When we talk about ‘media framing’ it’s usually in a negative light. We’re drawing attention to how the news might cover something in a way that takes information out of context, sensationalizes it, or connects it to some kind of larger narrative.1
But could there be an upside to framing? Is it always necessarily a bad thing?
Matthew Nisbet argues that framing is not only an unavoidable aspect of communicating, but that it can actually be an important tool for engaging and informing the public. The example he presents is a committee of scientists in the U.S. who were trying to find out how to best communicate with the public about the issue of teaching evolution to public school students. These scientists worked with members of the public to try and find the best way to convince people that teaching alternatives to evolution is inappropriate for the classroom, and the importance of teaching evolution. What they found was that people were most convinced by the argument that evolutionary science is a modern building block for advances in medicine, and reassurances that teaching evolution doesn’t have to conflict with religious beliefs.
The point here is that simply informing the public of scientific facts won’t necessarily change their perceptions or opinions. Communication isn’t simply a translation of facts; it’s a negotiation of meaning. This means that we need to frame information: science and its policy implications need to be communicated in ways that address an intended audience’s values, interests, and world views.
We see lots of examples where this could be beneficial, and there is a larger movement for journalists to abandon the idea of ‘objectivity’ – something that can potentially be misleading, depending on the subject at hand – and situating information in a broader, more meaningful context, rather than striving to just regurgitate it as accurately as possible.
Another researcher looked at news items about hurricane Irma that appeared on the biggest TV networks in the U.S. and Canada, examining over 1,500 stories. It was found that “climate change” was discussed in only about five per cent of these stories. The news media play a significant role in how we frame concepts, and the more the media frames a story by associating it with certain words and concepts, the more likely we are to use those same words and concepts in our own framing. A large body of research supports the idea that climate change is exacerbating extreme weather, such as hurricanes. But this isn’t something that we see reflected yet in media coverage.
Climate change is a go-to example for the potential benefits of framing. In the past, it’s been framed as an environmental problem. That might sound bizarre – of course climate change is an environmental problem! How else would we talk about it? But climate change can also be presented in a national security context, or as a public health issue.
Some researchers have argued that the Syrian crisis was made much worse by climate change, since a severe drought in the region led to massive food shortages and poverty. This was even recognized in a speech by John Kerry, who was the U.S. secretary of state at the time. This isn’t to say that the Syrian Crisis was caused by climate change. There were violent government crackdowns on political dissent and protest, which more directly caused the civil war that broke out. But the extreme drought, likely caused by climate change, made an already fragile situation that much worse.
Closer to home, there were the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta, which led to the largest evacuation in the province’s history. More than 80,000 people had to abandon their homes. Many climate scientists agree that although it’s not possible to directly link this specific forest fire to climate change, the warming climate is causing a drastic increase in the number and severity of forest fires in Canada. Should this be a part of news coverage of these kinds of events?
Beyond extreme weather, we see many other threats to public health as a result of climate change. Like the fact that many larger Canadian cities could experience a significant rise in the number of smog days, and longer heat waves. We’re also seeing an increase in many infectious diseases as a result of climate change, as disease vectors expand their range and transmission seasons lengthen.
Studies have shown that presenting climate change as a public health issue can be much more convincing, which could help reach people who may be disengaged or hostile to the issue. So this isn’t to say that scientists should be dishonest and present climate change in ways that are untrue, but that the way climate change is framed – as an environmental versus public health issue – can have a positive impact on public perceptions. This hopefully could include members of the public who are typically hardest to reach about this.
There isn’t unanimous support behind this idea of framing climate change. A New York Times op-ed from representatives of the Breakthrough Institute argued that re-framing climate change as a public health or security issue relies too heavily on scare tactics, which might ultimately harm the message.
They say that, “There is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire,” as “More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.”
So there is some dispute around this. The scientists and researchers who believe that it is beneficial to reframe climate change as a public health or security issue argue that there’s an important distinction between this kind of reframing, on the one hand, and fear mongering or sensationalism on the other hand – which can backfire and lead to further denial and polarization.
Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Framing Science: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement. In L. Kahlor & P. Stout (Eds.), Communicating Science: New Agendas in Communication (pp.40-67). New York, NY: Routledge.
Ryan, C., Carragee, K. M., & Meinhofer, W. (2001). Theory into practice: Framing, the news media, and collective action. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 45(1), 175-182.