Frame analysis

Frame analysis offers a theoretical, methodological, and critical tool for exploring processes of meaning making and influence among governmental and social elites, news media, and the public. This entry provides an examination of frame analysis by defining its key terms and identifying four relevant methodological questions. This entry then applies frame analysis to a timely case study related to the War on Terror and concludes by discussing future directions for research.

Key Terms

According to Stephen Reese, a frame is a socially shared organizing principle that works symbolically to shape democratic discourse and influence public opinion by creating and promoting particular vocabularies. Frames appear most vividly in media coverage. Consider the journalistic choices that precede a news story about a crime in your neighborhood, an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, or a terrorist attack in the Middle East. Newspaper readers or television viewers will want to know what happened, why, and what should be done about it. News directors, producers, and journalists will want to answer those questions in a way that resonates with the cognitive schema already in place in the minds of their audience. The frame is the socially shared organizing principle that informs how media coverage can fulfill the audience’s need to make sense of these news events in a way that aligns with their existing orientations.

Frames serve an important heuristic function. According to Robert Entman, frames allow for mental shortcuts. This shortcut function can be compared with how you might remember a new phone number: your brain may have trouble recalling all 10 digits of a phone number on command. It has a much easier time recalling two sets of three digits and one set of four (555-364-1037). Frames work similarly. By turning fragmented symbolic resources into coherent organizing schema, frames can transform complex political, social, cultural, and economic issues into manageable, chunk-able thought structures.

Scholars from several disciplines, including journalism, political science, and communication and rhetorical studies, have used framing to analyze the rhetorical and ideological potency of our sense-making processes. Here is where frame analysis departs from the phone number comparison. Unlike a phone number, frames do not merely produce a neutral account of the world. There is no objective truth that a frame can illuminate. Explaining why a crime occurred, a protest rally was held, or an act of violence was committed may appear natural and common sense in the media coverage, but it never is. Frames are always imposing a specific logic on an audience and foreclosing alternative perspectives in subtle and taken-for-granted ways. Frame analysis attracts the attention of scholars interested in power because frames define the terms of debate in strategic ways. Frames shape public opinion through the persuasive use of symbols, and in many cases, end up influencing legislative and public policy decisions.

The process of framing described here can sometimes seem like part of a cynical plot employed by elites, politicians, and media power brokers crowded into smoke-filled rooms deciding how to best manipulate news coverage in a way that conforms to their selfish interests. Fortunately, that top-down description of framing is deeply misguided. Framing is not brainwashing. Frames are not targeted at a referential, static, and passive audience. The power of a frame is not derived from its capacity to completely shape discourse and opinion. Frames do not work on audiences, they work with audiences. Frames encourage a particular interpretive lens, but because frames are contingent and dynamic, they must derive their appeal from existing cultural narratives, symbolic traditions, and social orientations. The contingent and dynamic nature of framing opens up fresh and exciting lines of inquiry for the communication researcher.

Methodological Issues in Frame Analysis

As a theoretical perspective, frame analysis is concerned with identifying a set of systematic, generalizable principles that illuminates the relationship between governmental elites, media, and the public. More specifically, frame analysis researchers use the following descriptive questions to guide their work.

