Expert Commentary

Research chat: Social scientist Dietram A. Scheufele on framing and political communication

A leader in the field of science communication, Scheufele talks about how scientists and journalists can help the public better understand complex issues.

Dietram A. Scheufele (U. Wisconsin)
Dietram A. Scheufele (U. Wisconsin)

Dietram A. Scheufele is the John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has had a distinguished career studying political communication and public attitudes, including toward new technologies such as stem cell research and genetically modified organisms. He was a 2010 fellow at the Shorenstein Center, where he conducted research on the need for public participation in science policy making.

His most recent research examines the role of social media and other emerging modes of communication. A March 2013 op-ed in the New York Times he co-wrote sparked a significant debate on the negative role that reader comments can play in how online content is interpreted. In part as a consequence of the article and the study on which it was based, the magazine Popular Science decided to shut off user comments in September, triggering a further wave of discussion on the issue.

As part of our ongoing “research chat” series, Journalist’s Resource recently talked with him about the role of “framing” in how members of the public strive to understand complex issues and how scientists and journalists can do a better job in communicating. While the notion of framing had long been understood, Scheufele’s pioneering 1999 paper “Framing as a Theory of Media Effects” helped clarify its importance. Subsequent research by other scholars has looked at the role of framing in public understanding of issues such as natural disasters, immigration and financial markets.

The following interview has been edited.


Journalist’s Resource: In looking at your academic papers, you started working on the issue of framing at the very start of your career, in the late 1990s. How has your thinking evolved over the time you’ve been working on this particular issue?

Dietram A. Scheufele: The idea of framing is not necessarily a new one. It’s come from sociology a long time ago, with Erving Goffman and others, and then in psychology. Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work in economics, looked at a very simple decision situation, where you say, “What happens if we present the exact same situational risk or decision in two different ways?” What really pushed the idea though, though, was in the mid-’90s when Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, wrote “Language for the 21st Century,” a 220-page memo he circulated to Republicans on the Hill. It said: “Look, you guys need to start changing how you talk about the issues. Not just what you say, but how do you say it. People will hear it differently if you present it in a particular way.”

That’s where my academic interests started, because all of a sudden this was something that actually mattered in real politics. This was not an academic exercise in the lab, but something that reshaped American politics. Think of all the different framing alternatives that pop up — a rescue package or a bailout package, if it’s gun control or gun safety, pro-life or anti-choice.

Since I first started on this, this has almost become the new standard in American politics, where you barely see a message that has not been pre-tested, be it from think tanks and interest groups to parties and candidates, who will very carefully think about how to frame their message and how that influences interpretation among audiences. So it’s really much less about the content of the message than it is how it is being framed and how it is being presented.

JR: So does that constitute progress?

Dietram A. Scheufele: One thing that’s really important [to understand] is that we all frame messages all the time. When the whole online commenting issue broke again, I was in Washington, D.C., at a conference at the National Academies [“The Science of Communication II,” September 2013]. One of the things I was saying in my talk was that there is no such thing as an unframed message, even in science. If I want to get a National Science Foundation grant, I will have to present it as something that’s truly transformative, that will push society forward, rather than as basic science. By using certain terminology, I’m activating certain mental models in reviewers’ heads. And we do that in day-to-day conversations as well. That’s how we process information, by putting it on shelves in our brains. Framing says, “How can I shape that piece of information so that it fits into a particular category to make information processing easier?” So in many ways it’s always been around.

Coming back to your question, is it progress for politics? It’s inevitable for politics, and it’s not going to go away. If that’s progress or not, I’m fairly agnostic on that. In many ways, I think communication is a dual-use technology: The same types of models that I can use to promote, say, safer-sex behaviors among high school students, for instance — and I think we would all embrace the idea that that’s probably a good message and a good cause — but that the exact same tools can be used to try to influence voters in campaigns. So that’s what I mean by dual-use technology. It’s in that respect very similar to a lot of other technologies that we’re seeing.

Popular Science, November 2013J.R.: Maybe we could hit three news events. You raised the Popular Science comment-thread issue, but I’d also love to hear if you had any thoughts on the government shutdown and the most recent IPCC report. In terms of the Popular Science thing, there’s been a lot of chatter — including on Columbia Journalism Review — about whether your study even justified such a shutdown. And I was wondering if you might comment on their decision and whether that study should trouble news editors enough to actually do this.

Dietram A. Scheufele: When we wrote the New York Times op-ed, a lot of news organizations actually contacted us and said, “What does that mean for us and what should we do?” And I know that my co-author Dominique Brossard has talked extensively to the folks at Popular Science about their decision. So what is the role that social science should play in informing policy?

