Archive for the 'Framing' Category


be careful what you wish for

A new poll out today on health care reform illustrates the blow-back from years of anti-government framing, by both conservatives and progressives.

In measuring public opinion about the bill to overhaul health care, Associated Press-GfK found that public attitudes turned sharply negative AFTER the bill was signed into law.

Clues to explain this unusual movement are to be found in the details buried deeper in the poll results.

Despite the clear positive impact the legislation will have on consumers’ pocketbooks, AP/GfK reports that “the public doesn’t seem to be buying it….Fifty-seven percent said they expect to pay more for their own health care, contrasted with 7 percent who expect to pay less. And 47 percent said they expect their own medical care to get worse, compared with 14 percent looking forward to an improvement.”

These results reflect the fact that most folks now expect to be worse off when government programs expand, when government takes action.  And this mind-set is so strong that people will remake facts to fit their opinion, as illustrated with health care reform.

While directly criticizing the role of government is a frequent theme of conservative talking heads, progressive advocates often repeat and reinforce that theme with poorly constructed criticism of government decisions.  Rather than criticize particular decision-makers or the special interests who influence them, progressives often just broadly name and blame the “federal government”, feeding into the notion that government is a bad thing, an independent actor, rather than the expression of public will and community responsibility.

And the chickens have come home to roost.


reframing the debate on climate science

The international consensus on global warming has seemingly experienced a spectacular slow-motion train wreck over the last few months, with “climategate” reports piling up in public debate like derailing rail cars filmed in freeze frame.  The fascination for on-lookers, however, is that the science itself is largely blameless.   Instead, the pile-up stands as a case study in how not to wage a political battle.  And make no mistake; the attacks on climate science are pure politics.  We have seen attacks on science before, just pick your favorite example: smoking, toxic pollution, seat belts, etc.  However, until there is a fundamental reframing of the climate science debate, one that illuminates the politics, this round of attacks will continue to enjoy success.

Before focusing on how to reframe the debate on climate science, it’s fair to ask whether it’s worth the effort. In the wake of the Nobel-prize winning IPCC report on climate change three years ago, with climate science seemingly well established, advocates for climate protection focused their attention and rhetoric on the power of clean technology to fuel economic growth and create green jobs.   This strategy was driven in part by the sober realization that abstract science is very limited when it comes to reaching and mobilizing mainstream audiences in the U.S.  Fancy power point charts describing a threat arriving 100 years in the future just won’t cut it when your job is on the line right now and rent is due next week.

With the IPCC report well publicized, the champions of climate science moved onto other fronts, leaving climate scientists to hold down the fort. However, this approach ignored a basic principal of conflict – victories must be defended.  Not surprisingly, the opponents of climate protection took advantage and mobilized to attack the science.  They understood full well that, while the science is insufficient by itself to mobilize public will, it does provide the foundation for building the moral outrage than can and does move Americans.  Poll after poll has found that highlighting the threat global warming poses to our children’s future is one of the few compelling arguments that gain traction with mainstream audiences.  But that threat is meaningless if the science is not believed.

At the same time, the scale and pace of change required to avoid catastrophic climate change can’t be summoned simply by highlighting the benefits of investing in clean energy.  The benefits from changing over to a low carbon society are too diffuse, and the few big winners are yet to be known.  Meanwhile the losers know exactly who they are and understand that they stand to lose, and they have the deep pockets to fight long and hard.  Choosing between highlighting the benefits of change or focusing on the danger of inaction is a bad strategy.  Both benefits and risks must be illuminated.

Science is the question (and it shouldn’t be)

Currently media coverage of climate science is framed such that it defines the fundamental question as an issue of science, not politics. In this setting, the more the science is debated, the more the science is defined as debatable.  There is simply no way to “prove” the science in a sound bite or a new story.  Debating the science in the news is a no-win proposition that perpetuates public doubt.

There are four dimensions to the frame of every issue.  And there is an opportunity to recast every dimension of climate science debate.

The Messenger

When audiences read news stories and attempt to make out the underlying issues, they take an important cue from the identity of the messengers.  And currently, climate scientists are almost the sole messengers defending climate science.  While this is problematic on a number of fronts, it is particularly challenging for the framing of the debate.  Putting a scientist in the messenger role reinforces the notion that the fundamental issue is a question about the science.  If scientists are doing the debating it is only natural to assume the science is debatable.

Beyond the question of identity, many scientists don’t make for a good messenger when the issue is politicized, such as with climate science.  They are loath to call out the politics and step into a controversy outside their area of expertise.

