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Contexts, Vol. 5, Issue 1, pp. 13-18, ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2006 by the American Sociological Association. All rights reserved.
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the art of reframing political debates
feature article charlotte ryan and william a. gamson
Activists cannot build political power simply by framing their message in ways that resonate with broader cultural values. To
succeed, framing strategies must be integrated with broader movement-building efforts..
“What is power? Power is the ability to say what the issues are
and who the good guys and bad guys are. That is power.”
—Conservative pundit Kevin Phillips
ocial movements in the United States have long recognized “framing” as a critical component of political
success. A frame is a thought organizer, highlighting
certain events and facts as important and rendering others
invisible. Politicians and movement organizations have scurried to framing workshops and hired consultants who promise to help identify a winning message. In the current political
climate, demoralized social movements and activists find this
promise appealing.
After two decades of conducting framing workshops at
the Media/Movement Research and Action Project (MRAP),
which we codirect, we have concluded that framing is necessary but not sufficient. Framing is valuable for focusing a
dialogue with targeted constituencies. It is not external packaging
intended to attract news media and
bystanders; rather, it involves a
strategic dialogue intended to
shape a particular group into a
coherent movement. A movementbuilding strategy needs to ground
itself in an analysis of existing power
relations and to position supporters
and allies to best advantage. Used strategically, framing permeates the work of building a movement: acquiring
resources, developing infrastructure and leadership, analyzing power, and planning strategy. The following success
story illustrates this approach.
October 2003: The setting was unusual for a press conference—a pristine, cape-style house surrounded by a white
picket fence. The mailbox in front read A. Victim. The car in
the driveway had a Rhode Island license plate, VICTIM. The
crowd in front of the makeshift podium included film crews,
photographers, and reporters from every major news outlet
in Rhode Island.
The young woman at the podium wore a T-Shirt and carried a coffee mug, both reading, “I’m being abused.” Her
mouth was taped shut. As the crowd grew silent, she pulled
off the tape and began to speak. “Domestic violence is never
this obvious. This could be any neighborhood, any community. But as victims, we don’t wear signs to let you know
we’re being abused.” After a pause, she continued, “Look
around you to your left and right. We are everywhere, in all
walks of life.” At that, the cameras swiveled around to capture a sea of faces in the audience. Scattered throughout the
crowd were other survivors of domestic violence, each with
her mouth taped shut. That evening and the following day,
the press carried the words and images.
The press conference was the beginning of a campaign by
the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence
(RICADV) in collaboration with its survivor task force, Sisters
Overcoming Abusive Relations (SOAR). The campaign was
part of a continuing effort to reframe how domestic violence
is understood—as a widespread problem requiring social, not
individual, solutions. Follow-ups to
the press conference included events
at schools and churches, soccer tournaments, and softball games involving police, firefighters, and college
teams, dances, fashion shows,
health fairs, self-defense classes,
marches, and candlelight vigils, culminating in a Halloween party and
open house sponsored by SOAR.
The campaign was a new chapter in a multiyear effort
not only to reframe public understanding of domestic violence but to translate into practice this call for social, not private, responses. RICADV promoted a seven-point plan to
close gaps in the safety net of domestic violence services
and, along with SOAR and other allies, shepherded the plan
through the Rhode Island legislature.
As recently as the mid-1990s, when RICADV began
working with MRAP on using the media for social change,
the media coverage and public understanding of domestic
violence issues was very different. The Rhode Island media,
like the media in general, framed domestic violence issues as
private tragedies. A typical story told of a decent man who
had lost control, cracking under life’s burdens: “A model
winter 2006 contexts
Framing is valuable for
focusing a dialogue with
targeted constituencies. It
is not external packaging
intended to attract news
media and bystanders.
employee whose life fell apart,” read one Providence Journal
headline (March 22, 1999). Or neighbors say that they could
never imagine their friendly neighbor shooting his wife and
child before turning the gun on himself: “They seemed nice,
you know. They always seemed to get along as far as I could
see” (Providence Journal, April 29, 1996). The media coverage of domestic violence a decade later reflects a successful
effort to reframe the political debate.
why framing matters
Like a picture frame, an issue frame marks off some part
of the world. Like a building frame, it holds things together. It provides coherence to an array of symbols, images,
and arguments, linking them through an underlying organizing idea that suggests what is essential—what consequences and values are at stake. We do not see the frame
directly, but infer its presence by its characteristic expressions and language. Each frame gives the advantage to certain ways of talking and thinking, while it places others
“out of the picture.”
