In a perfect world, facts and information would be presented objectively so that people could make rational, educated decisions. Unfortunately, information is rarely bestowed in such a pristine manner. Instead, it is often presented in the form of argumentation, in which someone is trying to convince you to do something or to think a certain way. The framing of arguments is an important concept to understand inasmuch as it shapes how information is shared and interpreted. Here are some examples:
An editorial in the Tribune that laments how lazy and unmotivated millennials are instead of focusing on the moribund job market.
Someone who denies global warming by complaining about government overreach instead of discussing the science, itself.
A politician who wants to cut funding for scientific research and justifies it by only presenting examples of unpopular or frivolous-sounding studies.
Someone who editorializes about sexual assault in a campus newspaper by focusing on the culture of drinking on campus instead of the actual crime of sexual assault.
These are ways of packaging information that attempt to delegitimize or minimize one aspect of the discussion while focusing almost entirely on another. The techniques people sometimes use to frame arguments are thoroughly and expertly explained by Dr. Biljana Scott. Please familiarize yourself with the list of framing techniques she has provided here.
Dr. Scott begins by showing that people may create persuasive frames for information simply by asserting that X is the important fact to which we must pay attention in this moment. But X may be the most important factor only in the possibly narrow interests of the speaker who asserts it. That is, just because the speaker says it is the most important thing doesn’t necessarily make it so. Being critically aware of your own interests may help you recognize when information is being framed in a way that is leaving important things out of the discussion. Keep in mind that the opposite is also true: being too attached to your own interests may lead you to ignore important information with which you happen to disagree.
Making an assertion is the easiest and most obvious form of framing. Other, more subtle examples of framing are the reliance on stereotypes (such as Reagan’s infamous “welfare queens”) and typecasting (when a complex and nuanced world is drawn up in oversimplified terms, such as family businesses vs. spoiled, lazy workers). Framing may likewise rely on authority and tradition to intone that a new way of doing things is against our shared cultural values. Even the connotations of individual words may be embedded with meaning that sways your opinions. Consider the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists, environmentalists and environmental extremists, or government oversight and nanny state. Each word has connotations the other does does not, and those small differences can leave a big imprint on an argument.
Because these techniques are used to present arguments that ultimately drive personal behavior and public policy, the information literate individual should strive to recognize frames and re-contextualize the information both in more neutral and more holistic terms.
Examples of framing are abundant in responses to discussions about global warming. Consider how framing makes these arguments more appealing to their readers:
In William Rusher’s “Al Gore and the Global Warming Scare,” which appeared in Human Events, a libertarian-leaning publication, the argument responds to people’s “natural worry about dangers that are invisible,” which establishes concern as a typical human response but also immediately frames global warming as the same kind of thing that we have always worried about, which, obviously, was not so bad because we have not been wiped out yet. He takes some potshots at Gore’s failed bid for the presidency, and then asserts that his “An Inconvenient Truth” only shows the worst case scenario, thus playing into his readership’s long-held opinion that democrats are always turning mole hills into mountains in their social crusades. He then wonders if the film is only a political stunt in case he wants to run for office again.
In Harry Binswanger’s “Global Warming, Was It All Just a Beautiful Dream After All?” the author laments that global warming has not brought him an earlier spring and a few weeks more of short-sleeve weather. He brings out the trope that in the 1970s some scientists thought we were headed toward a new ice age. According to Skeptical Science, this is not an especially accurate argument; however, it is used to reinforce the reader’s perception that either the scientists are inconsistent or that they actually just don’t know what they are talking about. He then hits on some other familiar ideas, namely that climate change won’t be that bad, that the claims are exaggerated, and as always he hints that politics are to blame for our overblown response to a non-existent problem:
In Ann Coulter’s “Gore’s Global Warming Religion,” she takes Gore to task for being a hypocrite (his house burns more electricity that others in the area, and he is overweight, thus consuming more energy), she treats the scientists who are warning us about global warming as a “cult,” and she draws a parallel between carbon offsets, meant to neutralize (or at least mitigate) one’s environmental impact with the practice of papal indulgences, in which someone could donate to the church to have a loved one prayed out of purgatory.
The frame is successful in a number of ways. It stokes our moral outrage at hypocrites, it shames Al Gore for being overweight, delegitimizes science by assigning it “cult” status, and plays on her largely Protestant readership’s historic mistrust of the Catholic church. Interestingly, David C. Barker of the University of Pittsburgh and David H. Bearce of the University of Colorado found in their “End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change” that belief in Biblical prophecy of the “end times” and of the 2nd coming of Christ was for some people a “motivating factor behind resistance to curbing climate change.” Given the large percentage of Republicans who are Protestant and who profess belief in the end-times prophecies (76% according to their sample), the frame is rock solid for her political purposes.
Yet, what the article does not do is talk about science. Nor do the others except in the most cursory way, hinting that they have science behind their opinions, but never showing us exactly what that science is or who produced it. Such information is, of course, vital so that the public may compare it with the body of work already extant. But successful framing goes a long way toward minimizing such concerns. Comparing the words of those articles to the framing techniques Scott enumerates shows that each author employs several key frames to convince his or her audience in counterfactual ways.