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date: 09 July 2020

Framing and Political Decision Making: An Overview

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: competitive framing, emphasis frame, equivalence frame, framing effects, partisanship, political communication, priming, public opinion, political decision making


During the weeks leading up to the June 2016 Brexit referendum, the British public was faced with a barrage of messages regarding whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. Arguments for maintaining EU membership centered on the risks of leaving: risks to the national economy, personal finances, safety and security, health care, and individual rights (Clarke, Goodwin, & Whiteley, 2017). This point of view was encapsulated in campaign brochure taglines such as “Leaving Europe would be a leap in the dark. Don’t risk it.” and “Your Future at Risk: Vote Remain on June 23rd” (Britain Stronger in Europe, 2016). In contrast, leaving the European Union was presented to citizens as an opportunity for the United Kingdom to regain sovereignty and to “take back control” over national borders, immigration and trade policies, lawmaking, and domestic spending (Vote Leave, 2016).

Later that same year, across the Atlantic Ocean, voters in Maine considered whether to change the state’s balloting procedures to ranked choice voting. In contrast to the fairly ubiquitous plurality voting system used throughout the United States, under ranked choice voting voters rank candidates in order of personal preference. If one candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, that candidate wins election to the contested office. Otherwise, instant runoff procedures kick in until a candidate reaches the majority threshold. During the referendum campaign in Maine, advocates of ranked choice voting crafted a public campaign around the democratic principles of majority rule and true expression of voter preferences. The new electoral system would, they argued, “give Maine voters more choice and more voice” over the selection of political leaders (Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, 2016). Opponents countered that ranked choice voting would be both unnecessarily complex and cognitively taxing for voters as well as challenging for vote counters. “In a state where half the communities hand-count ballots,” wrote the Editorial Board of the Bangor Daily News in October 2016, “we fear voting and vote counting will become confusing, less transparent and burdensome, further eroding voter turnout and faith in our election systems and government.”

When faced with political decisions regarding Britain’s future membership in the European Union and switching electoral systems, citizens of, respectively, the United Kingdom and Maine opted for change. By narrow, and identical, 52% to 48% results, voters decided that Britain should leave the European Union and that Maine should adopt ranked choice voting. Certainly many factors influenced individual voters’ decisions, yet political communication during the referenda campaigns likely reflected as well as shaped voters’ conceptions of the choice facing them. By presenting the options as between a risky future and a moment to reclaim national sovereignty in Britain or as between enhancing democratic choice and injecting confusion into the electoral process in Maine, advocates distilled the many components of these issues to the presentation that they hoped would convince voters to select the advocates’ preferred outcome. Put another way, advocates framed the choice for voters. This article presents an overview of framing and political decision making, beginning by differentiating between emphasis frames and equivalence frames. This differentiation is carried through subsequent sections, on the topics of framing effects, moderators of such effects, and differences between framing and other types of political communication, most notably priming. The goal of the article is to highlight broad topics regarding framing; in contrast, other articles in this volume address specific framing topics in depth. Material that is covered thoroughly elsewhere is noted as such and thus receives only brief mention in this article. In contrast, topics that receive minimal attention in these other framing articles are more fully developed.

Emphasis Versus Equivalence Frames

Framing has attracted the attention of scholars from many disciplines, including psychology, political science, sociology, economics, and communications. Perhaps because of its multidisciplinary roots, framing research has been characterized as a “fractured paradigm” (Entman, 1993, p. 51) or as a field “as disjointed as ever” (Liu & Scheufele, 2016, p. 2). Finding one common definition for frame across the disciplines has proved elusive (see, for instance, Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Iyengar, 2016), yet distinguishing between two types of frames—emphasis and equivalence frames—provides a degree of coherence to the framing literature (Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Iyengar, 2016; Druckman, 2001a; Liu & Scheufele, 2016).1