Climate scientists must be joined by other messengers who are willing to stand up and speak out against the attack on science: farmers whose children would inherit dust-bowl farms due to the delay urged by climate deniers, generals who understand the national security threat, and business leaders who understand that every year of delay in investing in clean energy costs the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Message

When debate becomes poisoned and opponents are engaged in distortion and deceit, it becomes critically necessary to call out the politics and highlight the consequences of arguing in bad faith.

Climate advocates should document and highlight the funding and industry ties for the current wave of climate deniers.  While the new generation of critics is often driven by partisan politics as much as by direct industry interests, their partisanship is fair game for reprove, particularly when it comes at the expense of our nation.

Advocates for climate protection need to go on the offensive.  They need to go beyond saying what the attacks don’t do (“they don’t undermine the science”) and spell out what the attacks do achieve: costly and dangerous delay.

Calling out the politics is a way to bridge the debate, to move away from debating climate science to highlighting the impacts of climate change as well as the opportunity to invest in a clean energy economy, an opportunity jeopardized by the delaying and stonewalling tactics of climate deniers.

The Audience

The audience forms the third dimension of a news frame.  Tell the same story to a different audience and you can end up with a different story.  In the context of the climate science debate, addressing the ultra-conservative audiences served up by Fox News is a low priority.   The focus should be on independent audiences in key states. At the same time, it is important not to ignore liberal bloggers simply because reaching out to them is seen as preaching to the choir.  That choir makes up the much talked about echo chamber, and if you don’t give the choir a songbook, it doesn’t know what to sing.

The Setting

It’s critically important to do more than defend the IPCC.  Debating 1,000 page science reports is not a compelling setting, and the rehabilitation of the IPCC brand will not happen overnight, despite the fact that the damage was done by erroneous attacks.

A better setting for talking about climate science is a real time impact of climate change, be it a record heat wave or record heavy rains followed by heavy flooding.   There is no denying what your eyes can see.  Last fall’s record setting flood in Atlanta was a textbook example of the kind of impact that should be highlighted. Only months earlier, NOOA had released a consensus science report documenting the trend of increased heavy precipitation during the fall months in the southeastern United States.  NOAA identified climate change as driving the trend and predicted more of the same for the future.

Some have argued that focusing on current weather can be tricky.  However, advocates were forced to do just that when opponents focused on the recent snowstorms as “proof” that global warming was oversold. Advocates were successful in pushing back on climate change deniers in that instance, and the same effort should be applied to upcoming heat waves, droughts and flooding, events that fit the pattern of increasing extreme events that scientists have clearly documented and predicted will only increase as the impacts of climate change intensify,

Another useful setting can be the courtroom where the plaintiffs are real-life people who’ve suffered real losses from climate change.  In this setting the question is not whether or not the science is solid, but whether the fossils fuel industry should be held legally liable for the billions of tons of carbon pollution it has dumped into the atmosphere.

Other useful story lines could highlight different governments, companies, and stakeholders such as water managers who are already making decisions and taking action based on what the science is dictating, reinforcing the notion that the science is settled–and urgent– with dramatic consequences for their business and communities.

Fending off the attack on climate science does require a concerted rapid-response defense simply to set the record straight.  But winning the debate requires going beyond defending the science. It requires asking different questions, such as who wins and who loses.


Calling Out Climate Lies

The  hacked climate science email “scandal” once again raises the question of how to respond to climate “skeptics.”

The first chore is to sort out what kind of skeptic you are dealing with. And for the most part, they fall into two varieties: uninformed folks acting in good faith (sometimes to meet self-serving ends) and informed experts acting in bad faith (often to serve industry).

It’s one thing to debate science in good faith.  But when you find yourself debating someone arguing in bad faith, there’s nothing for it but to call out the dishonesty.

While it’s good and necessary to set the science record straight, continuing to answer false arguments made in bad faith only pours fuel on the fire.   In this setting, the very act of debating the science promotes the notion there is something to debate.  Climate deniers thrive on false debate.  Rising to rebut their arguments is simply taking the bait.

Yet remaining silent often won’t work – thus the need to call out the disingenuous nature of the “debate.”

This post by a climate scientist in response to NYT reporter Revkin about the hacked email story is a good example of how to douse fire with water.

“The tactics the inactivists have been using in the run-up to Copenhagen have been all outside the sphere of legitimate scientific discourse. Bogus petitions, sham attempts to gut the  A.P.S. climate statement, and now cowardly illegal outings of private emails from an individual scientist.”


