Everything is already framed

All communications are framed – the only question is whether or not you recognise this and choose how to frame them.

I was reminded of this by a recent conversation with an academic at one of our top universities. The researcher was wary of framing. Instead, she wanted her data and analysis to tell their own story and allow the reader to reach the logical conclusion. Sounds reasonable. Perhaps she had come across one of the most commonly cited definitions of framing:

“To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular …[understanding]”
Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Towards clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51–58.

At a glance, this definition might lead us to imagine that framing is optional. However, if we unpick it, we can see how all communications are in fact framed. (The optional part is whether or not we choose how to frame.)

Considering the choice of words or images to include in a communication is an act of framing. Emphasising certain ideas and not others, is a further act of framing. Whenever we communicate, framing cannot be escaped – and this includes academic communications.

Robert Entman also described framing as: “a way to describe the power of a communicating text”. The frame is where the explanatory power lies. If we fail to recognise framing power, and do not explicitly consider our framing choices; one of two things is likely to happen:

  • We may use frames that are counter-productive to our intended purpose. If we have not given consideration to the frames implicit in our choice of words and images, our inclusions or omissions – how can we be sure we are not leading people to understandings that differ from our intention?For example, if our intention is to draw attention to the lack of affordable, nutritious food in some places; then talking about ‘food choices’ rather than ‘options’ is likely to be counter-productive. ‘Choices’ will trigger thinking about individuals’ decision-making or willpower rather than the systems and practices that drive food availability.
  • We hand over control of our communication to our audience. Framing provides the audience with cues about how to interpret information. If we omit these cues, we are inviting them to fill in the blanks for themselves. People will default to certain dominant cultural frames when they fill in the gaps. And the understandings this leads them to, might not be what we intended.For example, when we assert that child obesity is the result of it being much harder for families in some areas to eat healthily; people often assume that the solution is better education about cooking and nutrition. But when we fill in the gaps and explain that children’s health is impacted by a lack of affordable, nutritious food and that better planning rules and advertising restrictions would help increase the flow of healthy options – people are more likely to support these systemic changes rather than defaulting to individual-level solutions.

All communication is framed – the choice is only to frame mindfully or not. Did the academic recognise this in the end? I’m still not sure. But we’ll be here, and we’d be delighted to help her – and you – think through the best frames to use to build the understanding you are seeking.