An emphasis frame presents an issue or political choice by emphasizing certain relevant features and ignoring others.2 This type of frame “suggests what [a] controversy is about, the essence of the issue . . . [and] generally implies a policy direction or implicit answer to what should be done about the issue” (Gamson & Modigliani, 1987, p. 143). Put another way, emphasis frames “provide meaning to an issue and suggest how to understand and think about it” (Slothuus, 2008, p. 3). Emphasis frames abound in political communication, such as the referenda campaign examples that opened this article. Other examples include framing a Ku Klux Klan rally as an exercise of free speech versus a potential disruption to public order (Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997), gay rights measures as promoting equality versus upending traditional morality (Brewer, 2008), or the international war on terror as necessary for maintaining security in the United States versus costing too many resources (Boydstun & Glazier, 2013).

On the other hand, equivalence frames characterize an issue or decision choice via different yet logically equivalent presentations. The classic equivalency framing example, which originated in the work of Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984), focuses on the issue of a disease outbreak. Proposals that aim to combat the disease can be framed in terms of how many lives would be saved versus how many people will die. The equivalency emerges because the expected outcome of these proposals are identical in terms of how many people are likely to survive the disease outbreak (i.e., out of 600 people, one frame states that 200 people will live, the other that 400 will die). Equivalency framing can also be present in descriptions of national or local conditions, such as characterizing a labor market as having a 5% unemployment rate versus a 95% employment rate or stating that 40% of a community’s residents have been vaccinated or alternatively that 60% have not been vaccinated (Druckman, 2004; Koch & Peter, 2017; Quattrone & Tversky, 1988).

Frames, of both types, attempt to provide some coherence to matters that are often very complex. Yet, as demonstrated by the definitions and few examples presented in the two preceding paragraphs, emphasis frames and equivalence frames are rather different in form. A comparison of the article-length treatments of emphasis framing (by Thomas Nelson) and equivalence framing (by Asmus Olsen) that appear elsewhere in this volume brings to light the different research trajectories of each. Only a handful of studies, for example, are cited by both Nelson and Olsen. This should not be surprising, given that these framing approaches have distinct disciplinary roots: sociology in the case of emphasis frames and psychology and behavioral economics for equivalence frames (Gamson, 1992; Goffman, 1974; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). Furthermore, effects of frames on political decisions as well as the psychological models producing and moderators of such effects often differ between emphasis and equivalence frames.

Framing Effects

Frames are ever-present in political communication, employed by many political actors to capture their preferred understanding of or to make sense of an issue, controversy, or event. Framing scholars have identified and analyzed many specific frames in political discourse, generally for a particular issue (e.g., Boydstun & Glazier, 2013; Gamson & Modigliani, 1987; Kellstedt, 2000; Rose & Baumgartner, 2013). Studying frame content and production has been especially common for emphasis frames, a topic that receives much more attention in Thomas Nelson’s article in this volume. In addition to these frames in communication, frames are also present at another level, within the minds of individuals. A frame in thought “describes an individual’s perception of a situation; the frame reveals what an individual sees as relevant to understanding a situation” (Druckman, 2001a, p. 228; see also Brewer, 2003; Chong & Druckman, 2007a; Entman, 1993; Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, & Ruchts, 2002). For some people, one set of considerations might dominate their thinking whereas others might consider multiple distinct considerations to be relevant and thus not have a dominant frame in thought regarding an issue. A framing effect occurs when a frame in communication influences a person’s political opinion or political judgement, often by altering their dominant frame in thought for the matter at hand. Typically, however, scholars do not directly measure whether a frame in thought has been influenced but instead assess relevant opinions after frame exposure.