Mudbloods and Wise Latinas

Harry-Potter-and-the-Half-Blood-PrinceIn today’s Washington Post,  Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite compares the rhetorical hysterics of the Sotomayor confirmation hearing to the racial allegory of the Harry Potter books.

Thistlethwaite pivots her argument on the term “mudblood,” a slur similar to the label half-breed and used by some characters in the novels to refer to wizards with one muggle (i.e. “normal”) parent.

The Potter intro makes for an interesting opening gambit, but then Thistlethwaite jumps the tracks and goes on to write:

“Blood does mean race; it always has, and despite DNA evidence, I suspect it always will. It is too powerful, too important a metaphor, and, of course, Rowling knows that.”

Setting aside for the moment the question of what Rowling knows (though I suspect she knows exactly the opposite), it’s maddening to see yet another progressive cave to the racist logic of the Right, and to do so in such spectacular nonsensical fashion.

Race has nothing to do with blood (as Thistlethwaite acknowedges in the very same breath that she uses to assert the opposite).  That is long-discredited clap-trap. But more interesting (and troubling) is her assertion that blood as race is “too powerful, too important a metaphor.”

Rather than challenging the lie of race, Thistlethwaite is throwing in the towel, simply because she finds the language of the lie too powerful to contest.

Establishing the definition of race is key to controlling the terms of debate. But this is no easy task. Racism is usually understood as a matter of individual attitudes, not a system of rules. When race is spotlighted, it is often confused with ethnicity (religion, cultural traditions, language, country of origin, etc.) as well as with phenotype (skin color, facial features, hair texture, etc.)

Clearly defining race and racism is a necessary communications task. It requires both a thorough understanding of the nature of race and an elegant script for talking about it.

Many people see race as something you inherit—it’s in your genes. From this perspective, race is a matter of biology, even if it is only skin-deep. The race-is-biology perspective dominates media debate. Common metaphorical terms  include “mixed race,” “descendants,” “half-breed” and now “mud-blood.” Of course, some of this metaphorical framework is grounded in an understanding of the positives associated with shared culture, history and geography and the ways that this shared experience as well as oppression have forged common ties.

However, rather than understanding or speaking about race as biology, it can be useful to talk about race as a label, a tag that gets assigned to someone after they are born (when the world can see them), not when they are conceived. For most people, the label they have been assigned is nearly permanent, and it determines much of their fate in the world. In the U.S., for example, the odds of getting ahead are a lot better if you are labeled white.When your racial label limits or cripples your reach in the world, your racial identity can seem to define who you are as much as your genes.

To cross this bridge, it is time to consider discarding the race-is-biology metaphor and develop new metaphors for understanding and debating racism. For example, it can be powerful to use the gaming metaphors “life is a game” and “race is a label.” Players in the game of life can play the game as if life is a puzzle to be solved by searching together for all the missing pieces. Much more commonly however, players play the game as if life is a contest, a board game with winners and losers.

In the board game version of life, when each player arrives at the table he or she is assigned a different racial label (such as white or black), according to the rules of the game. Labels are assigned on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, hair type, facial features, language accent, and more.

Racial labels are assigned according to different rules in different countries. Most countries generally use the same set of criteria: skin color, accent, etc., but in each country these criteria are applied in different ways. In the U.S., for example, if you have one recent African ancestor it does not matter how many of your recent ancestors were Caucasian; you are almost always assigned the label “black,” according to the infamous one-drop rule. Meanwhile a player with a Spanish accent who is assigned the Latino label in the U.S. might be considered white in South America because of the color of her skin and her European ancestry. Different countries even have different and unique racial categories that don’t exist in other countries, e.g., Mestizo in Latin America, Criollo in Mexico. However, just as music and movies from the U.S. have taken over much of the world, so too have U.S. racial categories, which are increasingly adopted overseas.

In the racism game, racism takes on several forms. The life-is-a-game metaphor highlights the systemic nature of racism based in a set of rules, not just individual attitudes. Sometimes the rules are such that they slow down players with certain labels while fast-tracking others. Sometimes the banker cheats to help himself. Sometimes the board has different and more difficult paths for certain players. Sometime one player will refuse to cooperate with others changing the game into a contest where a player gets ahead by putting others behind. In the U.S., for example, racial justice advocates chase redlining banks and corrupt mortgage brokers. The alcohol industry preys on communities of color by marketing unusually potent products and saturating neighborhoods of color with retail outlets. And, white audiences often oppose racial justice initiatives.

The rules are extremely complex. Sometimes the rules are formal: laws, codes, and regulations. Sometimes the rules are informal: social customs, traditions, practices, and attitudes. In the U.S., many of the explicitly racist laws and regulations have been eliminated, but many of the implicit and informal rules of racism are as potent as ever.