  • 1.
    What describes the symbolic foundation of a frame? Because frames are revealed in symbolic expressions, frame analysis researchers begin by looking for specific vocabularies in media coverage. Researchers identify and catalog both the verbal and visual symbols that come together to constitute a specific set of vocabularies. Certain symbols are packaged together creating patterns and allowing for the positioning of a set of symbolic resources within a larger rhetorical environment.
  • 2.
    What describes the symbolic patterns and themes used to weave together a coherent frame? Frame analysis is marked by a dialectic of oscillation among power elites, media, and the public. Originating in Fox News production meetings and White House briefing rooms, a variety of symbolic resources are initially deployed. Not all of them stick. Not all of them become frames. The symbols that do are reproduced by the public in a way that confirms the resonance of a particular interpretive lens. Therefore, researchers keep an eye out for consistency, durability, and lasting power. When symbols cohere strongly enough and for long enough, they can lift an isolated event, issue, or person into a larger narrative.
  • 3.
    What describes the cultural constraints and social situations revealed by the symbolic coherence of particular frames? There is always enough “news” to fill the pages of the newspaper and the minutes of a newscast. Frame analysis researchers are mindful that the journalistic decisions about what to cover and what not to cover hold important implications. Frames are produced by a series of strategic decisions made by news directors, producers, and journalists. Those decisions position an abstract event, issue, or person into a concrete schema in a way that is designed to resonate with an audience. When done effectively, those decisions resonate with the public in a way that will ensure a large audience, along with advertising dollars. The frame reveals the journalist’s perspective on what will attract an audience. By choosing to cover this event (and not that one), media coverage can influence what solutions are proposed by first dictating how problems are defined. Thus, the frame analysis researcher attends to absences and silences and to what is said and unsaid.
  • 4.
    What describes the power relationships produced by a particular frame? Framing is an exercise in power. Frames are often constructed and disseminated in the service of social and institutional interests. While we know the effect is not total and deterministic, frame analysis researchers are aware of the asymmetrical power relationship among elites, media, and the public. Framing researchers are therefore concerned with whose interests are being served by the symbolic production of frames. More specifically, frame analysis researchers explore the hierarchies of power produced by accepting one frame and not another. Accordingly, framing researchers tend to feel more comfortable than quantitative communication scholars making evaluative judgments of artifacts.

These four descriptive questions can be operationalized in a short analysis of the framing techniques that came together to produce the War on Terror.

Case Study: War on Terror

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were the defining moment of the 21st century. These horrific events required new sense-making techniques to explain what happened, why, and how we should respond. Put another way, 9/11 required a frame. Government and media elites began to construct a War on Terror frame by deploying symbolic resources designed to move an infinite number of amorphous and complex sense-making techniques into comprehensible structures that could guide public deliberations, foreclosed alternatives, and justified subsequent governmental responses. These symbolic resources were first deployed to make sense of urgent questions related to what happened and why. Answers to those questions were found by portraying the attackers as senseless evildoers intent on killing innocent Americans because they hated Americans’ freedom. As these symbols evolved into a coherent frame, potential responses to the 9/11 attacks narrowed. Consider how one responds to a person without sense. Reasoning doesn’t work. The only option this frame allows for is an immediate, war-like response against the perpetrators and the states that protected them.

Although it was hard to see at the time, one can look back years later and see how the War on Terror became concrete, natural, and uncontestable. The War on Terror became an internalized, taken-for-granted description of what appeared to be inevitable domestic and foreign policy choices costing trillions of dollars and leading to invasions of privacy and 12 years of war. Entman outlined a potential alternative in media coverage of the Black Hawk Down debacle. In that situation, pictures of dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Somalia prompted a flight response based on an anti-interventionist, quagmire frame fueling the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region and contributing to President Bill Clinton’s reluctance to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda 2 years later. Without the War on Terror frame, it might have been possible to disavow military action after 9/11 in favor of diplomacy and economic sanctions, such as those used against North Korea and Iran. Even less plausible, the attackers could have been framed as freedom fighters striking a blow for justice against the arrogant, imperialist, and decadent American empire; consequently, the United States might have engaged in critical self-reflection about the root causes of terror.

Why did the War on Terror frame succeed so completely? Frame analysis cannot say for sure. Frame analysis does not deal in causality but rather in plausibility. It is the researcher’s methodological imperative to put forth enough evidence for the reader to be convinced.

But it seems likely that the War on Terror was successful, in part, because it required less cognitive cost; it appealed to an organic understanding and already existing mental pathways that connected similar concepts in the past. These mental associations were easier to access, and therefore, became the widely accepted affective heuristic used to narrow political deliberations and policy decisions.

By defining the key terms, outlining four descriptive questions, and anchoring those questions in the War on Terror, this entry has demonstrated the value of frame analysis. Future research should continue to explore the relationship between government and social elites, media, and the public. As a theoretical, methodological, and critical tool, frame analysis offers the communication researcher a powerful way to illuminate sense-making processes that at times can be harmful and punitive to certain populations. Because it is versatile, researchers can use frame analysis to explore the sense-making techniques that illuminate the rhetorical dimensions of our day-to-day lives.