Effects of Frames on Political Opinions

The primary effect of emphasis frames on political opinions is influencing views toward specific policy issues. Such effects have been documented across a wide variety of issues. In the realm of civil liberties, public tolerance for the Ku Klux Klan is higher after exposure to an emphasis frame that describes a KKK rally as promoting free speech rather than a frame discussing the rally’s potential disruptions to public order (Druckman, 2001b; Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997). The individual rights versus safety distinction is also consequential for gun policy opinions, with support for concealed handgun legislation higher when the law is framed as a matter of rights (Haider-Markel & Joslyn, 2001). Public preferences regarding social welfare spending are more generous when the issue is framed in humanitarian or compassionate ways and less generous in the face of alternative framings, such as the need for higher standards of personal responsibility or the influence of welfare spending on taxes or the budget deficit (Druckman, 2001b; Nelson & Oxley, 1999; Slothuus, 2008; Sniderman & Theriault, 2004). When it comes to environmental policy opinions, being confronted with examples of local (versus global) effects or perceived negative consequences (versus benefits) of climate change can increase both the perception that climate change is a serious problem and support for policy action to address the issue (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010; Wiest, Raymond, & Clawson, 2015). On the foreign policy front, the American public is more supportive of U.S. engagement abroad, including military involvement, when a news story discusses intervention as addressing a humanitarian crisis rather than as a risk to military personnel (Berinsky & Kinder, 2006).

These emphasis framing effects were all demonstrated in experimental studies. Other framing scholars have combined media content analysis with survey data to draw connections between aggregate framing trends in political communication and aggregate shifts in public opinion. Findings from these studies include that support for the death penalty has declined somewhat over the past decades, as the innocence frame has been more prominent in press coverage of capital punishment (Baumgartner, De Boef, & Boydstun, 2008). Between 1950 and the early 1990s, Americans’ racial policy opinions trended in a more liberal direction when media framing of this policy emphasized egalitarian values compared to when matters of individual responsibility and deservedness were more salient (Kellstedt, 2000). Public support for gay rights policies, specifically homosexuals serving in the U.S. military and antidiscrimination employment policies, increased between 1992 and 2004 in part because framing these issues in terms of traditional morality became less common (Brewer, 2008).

Another effect of emphasis framing is the altering of issue opinion ingredients. In other words, regardless of whether people’s opinions toward an issue vary after frame exposure, the relationship between that opinion and specific relevant factors can be influenced by a frame in communication. Of course, changing which considerations are most strongly related to an issue opinion can be a reason why the overall opinion is affected. White public support for a Supreme Court anti–affirmative action decision (Adarand v. Pena [1995]) was driven more strongly by views regarding individualism when the decision was framed as protecting the principle that racial and ethnic classifications should not enter into government decision making versus a setback for attempts to redress racial discrimination. In contrast, whites’ levels of racial resentment were stronger predictors among those who were exposed to the setback frame (Clawson & Waltenburg, 2009). Other scholars have also demonstrated that group-linked considerations are more influential drivers of issue opinions after exposure to certain types of issue frames (Brewer, 2008; Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Nelson & Kinder, 1996). On the other hand, framing social welfare as either an undeserved giveaway to the poor or a drain on the national economy did not produce different levels of policy opposition among the public but did influence whether attributions for poverty were related to such opposition (Nelson, Oxley, & Clawson, 1997).

Emphasis framing has been more common in studies of political communication and political decision making, in part because of the assumption that these frames are more common in actual political discourse than are equivalence frames (Druckman, 2001a; Liu & Scheufele, 2016; Slothuus, 2008; Sniderman & Theriault, 2004). Yet, as Asmus Olsen’s article in this volume illustrates, equivalence frames can produce politically relevant effects when they are encountered by individuals. The framing paradigm pioneered by Kahneman and Tversky (1979, 1984), for example, demonstrates that loss versus gain framing influences people’s tolerance for risk. Opinions toward policy proposals can also be influenced by equivalence frames. Preferences for crime prevention programs, for instance, can shift depending on whether the program describes the crime rate or the (numerically equivalent) law-obedience rate of a population, just as support for a jobs program varies by whether a community’s employment rate or (equivalent) unemployment rate are contained in the program details (Druckman, 2004; Quattrone & Tversky, 1988). Attitudes regarding political communicators, such as candidates or politicians, are also susceptible to equivalence frames. Thomas Koch and Christina Peter (2017) focus specifically on perceptions of truth and trustworthiness toward government ministers, finding that both are more favorable when a minister presents statistics framed around negative versus positive outcomes (e.g., percentage of people with or without chronic illnesses).

