Framing theory provides us with a helpful lens for understanding how people develop their perception of reality, and the role that journalistic outlets play in shaping those perceptions.
Framing is deeply indebted to another theoretical perspective — the Social Construction of Reality — which was formalized in 1966 by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman. At its core, this perspective argues that a person’s perception of reality is not entirely, or even mainly, objective. Instead, what we perceive to be reality is actually a human and social construction that is deeply shaped by our previous lived experiences and the ways in which we are socialized via everyday interactions. As such, the theory contends, reality becomes socially constructed as we experience it and learn about it, and we each therefore develop differing perceptions of reality. Those differences may be fairly minor: Perhaps two witnesses agree that a police officer acted with the needed force in response to a threat but one of them thinks the officer could have toned things down a little. However, they might also be significant: Perhaps those two witnesses disagree over who the aggressor was, and whether any force was needed on the officer’s part.
This perspective is important because it presumes that individuals act based on their unique perceptions of reality. For example, if someone perceives the officer to have acted with unnecessary force, they may be more likely to protest against police brutality than someone else who perceives that exact same situation to have involved an appropriate response. As this example suggests, the theory posits that different people experience different constructed realities — even when they inhabit the same spaces under the same present circumstances.
It follows from this theoretical perspective that the world consists of multiple perceived realities. Those perceived realities are shaped by a range of factors, operating from an individual level (e.g., one’s preconceptions, perhaps resulting from their particular upbringing) to a social systems level (e.g., the dominant systems of thought within their culture). In short, while there may indeed be a singular ‘true’ reality out there, made up of material things and governed by the laws of physics, an individual’s perception of that reality is just an approximation of it. And, sometimes, it’s not a very accurate one.
A crucial implication of this perspective is that it is simply impossible for journalism to mirror reality. That is, if a journalist cannot fully capture a ‘true’ reality because of their human shortcomings, then they cannot possibly replicate it in their work. Instead, journalism is, at best, a good approximation of reality, with the journalist’s job being to approximate that reality as best they can.
Even if one rejects the proposition that individuals inherently cannot mirror reality, there is also a practical issue at play that makes framing theory useful: Even if journalists could accurately replicate reality, they simply do not have the time or space to show everything about that reality. Instead, they can only show a small portion of it.
For example, consider a televised broadcast of a protest against police brutality. One may think that setting up a camera and pointing it at the crowd offers a mirror of reality — after all, it is a simple, mechanical recording of what’s happening. However, the camera can only show one angle of what is happening. Depending on where it is placed, it may be too close and miss the entire scope of the crowd — or, it may be too far and make the crowd appear small or miss important details about the interactions. As such, the journalist must make a choice to place the camera in the place that they believe offers the best representation (approximation) of the ‘reality’ of that event.
But journalists rarely ever just point a camera at something and call it a day. A large part of their job is to make sense of what is happening. Put another way, even if they just report ‘facts’ — and facts are themselves contentious things — they must still connect those facts. The process of making sense of reality is inherently an interpretive (and thus constructive) act.
One way to conceptualize that process of sense-making is through framing theory and, specifically, media framing. Sociologist Robert Entman refers to media framing as the process by which an individual “selects some aspects of a perceived reality and makes them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.” That’s a lot to take in, so let’s break it down.
First, this conceptualization of the framing process — and there are other ways of conceptualizing it — involves two key sub-processes. The first is selection, or the choices about what to include or exclude about that perceived reality. The second is salience, or the choices about what to emphasize about that perceived reality and what to downplay. These choices, again, are often driven by the necessity of communicating something within a finite amount of time or space — like a handful of live tweets or a 30-second broadcast segment.
Second, this conceptualization describes four main acts of framing. The first is diagnosing problems, or defining the issues associated with a topic. For example, the aforementioned broadcast segment on a protest may choose to diagnose the problem as police using excessive force against detainees or as the vilification of police. The second is diagnosing causes, or identifying what or who are the main forces driving the problem. For example, that segment may choose to focus on a hurtful culture within policing or an inadequate amount of police training. The third is making moral evaluations, which may include asserting whether the causal agents or the consequences of an issue are good or bad. For example, that segment may assert that these protests are good because they may serve as catalysts for change, or bad because the protests are divisive within society. The fourth is recommending treatments, which describe potential ‘solutions’ to the identified problems. For example, that segment may assert that systemic reform is necessary or that police should receive more support from other actors and institutions.
The result of that process is the media frame, which refers to the written, spoken, graphical, or visual message that a communicator uses to contextualize a topic, such as a person, event, episode, or issue, within a text transmitted to receivers by means of mediation.
