culture  

Thomas J. Billard and Larry Gross

As the primary vector by which society tells itself about itself, popular media transmit ideas of what behavior is acceptable and whose identities are legitimate, thereby perpetuating and, at times, transforming the social order. Thus, media have been key targets of LGBT advocacy and activism and important contributors to the political standing of LGBT people. Of course, media are not a monolith, and different types of media inform different parts of society. Community media have been an important infrastructure through which gays and lesbians and, separately, transgender people formed shared identities and developed collective political consciousness. Political media, such as newspapers, news websites, and network and cable television news broadcasts, inform elites and the mass public alike, making them an important influence on public opinion and political behavior. Entertainment media, such as television and film, cultivate our culture’s shared values and ideas, which infuse into the public’s political beliefs and attitudes. Generally speaking, the literature on LGBTQ politics and the media is biased toward news and public affairs media over fictional and entertainment media, though both are important influences on LGBTQ citizens’ political engagement, as well as on citizens’ public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and their subsequent political behaviors. In the case of the former, media—particularly LG(BT) community media—have played an important role in facilitating the formation of a shared social and then political identity, as well as fueling the formation of, first, separate gay and lesbian and transgender movements and then a unified LGBTQ movement. Moreover, digital media have enabled new modes of political organizing and exercising sociopolitical influence, making LGBTQ activism more diverse, more intersectional, more pluralistic, and more participatory. In the case of the latter, (news) media representations of LGBTQ individuals initially portrayed them in disparaging and disrespectful ways. Over time, representations in both news and entertainment media have come to portray them in ways that legitimate their identities and their political claims. These representations, in turn, have had profound impacts on public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and citizens’ LGBTQ-relevant voting behavior. Yet, the literature on these representations and their effects overwhelmingly focuses on gays and lesbians at the expense of bisexual and transgender people, and this work is done primarily in U.S. and Anglophone contexts, limiting our understanding of the relationships between LGBTQ politics and the media globally.