Psychological Models of Framing Effects

Various psychological processes have been posited to account for emphasis framing effects. The three primary models are briefly described here; for additional conceptual discussion, refer to articles by Thomas Nelson (“Emphasis Framing”) and Dennis Chong (“Competitive Framing”) elsewhere in this volume. Issues related to the complex and often thorny methodological issues inherent in empirically researching framing are discussed in “Framing Methodology: A Critical Review” by Dustin Carnahan, Qi Hao, and Xiaodi Yan.

The main mechanism initially thought to produce emphasis framing effects is cognitive accessibility. This explanation suggests that by highlighting only certain features of an issue, a frame in communication makes these features more accessible than other (unframed) ones in a person’s mind. And it is these accessible considerations that shape a person’s issue opinion (Entman, 1993; Iyengar, 1991; Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Zaller, 1992). An alternative model—belief importance—conceives of frames impacting issue opinions “by stressing specific values, facts, or other considerations, endowing them with greater apparent relevance to the issue than they might appear to have under an alternative frame . . . these considerations, in turn, carry greater weight for the final attitude” (Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997, p. 569; see also Chong, 1996; Price & Tewksbury, 1997). A number of studies provide empirical support for the belief importance model of emphasis framing effects (Druckman, 2001b; Nelson & Oxley, 1999; Slothuus, 2008). Notably, Thomas Nelson, Rosalee Clawson, and Zoe Oxley (1997) directly tested both the accessibility and belief importance models, concluding that framing effects were driven by the frames altering belief importance but not the accessibility of considerations. Specifically, after exposure to a public order framing of a KKK rally, people were more likely to rate public order–related considerations as important whereas the considerations were no more cognitively accessible to them compared to individuals who had viewed a free speech–framed news story of the same rally.

The third approach emphasizes that issue frames can alter the content of opinion-relevant beliefs. According to this belief change model, “an issue frame might be able to put forward some new arguments or information that the citizen had not previously thought about and, thereby, deliver a new consideration—a reason to favor or oppose the issue” (Slothuus, 2008, p. 5). For the aforementioned KKK rally example, a public order frame might alert a message recipient, for the first time, that fighting and violence could occur at a rally. In a direct empirical comparison of the belief change and belief importance models, Nelson and Oxley (1999) demonstrate that both can mediate framing effects, but that the role of the latter was more consequential in accounting for the effect of frames on issue opinions. Slothuus (2008) also finds a role for both belief change and belief importance, although the mechanisms’ applicability varied across individuals. For people with high levels of political awareness, framing effects occurred via belief importance only whereas the effect of frames on issue opinions was carried via changes in both belief importance and belief change for those with moderate levels of awareness.

In contrast, neither belief importance nor belief change have been posited to account for the effects of equivalence frames. Models of equivalency framing effects typically begin with accessibility, suggesting that opposing frames make different factors accessible to a person. Importantly, in the realm of equivalence frames, the factors generally carry a positive or negative valence (e.g., Kahneman and Tversky’s gain versus loss framing). After encountering a framed issue, the attributes of the issue are valence-encoded in a receiver’s memory alongside other similarly valenced items. “Negative frames temporarily activate knowledge of negativity and associated constructs . . ., while positive frames increase the activation of positivity and associated constructs,” which are then applied to later decisions (Koch & Peter, 2017, p. 851; see also Olsen, this volume, and Druckman, 2004; Levin, Schneider, & Gaeth, 1998; Quattrone & Tversky, 1988). Furthermore, memory associations are developed via learning processes. Through exposure to persuasive communication, for instance, people learn to distrust the communicators of positive messages more so than messengers delivering negative information. When then confronted with a politician framing information in a positive manner, trust in that politician is less than if the information’s negative equivalent had been presented (Koch & Peter, 2017).