Again, there’s a lot to unpack there, but the key takeaway is that media frames are the tools that communicators — including journalists — use to simplify and contextualize an issue or event. A single frame (or media text, like a news story) does not need to include all four of those acts of media framing. In fact, news stories rarely do, especially when they aim to be as neutral as possible.
Moreover, media framing and frames involve both conscious and subconscious processes of selection and salience. Put another way, a journalist may consciously adopt a particular frame because it addresses questions they believe their audiences will want answers to, even as they subconsciously reject alternative frames because they recall seeing those frames in recent coverage by a competitor.
Finally, it is crucial to recognize that news stories often include information from different sources, which in turn shapes the frame. For example, a journalist may only diagnose the problems associated with the aforementioned protest with their words but add elements of moral evaluation to the story’s frame by including quotes from a source that asserts the police acted in a brutal and unprofessional way.
Journalistic frames often impact audiences’ understandings of and attitudes toward a topic or issue. In this way, they influence the realities that those audience members construct. This may include interpretations not only of basic elements, like what happened, but broader (and no less impactful) notions about what is most important or problematic about a topic or issue, who are the good and bad people involved, and what are or aren’t sensible solutions to a given problem.
To illustrate this, consider the two following news briefs about two emerging treatments for a group of 600 people who have been infected by a dangerous virus.
The first news brief notes that if Treatment A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. However, if Treatment B is adopted, there is a 1/3 chance that all 600 people will be saved and a 2/3 chance that nobody will be saved.
The second news brief notes that if Treatment A is adopted, 400 people will die. However, if Treatment B is adopted, there is a 1/3 chance that nobody will die and a 2/3 chance that all 600 people will die.
The depictions in those two news briefs are functionally equivalent, with Treatment A being the risk-averse option and Treatment B being the risk-seeking option. However, if a random set of 50 readers were shown the first brief and another 50 random readers were shown the second, the theoretical expectation is that the people shown the first brief — which is more positive — would be more likely to select the risk-averse option (Treatment A). In contrast, the readers who were shown the second depiction — which is more negative — would be more likely to select the risk-seeking option (Treatment B). This is an example of what we call gain/loss framing, one of the many different approaches to framing in psychology.
However, the extent of those impacts is neither uniform nor universal. Modern theories of message processing reject the view that audiences are passive and just accept journalistic frames. Instead, audiences process those messages in light of their existing knowledge and attitudes, which is in turn shaped by their lived experiences and non-media messages (e.g., discussions with friends and family). For example, a person who has had a negative encounter with the police is generally more likely to accept a frame that centers them as the aggressor — or, conversely, to reject such a frame if their experiences have been exclusively positive.
Repeated exposure to particular frames can develop associations over time. For example, seeing repeated images of police brutality may link the concepts of police and brutality over time, such that when the concept of police is triggered — even in other contexts — the individual will also think about brutal actions. Alternatively, that repeated exposure may make it so that when the concept of brutality comes up, the individual may think of the police as an example. Such connections can be both strengthened and weakened by frames. For example, if that same individual is repeatedly exposed to media examples of police engaging in good deeds, the existing negative connections are challenged and may thus become weaker.
Journalistic frames tend to be most impactful in situations where individuals are highly dependent on journalistic media for their understanding of an issue, and especially when there is greater ambiguity around an issue. That is because there are fewer preexisting associations, allowing the media associations to serve as the primary driver. Thus, journalistic frames are especially impactful when they involve contexts, people, and ideas that are new or foreign to an individual.
Finally, it’s also important to keep in mind that journalistic actors are themselves audiences. They therefore not only have their own lived experiences to draw upon but also regularly consume media messages crafted by other actors. As such, they are also impacted by repeated exposure to certain frames and associations. They may consequently go on to subconsciously repeat elements of dominant frames and associations within their work, which in turn reifies those frames and makes those associations even more salient within society. Conversely, those journalistic actors may seek to use their awareness of the dominant frames to challenge them by including counter-frames that weaken problematic associations.
According to the Social Construction of Reality perspective, an individual’s view of reality is not entirely (or even mainly) objective. Instead, it becomes socially constructed as that individual filters things through their own existing knowledge and experiences.
The framing process involves both conscious and subconscious processes of selection (what to include or exclude) and salience (what to emphasize or downplay). Journalistic outlets can thus depict the same topic in different ways.
Media frames may impact individuals’ understandings of and attitudes toward a topic or issue, but those impacts are not uniform or universal. That’s because media frames interact with existing knowledge and attitudes.
Journalistic actors are themselves influenced by frames, and may therefore reinforce (or challenge) dominant associations through the framing choices in their work.