Sociologists, cognitive psychologists, political scientists,
and communications scholars have been writing about and
doing frame analysis for the past 30 years. With the help of
popular books such as psychologist George Lakoff’s Don’t
Think of an Elephant!, the idea that defining the terms of a
debate can determine the outcome of that debate has
spread from social science and is rapidly becoming part of
popular wisdom.
a few things we know about frames
• Facts take on their meaning by being embedded in
frames, which render them relevant and significant or irrelevant and trivial. The contest is lost at the outset if we allow
our adversaries to define what facts are relevant. To be conscious of framing strategy is not manipulative. It is a necessary part of giving coherent meaning to what is happening
in the world, and one can either do it unconsciously or with
deliberation and conscious thought.
The idea dies hard that the truth would set us free if only
the media did a better job of presenting the facts or people
did a better job of paying attention. Some progressives
threw up their hands in dismay and frustration when polls
showed that most Bush voters in 2004 believed there was a
connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The
“fact” was clear that no connection had been found. If
these voters did not know this, it was because either the
news media had failed in their responsibility to inform them,
or they were too lazy and inattentive to take it in.
But suppose one frames the world as a dangerous place
in which the forces of evil—a hydra-headed monster labeled
“terrorism”—confront the forces of good. This frame
depicts Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as two heads of the
same monster. In this frame, whether or not agents actually
met or engaged in other forms of communication is nit-picking and irrelevant.
• People carry around multiple frames in their heads. We
have more than one way of framing an issue or an event. A
specific frame may be much more easily triggered and habitually used, but others are also part of our cultural heritage
and can be triggered and used as well, given the appropriate
cues. For example, regarding the issue of same-sex marriage,
witness the vulnerability of the Defense of Marriage frame.
What it defends is an idea—in the minds of its advocates, a
sacred idea. The idea is that a man and a woman vow commitment to each other until death parts them and devote
themselves to the raising of a new generation.
Same-sex couples can and do enter into relationships
that, except for their gender, fit the sacred idea very well—
they are committed to each other for life and to raising a
new generation. Part of the ambivalence that many traditionalists feel about the issue comes from their uneasy
knowledge that same-sex couples may honor this idea as
much or more than do opposite-sex couples. In the alternative frame, the focus of the issue is not on gender, but on the
question Why should two people who are committed for life
be denied legal recognition of their commitment, with all of
the attendant rights and responsibilities, just because they are
of the same sex?
One important reframing strategy involves making the
issue less abstract and more personal. Sociologist Jeffrey
Langstraat describes the use of this strategy in the debate in
the Massachusetts State House. A generally conservative legislator, who somewhat unexpectedly found himself supporting same-sex marriage, called it “putting a face on the
issue.” He pointed to a well-liked and respected fellow legislator involved in a long term, same-sex relationship. “How
can we say to her,” he asked his colleagues, “that her love
and commitment [are] less worthy than ours?”
• Successful reframing involves the ability to enter into
the worldview of our adversaries. A good rule of thumb is
that we should be able to describe a frame that we disagree
with so that an advocate would say, “Yes, this is what I
believe.” Not long ago, a reporter at a rare George Bush
press conference asked the president why he keeps talking
about a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda
when no facts support it. When the president responded,
Charlotte Ryan and William A. Gamson have directed the Media/
Movement Research and Action Project for 20 years. They are jointly
working on a pamphlet, “Strategic Framing for Activists.”
contexts winter 2006
“The reason why I keep talking about there being a connection is because there is a connection,” he was not lying or
being obtuse and stupid, he was relying on an unstated
frame. Frames are typically implicit, and although Bush did
not explicitly invoke the metaphor of the hydra-headed monster or the axis of evil, we can reasonably infer that he had
something like this in mind—the forces of evil are gathering,
and only America can stop them.