Moderators: When Are Framing Effects Likely?

If factors other than mere accessibility lie at the heart of emphasis and equivalency framing effects, as much evidence suggests, these effects result from mindful information processing. In other words, framing effects are not automatic. Neither are they inevitable. The likelihood that a specific frame will influence a person’s opinion toward a framed issue or related political decision depends, in part, on features of the communication environment and on personal characteristics. In the domain of political decision making, our understanding of which specific factors moderate framing effects is better understood for emphasis than equivalency framing effects.3 Thus, much of the discussion in this section focuses only on emphasis framing. Results drawn from the equivalency framing literature are explicitly noted.

The most significant contextual factor that moderates the effect of an individual frame is whether one encounters only one or multiple frames regarding the same issue. In competitive framing environments, framing effects can be complex, as Dennis Chong describes in his article in this volume. Drawing primarily from the pioneering research he conducted with James Druckman, Chong highlights the features of frames in communication that are most influential in competitive framing contexts. These include whether a person is exposed equally to opposite frames or more to frames on one side of an issue than on the other side and also whether the frames’ arguments are perceived to be persuasive or not (i.e., strong or weak frames). Equal exposure to opposing frames typically produces no framing effect on opinion because the effects of the frames cancel each other out. Yet, when frame strength varies, issue opinions will move in the direction of strong frames, even if a weak frame is encountered more. These results hold for frame exposure at a single point in time, for both emphasis frames (Chong & Druckman, 2007b; Druckman, Peterson, & Slothuus, 2013; Jerit, 2009; Sniderman & Theriault, 2004) and equivalence frames (Druckman, 2004). When emphasis frames are encountered over a period of time, additional factors need to be considered to assess whether a framing effect occurs, such as the order and timing of exposure to opposing frames. For example, opposing frames of equal strength will not always cancel each other if they are received at different times rather than simultaneously (Chong & Druckman, 2010; Druckman, Fein, & Leeper, 2012; Lecheler & de Vreese, 2013).

Another aspect of a communication frame that moderates emphasis framing effects is the frame’s source. In particular, individuals attend to the credibility and partisanship of a frame’s communicator. As demonstrated by James Druckman (2001b), issue opinions are more likely to be shaped by frames when the source is generally perceived to be credible, whether that source is a person (e.g., Colin Powell vs. Jerry Springer) or a media outlet (New York Times vs. National Enquirer). In the early 2000s, Druckman (2001a) also explored the relevance of source cues for equivalence frames, in this case partisan cues. He found that equivalency framing effects largely disappear when frames include a partisan source. Instead of relying on the frame’s substantive content as they make their decisions, people prefer the option put forth by their political party. Later, during the 2010s, significant advancements were made in our understanding of partisanship and emphasis framing. In a situation when people are exposed to a single issue frame and a party cue is present, the effect of the frame on issue opinions is greater among party supporters than non-supporters. For instance, in the arena of social welfare policy, Danish adults’ issue opinions differed by frame exposure only if the frames were sponsored by their political party. When a different party endorsed the social welfare frames, issue opinions did not differ by frame (Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010; see also Slothuus, 2010).