Vaccinations, for instance, are a good parallel. Science tells us that vaccinations protect us to a particular level from particular illnesses [and] if this many people don’t get vaccinated, then this is the likelihood that an epidemic spreads, and so on. That’s a scientific judgment. Whether we should mandate vaccinations or give exemptions based on religious beliefs and so on and so forth, those are political questions, and science can’t answer those. And I would make a similar separation [for news organizations], where on the one hand that we can provide some evidence for what will happen if certain processes play out online, but any news organization will have to make their own internal decisions because there are factors that go way beyond the science.

Every journalist that I’ve talked to says that it is extremely costly to do good moderation. It takes a lot of resources and it’s still really difficult to get a good dialogue going. And on top of it, some of the unintended consequences that we showed — where it’s not even about what you say, but simply the slight variations in how you say it — really put news editors in a really difficult spot. I think every news organization needs to decide what they’re trying to do and what they’re hoping the outcome is for readers. And that outcome could very well be that they want a dialogue among readers and that that goal overrides, for instance, that their articles could be interpreted in one and only one way.

J.R.: So what approaches can you suggest for journalists out there?

Dietram A. Scheufele: Number one, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution based on our study, certainly. Number two, I would argue that social science has under-delivered on this topic. A lot of editors have asked us, “What is the other research out there?” And there’s really not that much yet. Social science is not living up to its responsibility to inform how we’re going to navigate this new and rapidly changing information environment. The burden is really on us, and we really do need to respond in a way that is relevant to news organizations. Third, Popular Science should be commended for turning to research. We’re making so many decisions based on intuition or hunches, based on what we think will work. We have increasingly slim margins in the news industry and the more we can rely on empirical research to guide those decisions, to lead us to (a) commercially viable solutions and (b) solutions that produce the best outcomes in terms of democratic citizenship, the better.

J.R.: As an aside, we’re reading a lot of the social-science research papers that come out all the time, and there are thousands of people who are doing on-line surveys with imbedded experiments on various questions, and you and Dominique did one of the first papers that actually spoke to the newsroom. It seems like people could use more of their time and talent to do this sort of thing, and just aren’t willing.

Dietram A. Scheufele: I would argue that it’s not just an aside — I totally agree with you. That’s one of the big challenges that we’re facing, as we’re dealing with, for instance, a Congress where some members don’t necessarily see the value of social science. There have been some very good responses. Peter Katzenstein, who’s in government in Cornell, has said, essentially, “Unless social science manages to provide answers to the big floppy questions of our time, the ones that may not have easy answers but that are the most relevant questions, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that people question why we’re doing social science.” Social science has done a very good job establishing itself as a basic science, but I think the next step is to ask, “How does that translate into things that, especially, news organizations can use?”

IPPC AR5 coverJ.R.: So, next up, let’s do IPCC. We know a lot more about communications and obviously the on-line world and Web 2.0 have blossomed since 2007, since AR4, so now we have a new verdict on 95% confidence in human-induced climate change. How do you see the release of the report and are journalists and the media doing a good job of communicating?

Dietram A. Scheufele: For global climate change, the biggest challenge is making it an issue in the first place. Leading up to the 2012 election, both Obama and Romney just ignored the topic. From a priming perspective, from a communication-theory perspective, that makes perfect sense — the system is just not that set up to talk about these things. For example, you have Bill Clinton running against Bush 41, who comes out of the Gulf War with high approval ratings. The economy starts picking up as an issue because it’s not doing so well. Bill Clinton of course hammers this and says “It’s the economy, stupid.” As the issue of the economy becomes salient, all the connected nodes get activated in their minds, including the fact that Bush 41 didn’t know what a supermarket scanner was. When we make decisions in the voting booth, it’s on the 5+2 considerations that are most salient in our minds, and the evaluations change. So if I think about the economy, I’m not evaluating Bush 41 as positively as if I think about the Gulf War, if I think that’s the central issue for the country.

How does that relate to climate change? If I’m Obama and climate change is a big issue, my base is going to be — excuse my language — pissed off because they don’t think I’ve done what I needed to do. If I’m Mitt Romney, it’s lose-lose anyway, because that’s going to alienate everybody I’m so desperately trying to get on the far right who never thought that I was a very conservative candidate anyway. So we need to stop being surprised that climate change isn’t on the agenda, because there’s really no incentive in the political system.

A vast majority of scientists believe in global climate change, so why do we have two different groups in the U.S., even two parties in Congress, that have different views of what the reality looks like? This goes back to motivated reasoning: When we process new information, we in part use our own ideologies and values to filter them. That’s not a new concept, but it has had a renaissance recently because we’ve seen more and more evidence of that. Kathleen Hall Jamieson talked about this at the colloquium. Climate change in particular is an issue that most folks know very little about, so what they end up doing is filtering it through partisan filters, religious filters, whatever those may be. In fact, people who are more politically sophisticated do that even more, which is also why we see polarization being the strongest on the fringe.

J.R.: So are scientists doing a good job communicating?