• All frames contain implicit or explicit appeals to moral
principles. While many analysts of conflicts among frames
emphasize how frames diagnose causes and offer prognoses
about consequences, Lakoff usefully focuses on the moral
values they invoke. Rather than classifying frames into those
that emphasize causes and consequences and those that
emphasize moral values, however, it is even more useful to
think of all frames as having diagnostic, prognostic, and
moral components.
why framing is not all that matters
Too much emphasis on the message can draw our attention away from the carriers of frames and the complicated
and uneven playing fields on which they compete. Successful
challenges to official or dominant frames frequently come
from social movements and the advocacy groups they
spawn. Although they compete on a field in which inequalities in power and resources play a major role in determining
outcomes, some movements have succeeded dramatically
against long odds in reframing the terms of political debate.
To succeed, framing strategies must be integrated with
broader movement-building efforts. This means building and
sustaining the carriers of these frames in various ways—for
example, by helping them figure out how to gain access
where it is blocked or how to enable groups with similar
goals to collaborate more effectively.
Too narrow a focus on the message, with a corresponding
lack of attention to movement-building, reduces framing
strategy to a matter of pitching metaphors for electoral campaigns and policy debates, looking for the right hot-button
language to trigger a one-shot response. Adapted from social
marketing, this model ignores the carriers and the playing
field, focusing only on the content of the message. In isolation from constituency-building, criticism of the media, and
democratic media reform, framing can become simply a more
sophisticated but still ungrounded variation on the idea that
“the truth will set you free.” The problem with the socialmarketing model is not that it doesn’t work—in the short run,
it may—but that it doesn’t help those engaged in reframing
political debates to sustain collective efforts over time and in
the face of formidable obstacles.
Political conservatives did not build political power merely by polishing their message in ways that resonate effectively
with broader cultural values. They also built infrastructure
and relationships with journalists and used their abundant
resources to amplify the message and repeat it many times.
Duane Oldfield shows how the Christian Right built media
capacity and cultivated relationships with key political actors
in the Republican Party, greatly expanding the carriers of
their message beyond the original movement network.
Wealthy conservatives donated large amounts of money to
conservative think tanks that not only fine-tuned this message but also created an extended network of relationships
with journalists and public officials.
participatory communication
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence
did not succeed because it found a better way to frame its
message but because it found a better model than social
marketing to guide its work. Call it the participatory communication model. The social marketing model treats its
audience as individuals whose citizenship involves voting and
perhaps conveying their personal opinions to key decision
makers. The alternative model treats citizens as collective
actors—groups of people who interact, who are capable of
building long-term relationships with journalists and of carrying out collaborative, sustained reframing efforts that may
involve intense conflict.
Widely used in the Global South, this alternative
approach—inspired by Paulo Freire—argues that without
communications capacity, those directly affected by inequalwinter 2006 contexts
Susan Shepherd and Marcia Hams received the first samesex marriage license in Cambridge, MA
Photo by Ellen Shub
ities of power cannot exercise “the right and power to intervene in the social order and change it through political praxis.” The first step is to map the power relations that shape
structural inequalities in a given social and historical context.
This strategic analysis informs the next phase, in which communities directly affected by structural inequalities cooperate
to bring about change. This is empowerment through collective action. Finally, participatory communication models
include a third, recurring step—reflection.
By encouraging reflection about framing practices, participatory communicators foster ongoing dialogues that build
new generations of leaders and extend relational networks.
“Everyone is a communicator,” says RICADV, and all collective
action embodies frames. SOAR’s staging of the bit of street
theater described at the beginning of this article did not come
out of the blue. SOAR was part of the Rhode Island Coalition,
which had been building communication infrastructure during a decade of collaboration with MRAP.
MRAP and RICADV began working together in 1996, but
to begin our story there would be historically inaccurate.
RICADV explains to all new members that they “stand on the
shoulders” of the women who founded the domestic violence movement in the 1970s. The Rhode Island Coalition
against Domestic Violence began in 1979 and, until 1991,
operated roughly on a feminist consensus model. At this
point an organizational expansion began that resulted in the
hiring of new staff in 1995. The framing successes we
describe, therefore, grew out of one of the more successful
initiatives of the U.S. women’s movement. Groups working
to end domestic violence during the last three decades can
claim significant progress, including the establishment of
research, preventive education, support systems, and the
training of public safety, social service, and health care
History matters. In this case, the efforts on which RICADV
built had already established many critical movement-building components:
• Activists had established a social movement organization committed to a mission of social change—to end
domestic violence in the state of Rhode Island.