Whereas such single frame examples are useful to begin understanding party endorsements’ moderating influence on framing effects, real-time political communication is usually much more complex. Fortunately, key elements of this complexity have been incorporated into emphasis framing research designs. The effects of party-sponsored frames described in the prior paragraph, for example, exist for issues that are at the core of party divisions but not for issues where party consensus exists (Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010). For consensus issues, people’s opinions can be shaped by the content of issue frames whether those frames are endorsed by their party or a different party. Under conditions of frame competition, party cues moderate framing effects, although individual reliance on party endorsements differs for polarized versus non-polarized environments. James Druckman, Erik Peterson, and Rune Slothuus (2013) demonstrate that when individuals are exposed to competing frames of unequal strength and polarization is low, issue opinions move in the direction of the stronger frame, even when party cues are present. If the competing frames are of the same strength, however, people’s opinions are more likely to coincide with the frames supported by their party. Put another way, when the available substantive details regarding an issue do not provide opinion guidance, party sponsorship does. What happens when elite partisan polarization is high? Individuals’ opinions coincide with their political party’s issue position, regardless of the strength of the issue frames encountered. More specifically, when respondents were told that there was a stark divide between the parties regarding the DREAM Act, with congressional Republicans opposing and congressional Democrats supporting this legislation, Republican respondents opposed the DREAM Act no matter whether they were exposed to a strong-pro frame and a weak-con frame, a weak-pro frame and a strong-con frame, two strong frames, or two weak frames. Democratic respondents supported the DREAM Act, regardless of the content of frames they received.

To account for these various findings regarding party cues and emphasis framing, scholars have turned to the theory of motivated reasoning. A key tenet of this theory is that when forming political opinions people can be motivated by a desire to uphold their existing preferences or support their existing identities, as opposed to being motivated to form accurate opinions. Partisan attachments can be a particularly important guide for individuals who are motivated by opinion direction goals (Leeper & Slothuus, 2014; Taber & Lodge, 2006; Redlawsk, 2002). Motivated reasoning processes kick in when a partisan source is present in political communication, such as the following describes: “if a frame is sponsored by a party people feel attached to, motivated reasoning should lead them to pay closer attention to frame content and assess it more favorably. In contrast, if people have negative feelings toward the party sponsor, they would discount, simply ignore, or even engage in counterarguing the interpretations in the frame” (Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010, p. 632).

Alongside characteristics of a frame in communication, political predispositions of the receiver also moderate framing effects. One relevant predisposition is values. A frame that resonates with an individual’s preexisting values, such as egalitarianism or individualism, will be more likely to influence opinion than will non-resonating frames (Andrews, Clawson, Gramig, & Raymond, 2017; Seo & Nelson, 2011). On the other hand, framing effects on issue opinions are unlikely among individuals who already possess strong values relevant to the issue compared to people with weakly held values (Brewer, 2003; Slothuus, 2008). Framing effects are also conditioned by individual partisanship. As demonstrated, in certain situations partisans are more likely to be influenced by frames that are communicated by elites in their party. In addition, even if frames do not have party cues attached, the effect of a frame can differ by individual partisanship. When gun control is framed around individual rights versus safety, for example, issue opinions regarding gun control are altered by frame exposure among Republicans but not Democrats, a result attributed to the fact that considerations highlighted in both frames resonate with Republicans, whereas the individual rights framing does not coincide with Democrats’ existing predispositions (Haider-Markel & Joslyn, 2001). Framing climate change as providing benefits versus losses can influence relevant policy support among Democrats but not Republicans, most likely because Democrats typically do not consider climate change to have positive impacts (Wiest, Raymond, & Clawson, 2015). Partisanship does not always dominate over other individual characteristics, however. When framing the goal of the 2008 economic stimulus package as either boosting, stabilizing, or preventing the collapse of the national economy, framing effects on opinion differed by income levels but not party identification (Malhotra & Margalit, 2010).