Dietram A. Scheufele: The problem is that science responds to every communication challenge by saying “We need to explain this issue better” — the Al Gore 2000 campaign strategy. “If I just explain my tax policy better, people are going to get it.”  Just putting out more information is not the answer, because study after study shows that it’s just going to drive the wedge further in: You give information, people use their partisan filters and we get more polarization. Matt Nisbet and I wrote about this in the “Polarization Paradox.”

That brings us back to framing: Explaining [an issue] in ways that allows people to intuitively put it on a mental shelf and not leave the framing to somebody else is where science has faced its biggest challenge. At the colloquium last week, the message was: “Unless you guys learn how to work with media organizations, how to use social science to inform your decision making and your communications strategies, unless you learn that, you will always be silenced, and you will always be sidelined by other forms of communication.”

J.R.: There’s been some effort to reframe climate change in terms of its economic consequences. Do you think there’s any traction there?

Dietram A. Scheufele: In many ways, it’s a bit like Obamacare, right? — it’s actually Romneycare. Reframing climate change as an economic issue was actually Romney’s early attempt, when he first ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008. His whole frame around climate change and alternative energies was an economic one, saying “We need to invest in these things, not because we want a better environment or to stop climate change, but because 10 years from now, we can sell all these technologies to some of the largest markets” — India, China, and so on.

This illustrates a really interesting point: Whoever frames the issue early on has a leg up, because it’s very difficult to reframe an issue. So the idea that GMOs are “frankenfood” is very difficult to counter. And if the [genetically modified] salmon gets approved by the FDA, that becomes “franken-salmon.” And the same thing is true for climate change, and this hits close to home for you guys. When John Holdren went from the Kennedy School to the White House, one of his initial attempts was to stop using the term “global climate change” and talk about “global climate disruption,” to really talk about those erratic patterns that are really much more problematic. Fox News responded immediately, saying, “Here is the Obama administration trying to essentially change the language to reshape how we think about the issue.” While that never went anywhere, I think Holdren was right on — it’s a great frame that really helps people think what the complexities are. The problem is that by the time he got to the White House, that frame was set and at that point it’s very difficult to change.

House Speaker John Boehner (Wikimedia)
Speaker John Boehner (Wikimedia)

J.R.: What do you make of the government shutdown?

Dietram A. Scheufele: We’ve seen interesting talking points on both sides, but neither party did a very good job communicating and/or offering a frame that makes sense to people. In many ways the shutdown is a little bit like a scientific issue — there are ambiguous stimuli. For example, multi-walled carbon nanotubes might cause cancer, just like asbestos, or maybe they actually help cure cancer because they lead to early detection. So I read both of these things and I can interpret it either way. With the government shutdown, exactly the same thing. The vast majority of the American public has no idea what the debt ceiling is versus the shutdown and why we’re shutting down and what it means versus defaulting. It’s the perfect ambiguous stimulus. So I think neither party has done a very good job of offering an interpretive framework that helps an inattentive voter —  which the vast majority of us are — to make a decision.

J.R.: That’s surprising given how saturated the media has been on this issue virtually Obama’s entire time in office.

Dietram A. Scheufele: The media coverage has been fairly poor. I’m sure that Tom Patterson is sitting back saying, “See? That’s what I’ve said all along — the whole horse-race game schema.” We’re having clocks ticking down, it’s us versus them, it’s your classic frame where most of the things you’re hearing about are actually journalists commenting on it, filling the air time that should maybe be primary discussions in the House and the Senate. There certainly was room for in-depth coverage and for really trying to get this across in a way that helps voters, because that’s ultimately what we’re talking about.

J.R.: A final question: A reporter calls you and says, “I’ve been reporting on a difficult, radioactive, polarized issue, and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere with readers.” As social-science communicator guru, what advice would you give to people who are in the trenches, trying to do good work and are just finding themselves not getting through to readers?

Dietram A. Scheufele: One of the core contributions of journalism continues to be — and this is true for increasingly complex politics like the Affordable Care Act, that’s so long that many people in Congress didn’t read it — to take highly complex issues and reduce them to 300 words. And it has to be done in a way that [makes sense to] me as a person who needs to figure out how to find daycare for my kids, if I’m going to make it to the office on time, if my mortgage is going to be paid off. I’m sorry, synthetic biology and the government shutdown are not on the top of my list of daily decisions. What journalists have traditionally done extremely well is translating complex science, reducing it and framing it in a way that I can immediately put it on cognitive shelves and say “Oh, this is why this matters to me.”

That has nothing do with spinning or persuading people, it’s communicating better to audiences that are increasingly fragmented. When Rachel Maddow gave the [2010 T.H. White Lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School], she talked about the idea that the gold mine is actually the fragmented, highly ideological journalism that she’s in. So we really need to take the message to where the audiences are, because they’re no longer coming to us. Instead they’re searching under very specific streetlights. And as we’ve seen for years and years, readers search where the light is rather than where they’ve lost their keys.


Keywords: framing, motivated reasoning, cognition, research chat

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