Picture This: How We Frame Issues Matters for Social Change
Picture This: How We Frame Issues Matters for Social Change
This multi-part series presented in partnership with The Communications Network, the FrameWorks Institute, and leading organizations explores how framing profoundly influences our understanding of social challenges, and how we think and talk about potential solutions.

In 2008, on the very same day then-Senator Barack Obama won 61 percent of the vote in California, the state approved Proposition 8, an initiative that set out to ban marriage for gay and lesbian couples. How did this happen in one of the most liberal and LGBTQ-friendly states in America?

The short answer: frames.

During the Prop 8 campaign, marriage equality advocates spent sizable sums of money encouraging voters to choose equality and fairness, to ensure that gay and lesbian couples could enjoy the same rights and benefits straight couples receive when they marry. But their “rights and benefits” frame didn’t work.

In the wake of a stinging defeat, some advocates urged organizations devoted to marriage equality to do more of the same, only louder. But a small minority suspected that perhaps the problem was not the idea of marriage equality, but how advocates presented it—how they framed it. This group went out and conducted field research to identify a framework that could help at least 51 percent of Americans support marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

They found the answer hiding in plain sight: traditional marriage vows, and their emphasis on love and commitment. While the “rights and benefits” frame was persuasive for about 39 percent of the voting population, it unintentionally emphasized what was different about gay and lesbian couples, and suggested an effort was underway to upset the institution of marriage and American families. The “love and commitment” framework, on the other hand, was familiar and compelling to many people in the moderate middle of America’s political spectrum.

By 2012, activists in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state had adopted this frame, prompting a historic shift that culminated in the Supreme Court’s affirmation of everyone's right to marry.

This series, Picture This, is presented in partnership with The Communications Network, the FrameWorks Institute, and organizations working on the front lines of some of society’s most important challenges. It aims to show how frames profoundly influence our understanding of social issues—and how we can use them to open up new ways of thinking and talking about solutions.

To effect broad and transformational change, we believe that social change leaders of all stripes must develop a deep understanding of how frames work. The science of framing has emerged over the last half century from linguistics, political science, sociology, and psychology. Framing concerns the choices we make when presenting information and how those choices affect people’s attitudes, understandings, and actions.

Framing is what we choose to say and how we choose to say it. But it’s also what we leave unsaid. It’s the values we use to build support for our cause. (“We all have a responsibility to protect our planet.”) It’s the metaphors we chose to explain an abstract or unfamiliar process. (“Chronic stress can have a ‘toxic’ effect on the developing brain.”) It’s the messengers who make our case. (In the United Kingdom, bishops are especially compelling messengers about poverty.) Frames include other elements, such as tone, numbers and statistics, solutions, and visuals. Together, these elements create an overarching frame that has been shown to powerfully shape how we think and feel, and what we do.

Academics talk about “frames in communication” and “frames in thought.” In plain English, this means messages contain cues that trigger certain patterns of thinking. In the 1980s, President Reagan framed his case for lower taxes as “trickle-down” economics. Four decades later, the frame persists both in communication and thinking, and continues to shape how we understand the economy and the actions that we can see as appropriate and effective for improving it. “Trickle down” has framed how Americans think and act on economic issues; the frame was used again this past year to generate support for a new round of tax cuts.

We encounter framing everywhere and every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. Just think: Welfare queens, death panels, dreamers, the safety net, the big bang, nature vs. nurture, addictive personalities, chain migration, the ozone hole, partial birth abortion, the achievement gap, the invisible hand of the market, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, anchor babies, evidence-based medicine, clean coal—this list of today’s hot-button issues is Exhibit A for just how ubiquitous framing is.

But framing is more than naming. It’s also about the connections we choose to draw between ideas. Is a protest march against violence an exercise in freedom, or a threat to security? These kinds of choices pack a frame with perspective and power, and determine how we see an issue and what we’re willing to do as a result. In short, the way we frame an issue strongly influences the way we think and feel about it. That’s why it’s so important that we get the frames right before they seep into our cultural drinking water, where they push and pull our public discourse and collective thinking in important and enduring ways.

Through “reframing”—the process of changing the thoughts and actions triggered by messaging cues, as we described with marriage equality above—we can shift how people understand and respond to the issues we care about. We can build and grow movements for change. A growing body of evidence bears this out. In one study, for example, researchers asked people if, given the importance of free speech, they supported allowing a hate group to hold a political rally. Eighty-five percent said “yes.” When the same question was framed around the risk of violence posed by this activity, fewer than half (40 percent) said the same. Changing the frame changed the response.  

In this series, we aim to provide clarity on framing: what it is, how it works, and how to apply it to social issue campaigns. We will explore how framing has moved into the on-the-ground strategies behind some of most recognizable and transformative social change victories in the United States.

The series kicks off with an exploration of the role of social hierarchies and institutions in perpetrating sexual violence in the era of #MeToo.

In coming weeks, we’ll also explore:

  • Why now is the time to engage in a substantive and consequential dialogue about guns in America
  • How the divisive issue of immigration is currently framed and where it could go
  • Why the climate change conversation is stuck and how a new frame could offer a way forward 
  • Why we need to reconsider how we think about aging and why getting there requires new language
  • How a new kind of conversation about affordable housing could yield radically different results
  • How reframing addiction in the midst of an opioid epidemic could open up new dialogues and invite new solutions

We will explore the current framing of these issues, and potential ways to reframe the debates around them to achieve change. There’s a science to this, and the world we’re walking in today is built on—and of—frames. But, just because they exist doesn’t mean they have to persist—particularly when they create obstacles to social progress. Changing the frame can help us move toward a stronger, more equitable, and more hopeful world.