Another individual characteristic that seems to enhance framing effects is political knowledge. The considerations highlighted in frames are more likely to be familiar to those with higher levels of knowledge, who are thus better able to connect this information with their overall opinion on the framed issue. In the 1990s, for instance, gay rights opinions of politically knowledgeable adults were more sensitive to media framing of this issue than were those with lower levels of knowledge (Brewer, 2003). Opinions toward social welfare policies are more likely to be shaped by issue frames as levels of knowledge increase, whether that is general political knowledge (Slothuus, 2008) or specific knowledge regarding welfare policy (Nelson, Oxley, & Clawson, 1997). Issue frames are even effective for domain experts, such as professional farmers in the case of agriculture policy (Andrews et al., 2017). To be sure, not all research points to this conclusion, with some studies finding that framing effects are greater among the less knowledgeable (e.g., Haider-Markel & Joslyn, 2001). To reconcile such disparate findings, James Druckman and Kjersten Nelson (2003) argue that those with higher levels of knowledge might also possess preexisting opinions that are unlikely to be altered by frame exposure. When controlling for relevant factors, they find that more knowledgeable individuals are indeed more likely be affected by frames. Levels of knowledge also influence the processing of frames when party sponsors are identified. The effect of these party frames on opinions is greater among more politically knowledgeable individuals, especially for party conflict (versus consensus) issues (Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010). In the case of party-sponsored frames, more politically knowledgeable people are not only more likely to engage in deeper processing of frames but also more able to argue against frame content that is endorsed by a party other than the one they support.

Framing Versus Priming

Framing is one of many types of political communication, all of which potentially have implications for political decision making. A perennial question among framing scholars has been whether framing effects are distinct from other political communication effects. This topic has been raised in the context of emphasis framing but is largely absent from the equivalency framing literature. Indeed, comparisons between the belief importance and belief change models of emphasis framing effects are often discussed in terms of distinguishing framing effects from persuasion (Nelson & Oxley, 1999; Slothuus, 2008). Among the political communication effects that framing has been compared to, however, by far the most common is priming. The emphasis framing article by Thomas Nelson in this volume, for instance, raises the matter of conceptual differences between framing and priming. A methodology-focused article by Bryan Gervais (on media effects experiments) also in this volume, devotes some space to discussing differences between priming and framing as well. As these articles attest, the matter goes beyond simply comparing framing and priming to critiquing whether framing and priming are actually distinct phenomena.

Drawing on political communication effects research, a rather clear distinction between priming and framing can be made. As first delineated by Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder (1987), a news media priming effect occurs when media attention to an issue makes that issue a more dominant factor in people’s judgements of political leaders.4 Assessments of presidential performance overall, for instance, are more closely linked to assessments of the president’s handling of defense policy when defense issues are more (versus less) prominent in the news. Note that Iyengar and Kinder find that while attention to an issue is necessary to produce a priming effect, the way an issue is presented does not necessarily matter, although the priming effect is enhanced when news media coverage of an issue suggests that the president is responsible for that issue. Priming has also been examined in the context of campaign strategy, where the focus is on how much candidates emphasize certain issues or personal characteristics on the assumption that voters will place more attention on salient issues or characteristics when making voting decisions (Druckman, Jacobs, & Ostermeier, 2004; Jacobs & Shapiro, 1994). Contrast these priming effects with framing effects, in which issue opinions are influenced because of the way that an issue is presented rather than the amount of attention that the issue receives. To the degree that variation in the emphasis of issue-relevant considerations (versus other considerations) alters opinions, framing effects have occurred. When variation in the salience of an issue (versus other issues) affects judgements, priming effects have occurred.

Those who argue that framing is not distinct from priming tend, however, to focus on the psychological mechanism that produces framing effects rather than features of the communication stimuli. For Jiawei Liu and Dietram Scheufele (2016), that mechanism is accessibility. They conclude that emphasis framing is therefore difficult to differentiate from other accessibility-based effects (such as agenda-setting and priming) and that research on emphasis framing effects should be abandoned in favor of equivalency framing effects. In contrast, Dennis Chong and James Druckman (2007a, p. 115) argue that the psychological processes of accessibility and applicability produce both framing and priming effects and therefore “the two terms can be used interchangeably.” Alternatively to both of these solutions, scholars could design rigorous empirical tests of the underlying psychological mechanisms for framing and priming effects. Others have made a similar plea, but appear skeptical that the mechanisms for these effects can be disentangled given that both effects appear rooted in accessibility (Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Iyengar, 2016). Yet, while direct examinations of the accessibility model of framing effects have been rare, they have not provided support for this mechanism (e.g., Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997), suggesting attempts to further differentiate framing from priming effects might indeed be productive.


