The Framing Process
Increasing Media Literacy
It is important to understand the framing process in order to be media literate because failing to understand it can lead to a wide range of errors and faulty assumptions in meaning. Framing, when done as a process, can itself be an error of perception that limits your view of a total phenomenon (Potter, 2004) so that you only focus on a selected part of that phenomenon. This can be the result of either the media giving an incomplete message or an audience member using an incomplete schema that limits perception.
This article examines the framing process using several chapters from James Potter's book Theory of Media Literacy, as well as academic articles by Scheufele and Wicks. Therefore, it is important to recap what exactly those materials discuss before more critically examining the framing process.
Constructing and Framing Meaning
A Review of Literature
Chapter 9 from Theory of Media Literacy covers meaning matching, a relatively simple task of associating referents with existing meanings. This is generally done automatically, which can lead to a lot of opportunities for inaccurate or faulty matching. A strong personal locus that denies continuous automaticity is necessary to be more media literate.
Chapter 10 discusses meaning construction, including errors in the process like the mistake of constructing meaning for real-world situations using schemata that are informed by the media-world. This is a problem that is in contrast to the problem of being unable to couple inert knowledge. People also use intuitive shortcuts or heuristics to increase efficiency at constructing meaning.
Chapter 11 covers the traps in meaning construction, which are all generally caused by a lack of resources. Framing is defined as a skill trap that limits the product of analysis. It can be either a product of the media limiting elements in a message or the viewer using a limiting schema, either of which can result in an inaccurate construction of meaning.
Chapter 12 states that the ultimate goal of media literacy should be to better inform practices. These include techniques like active mediation, which can reduce the negative effects of media and increase media literacy. A teacher’s role can be seen as helping others move from dependency and automaticity in meaning matching to a strong personal locus of meaning construction.
“Framing as a Theory of Media Effects” identifies four processes that contribute to framing: frame building, frame setting, individual-level processes, and feedback. Dependent and independent variables are also discussed, with dependent variables influencing the creation of frames, and independent variables covering the effects of frames.
"Message Framing and Constructing Meaning" discusses the overlap between frames, schemata, and agenda setting by the media. This article also shows the connection between media messages and individual thoughts and feelings about the message based on its framing. Special attention is given to potential ways to successfully link message framing with meaning construction.
Analyzing the Effects of Media and Framing
Since meaning matching is a relatively simple competency, there is a danger that people can overly rely on it to understand media messages, thus framing issues in a way that limits deeper understanding. Further, media itself uses syntactic and other structural dimensions to encourage the use of frames that benefit the media provider more than the audience.
For example, advertisers will frame the products they are selling as being of great value to customers, while the deals for these products are structured in such a way that confuses their true cost and value. Cell phone plans are one area where the actual costs to a consumer are so obscured that it is often easier to take advertising for unlimited minute/text/data plans at face value and ignore asterisks that refer to the fine print and the additional costs listed therein.
Many people know now to be suspicious of advertisements, but there are other areas of media, such as news sources, where people are not as sophisticated in their use of knowledge structures. News sources will often frame a story in a particular way, be it human interest, conflict, or consequence. The way these stories are framed then influences the way people interpret them, often in a “hydraulic pattern” that emphasizes one type of response to the exclusion of others. Since people may not even know they are doing this, this type of framing can drastically diminish a potential for media literacy.
There is also the danger of using framing for reinforcing existing stereotypes or opinions. As Scheufele points out, media frame issues in ways that are predictably patterned, which requires only meaning matching competency from the audience. And when the audience engages in this competency, they are likely to use only existing schemata. The audience will not develop improved knowledge structures or constructions of meaning for media that is seen as repetitions of familiar patterns. Existing stereotypes that are easy to reinforce in the political sphere are conservatives who are portrayed as insensitive to social issues or liberals who are soft on crime, or even the catch-all ‘all politicians are liars.’
However, it is not impossible to use frames as a tool to improve media literacy, as long as they are used consciously. Typically, frames are used to recognize patterns quickly as the result of a drive for efficiency, and they act as bridges between general phenomena and specific understanding. But just like the bridges of heuristics, these shortcuts can limit the understanding of the phenomena. Therefore, it would be useful to purposely use multiple frames when examining an issue presented by the media. In short, this can be done by trying to perceive issues from as many hypothetical vantage points as possible. As Wicks points out in reference to Kahneman & Tversky’s research, different cognitive frames cause different people to arrive at different conclusions for the same situations, so a greater understanding of these situations could be gained by consciously activating these different frames or schemata when constructing meaning for that situation.
In empathic terms, adopting an unfamiliar frame or schema can prevent feeling good about the misfortune of other people simply because one holds an unfavorable opinion of that person. This negative mind-set is ripe for abuse by media content providers with an agenda bias, which can lead to examples such as liberals being happy that a conservative politician (or vice versa) with unfavorable policies has been caught in a sexual scandal unrelated to politics.
Framing Effects and You
In conclusion, while there are many instances of heuristics and framing being useful ways to parse information for personal use, it is far more likely that these same techniques can lead to a misunderstanding of media, and thus decreased media literacy. These misunderstandings can be encouraged by media producers who want to maximize profit through confusion, as well as consumers who use framing as an irresponsible shortcut to decoding a message. After considering the impact message framing may have on your own life, you might also want to ask yourself, "What traps in meaning-construction am I most likely to experience on a day-to-day basis?"