The combination of informal, implicit racism and the legacy of more explicit racism creates a dramatic Catch-22 for people of color. Each rule in the game may appear to be well intentioned on its own, but when rules are combined they pave a road to hell. For instance, in the U.S., players labeled “people of color” often start off in a neighborhood without good schools, part of the racist legacy of segregation and poverty that endures in the U.S. The rules say you can’t get into a good school unless your family can buy into a wealthy neighborhood where property taxes and affluent parents pour resources into the schools. But no player can afford to buy into a wealthy neighborhood unless the members of their family have good jobs. Such jobs usually require a good education from a good school. And the Catch-22 for people of color starts all over again as they search for a good school.

The material impact of racism is particularly powerful when the players in the game of life operate with a vision of a game that has winners and losers, that is a game that can only be won when others lose. This win-lose conception of the game of life divides white players from people of color. The win-lose frame implies that players of color can advance in the game of life only at the expense of white players. Employers regularly discriminate against people of color in hiring and promotion. Landlords informally enforce racial segregation among their apartment buildings. And white audiences, blinded by the win-lose perspective, do not see how they could be uplifted by reforming the rules that unfairly privilege them.

Going beyond confronting racism to promoting a vision of racial justice requires looking past the “win-lose” frame of racism and developing a “win-win” vision wherein all players move forward by helping each other. Getting broad audiences to commit to a vision of racial justice requires scripting new metaphors that call upon familiar examples of mutual success. Games and group endeavors such as jigsaw puzzles, orchestras, jazz combos, barn raisings, and square dancing are well-known social activities where everyone succeeds only by working together. Advocates can call upon these activities and others to construct new metaphors for life and for racial justice.

The life-is-a-game metaphor and the race-is-a-label metaphor are powerful and elegant tools for racial justice advocates. These metaphors can be teased out in many different settings, and they talk about race in terms that are internally consistent. The metaphors are easy to understand; gaming concepts like rules, players, and pieces are familiar. Most importantly, these metaphors highlight an understanding of race and racial justice that offers mainstream audiences insight not promoted by the race-is-biology metaphor. Metaphors built upon familiar and shared experiences and social activities in which everyone wins by working together offer all audiences a deeper understanding of their self interest in ending racism and are tools for constructing a powerful vision of racial justice.


Framing “good vs. evil”


The Watchmen, jam-packed with metaphor and allegory, is a story teller’s delight.

The film is compelling in so many ways, not the least of which is the movie’s focus on the nature of “good” and “evil,” which the film examines at both the personal level and the mytho-poetic.

“Good vs. Evil” is one the most powerful and enduring memes or “master frames” driving social behavior in the western world.

Master Frames are sometimes so powerful that undoing them can take the work of generations.

Snow and Benford first described the aspects of “master frames” back in 1992 in Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, edited by A. Morris.

A good summary of the different kinds framing is offered by the Frameworks Institute, and a good rundown of the academic literature on framing has been assembled by the University of Wisconsin.


genius of the vernacular

There’s has been a lot of chatter recently about Obama’s use of the vernacular, reaching another high point with today’s NPR story.

Over and Jack and Jill Politics, some have referenced Dr. King’s use of vernacular, called “genius” by Michael Eric Dyson, in discussing Obama’s way with words.

The tradition of using the vernacular to convey the essential goes way back, and was  (in)famously employed by Mark Twain to write what some call the first great American novel.

There is an interesting academic side to this communication thread, most notably the work of James C. Scott at Yale, who argues that if you listen closely in places like the parking lot at church, at your cousin’s backyard BBQ, or in the drop-off line at the community day care, you will hear a whole different conversation going on, one much different than what you hear in the mainstream media.  Scott dubbs it the “hidden transcript.”  And most of those conversations are held in the vernacular.

What’s particularly notable for communication geeks about the hidden transcript is that hidden conversation reveals that most folks are well aware of the nature of the problems and contradictions facing common peoples.  What they don’t see are the solutions.

In that context, talking about the problem almost amounts to talking down to people, and misses the point.  Folks get that there’s a problem.  What they don’t get is what the solutions might be.

The silver lining is that if you can speak to those solutions can rally the support of folks otherwise alienated by the “public” debate.  Obama, of course, is that blazing nova of the moment, exemplifying that approach.  And when he employs the vernacular, part of what he is doing is letting folks know that he, too, gets its. He’s been part of the hidden transcript, and he doesn’t need to talk about the problems, he’s ready to talk about solutions.

July 2018
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