Writing in 2001, James Druckman concludes that “it is analytically useful to distinguish between two types of framing effects (equivalency framing effects and emphasis framing effects), as these two effects have different implications and may work differently” (2001a, p. 245). Nearly 20 years later, a similar conclusion can be drawn from the framing research. Research conducted over that time period continues to demonstrate that the nature of and the psychological processes underlying these effects differ for emphasis versus equivalence frames. The key areas of progress as well as main areas in need of more research attention also generally differ by frame type. In these two decades, for instance, great advancements have been made in testing for emphasis framing effects in more realistic communication environments, such as when partisan sources are attached to frames or under conditions of competitive framing. However, questions regarding whether emphasis framing clearly differs from other political communication effects, especially priming, persist and thus merit more thorough scholarly attention. A return to exploring the psychological models of belief importance and belief change for emphasis framing effects would be useful, especially in light of new work on framing and partisanship that draws upon the theory of motivated reasoning. In contrast, equivalency framing scholars have delineated the processes that produce effects for these frames in the political domain, but research regarding the moderators, both contextual and individual, of the effects is underdeveloped. While each body of literature could provide conceptual and methodological inspiration for the other, given the inherent differences between emphasis and equivalence frames, research that continues along parallel tracks would seem to be more fruitful than attempting to create one overarching definition of framing effects or one theory to account for all framing effects.

Further Reading

Chong, D., & Druckman, J. N. (2007). Framing theory. Annual Review of Political Science, 10(1), 103–126.Find this resource:

Chong, D., & Druckman, J. N. (2010). Dynamic public opinion: Communication effects over time. American Political Science Review, 104(4), 663–680.Find this resource:

Druckman J. N., Peterson, E., & Slothuus, R. (2013). How elite partisan polarization affects public opinion formation. American Political Science Review, 107(1), 57–79.Find this resource:

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

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263–292.Find this resource:

Levin, I. P., Schneider, S. L., & Gaeth, G. J. (1998). All frames are not created equal: A typology and critical analysis of framing effects. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 76(2), 149–188.Find this resource:

Liu, J., & Scheufele, D. A. (2016). A revisionist perspective on framing effects. Oxford research encyclopedia of politics.Find this resource:

Nelson, T. E., Clawson, R. A., & Oxley, Z. M. (1997). Media framing of a civil liberties conflict and its effect on tolerance. The American Political Science Review, 91(3), 567–583.Find this resource:

Slothuus, R. (2008). More than weighting cognitive importance: A dual-process model of issue framing effects. Political Psychology, 29(1), 1–28.Find this resource:


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(1.) A further distinction has been posed in the literature, that between frames that can apply to multiple issues and those that are issue-specific. Research in the former tradition includes the work of Iyengar (1991) on episodic versus thematic framing and others’ work on journalistic news frames such as those highlighting conflict, strategic maneuvering of politicians, or the electoral horse race (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Patterson, 1993; Price, Tewksbury, & Powers, 1997; Valentino, Beckmann, & Buhr, 2001). Because the bulk of work in the domain of framing and political decision making has explored issue-specific frames, this article will focus only on that research.

(2.) Note that earlier classification schemes tended to label these as issue frames (e.g., Druckman, 2004; Slothuus, 2008). Emphasis frame has become the more common term.

(3.) In contrast, considerable attention has been devoted to exploring the moderators of equivalency framing in psychology (Druckman, 2001a).

(4.) For a similar but more psychologically based discussion of priming, see Chadly Stern’s “Priming in Political Judgment and Decision Making” article in this volume.