Framing and Frame Analysis

Framing and Objectivity

Frame Analysis Goffman’s idea about how people use expectations to make sense of everyday life

While critical cultural researchers were developing reception analysis during the 1980s, a new approach to audience research was taking shape in the United States. It had its roots in symbolic interaction and social constructionism. As we’ve seen, both argue that the expectations we form about ourselves, other people, and our social world are central to social life. You have probably encountered many terms in this and other textbooks that refer to such expectations—stereotypes, attitudes, typification schemes, and racial or ethnic bias. All these concepts assume that our expectations are socially constructed:

  1. Expectations are based on previous experience of some kind, whether derived from a media message or direct personal experience (in other words, we aren’t born with them).
  2. Expectations can be quite resistant to change, even when they are contradicted by readily available factual information.
  3. Expectations are often associated with and can arouse strong emotions such as hate, fear, or love.
  4. Expectations often get applied by us without our conscious awareness, especially when strong emotions are aroused that interfere with our ability to consciously interpret new information available in the situation.

Social Cues

In frame analysis, information in the environment that signals a shift or change of action


In frame analysis, a specific set of expectations used to make sense of a social situation at a given point in time

Downshift and Upshift

In frame analysis, to move back and forth between serious and less serious frames


representations Media content constructed to highlight only the most meaningful actions

Primary, or dominant reality

In frame analysis, the real world in which people and events obey certain conventional and widely accepted rules (sometimes referred to as the dominant reality)

1. Focuses attention on individuals in the mass communication process2. Micro-level theory but is easily applicable to macro-level effects issues   3. Is highly flexible and open-ended 4. Is consistent with recent findings in cognitive psychology 1. Is highly flexible and open-ended (lacks specificity)2. Is not able to address presence or absence of effects   3. Precludes causal explanations because of qualitative research methods 4. Assumes individuals make frequent framing errors; questions individuals’ abilities

Recent Theories of Frames and Framing

A conceptual framework that considers (1) the social and political context in which framing takes place, and (2) the long-term social and political consequences of media-learned frames. Most of this framing research has focused on journalism and on the way news influences our experience of the social world. Early examples of framing research applied to journalism can be found in the scholarship of two sociologists whom you met in the last chapter, Todd Gitlin (1980) and Gaye Tuchman (1978). Their work is frequently cited and played an important role in extending Goffman’s ideas. Gitlin focused on news coverage of politically radical groups during the late 1960s. He argued that they were systematically presented in ways that demeaned their activities and ignored their ideas. These representations made it impossible for them to achieve their objectives. Tuchman focused on routine news production work and the serious limitations inherent in specific strategies for coverage of events. Although the intent of these practices is to provide objective news coverage, the result is news stories in which events are routinely framed in ways that eliminate much of their ambiguity and instead reinforce socially accepted and expected ways of seeing the social world.

Framing and Objectivity

Framing theory challenges a long accepted and cherished tenet of journalism—the notion that news stories can or should be objective. Instead, it implies that journalism’s role should be to provide a forum in which ideas about the social world are routinely presented and debated. As it is now, this forum is dominated by social institutions having the power to influence frames routinely used to structure news coverage of the social world.

News Reality Frames

News accounts in which interested elites involve journalists in the construction of news drama that blurs underlying contextual realities

Effects of Frames on News Audiences

Researchers have documented the influence frames can have on news audiences. The most common finding is that exposure to news coverage results in learning that is consistent with the frames that structure the coverage. If the coverage is dominated by a single frame, especially one originating from an elite source, learning will tend to be guided by this frame (Ryan, Carragee, and Meinhofer, 2001; Valkenburg and Semetko, 1999). What this research has also shown is that news coverage can strongly influence the way news readers or viewers make sense of news events and their major actors. This is especially true of news involving an ongoing series of highly publicized and relevant events, such as social movements (McLeod and Detenber, 1999; Nelson and Clawson, 1997; Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997). Typically, news coverage is framed to support the status quo, resulting in unfavorable views of movements. The credibility and motives of movement leaders are frequently undermined by frames that depict them as overly emotional, disorganized, or childish.

Reforming Journalism Based on Framing Theory

Some framing theorists have begun to advocate changes in journalism that might overcome these limitations. Gans (2003) advocates what he calls participatory news. This is news that reports how citizens routinely engage in actions that have importance for their communities. He points out that this type of coverage has vanished even from local newspapers, but it could be a vital part of encouraging more people to become politically engaged. Participatory news could range from covering conversations in coffee shops to reports on involvement in social groups. Reports on social movements could be “reframed” so they feature positive aspects rather than threats posed to the status quo. He argues that coverage of participation is the best way for journalists to effectively promote it.

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