• They had established a statewide service network with
local chapters in each region of the state.
• They had created a statewide policy organization to
integrate the horizontal network into focused political action
at the state and national legislative levels.
• They had obtained government funding for part of
RICADV’s education and service work, protecting the organization against fluctuation in other revenue sources such as fundraisers, corporate sponsors, donations, and grants.
• On the grassroots level, RICADV had supported the
growth of an organization that encouraged victims of
domestic violence to redefine themselves as survivors capable of using their experience to help others.
• Finally, they had created a physical infrastructure—an
office, staff, computerized mailing lists, internal communication tools such as newsletters, and institutionalized mechanisms for community outreach. The most prominent of
these was Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October,
during which stories about domestic violence are commonly shared.
In short, RICADV’s framing successes were made possible by the generous donations of people who had formed
a social movement that encouraged internal discussion,
decision making, strategic planning, focused collective
action, resource accumulation, coalition-building, reflection, and realignment. The conscious use of framing as a
strategic tool for integrating its worldview into action
ensured that the organization could consistently “talk politics” in all its endeavors.
By the mid-1990s, the organization had made great
strides on the national framing front regarding the public
portrayal of domestic violence. In the wake of several highprofile domestic violence cases, made-for-TV movies, and
star-studded benefits, domestic violence was positioned as
an effective wedge issue that cut across hardening Right-Left
divisions. The Family Violence Prevention Fund headed a
national public education effort, working hard through the
contexts winter 2006
Designed by Link Agency for RICADV
1990s to frame domestic violence as a public as opposed to
a private matter. High visibility had gained recognition of the
issue, but much work remained to be done on the grassroots
level and in legislative circles.
changing media frames and routines
When MRAP and RICADV began to collaborate in 1996,
we had a running start. Already, RICADV routinely attracted
proactive coverage, particularly during Domestic Violence
Awareness Month. But all was not rosy. RICADV and other
state coalitions across the nation had discovered that, despite
media willingness to cover domestic violence awareness
events, reporters covering actual incidents of domestic violence ignored the movement’s framing of domestic violence
as a social problem. Their stories reverted to sensationalized
individual framings such as “tragic love goes awry.”
In part, such stories represented the institutionalized crime
beat tradition that tended to ignore
deeper underlying issues. Crime stories about domestic violence routinely suggested that victims were at
least partially responsible for their
fate. At other times, coverage would
focus on the perpetrator’s motive,
while the victim would disappear.
News beats created split coverage: a
reporter might sympathetically cover
an event sponsored by a domestic
violence coalition and yet write a
crime story that ignored the movement’s framing of domestic violence
as social. All these effects were intensified if the victims were poor or working-class women and/or
women of color.
At the beginning of our joint effort, RICADV routinely
experienced this split-screen coverage: in covering coalition
events, the media routinely reported that domestic violence
was everyone’s business and that help was available. On the
front page and in the evening news, however, these coverage patterns isolated the victim, implying complicity on her
part (more than 90 percent of victims in this study were
• She was a masochistic partner in a pathological relationship.
• She provoked her batterer.
• She failed to take responsibility for leaving.
Such stories undermined efforts to change policy and
consciousness. They portrayed isolated victims struggling for
protection while obscuring the social roots of domestic violence.
To address these and other framing issues systematically,
RICADV Executive Director Deborah DeBare urged her board
to hire a full-time communication coordinator in the spring
of 1996. They chose Karen Jeffreys, a seasoned community
organizer, who took a movement-building approach to communications. Jeffreys had previously drawn our MRAP group
into framing projects on housing and welfare rights.
With MRAP support, she began an effort to make
RICADV an indispensable source for news and background
information about domestic violence in the Rhode Island
media market. Gaining media standing was not an end in
itself but a means to promote the reframing of domestic violence as a social problem requiring social solutions. By 2000,
RICADV had published a handbook for journalists summarizing recommendations from survivors, reporters, advocates, and MRAP participants. Local journalists actively
sought and used it, and it has been widely circulated to similar groups in other states.
To help implement the participatory communications model,
Jeffreys worked out an internal
process called a “media caucus” to
ensure widespread participation in
media work. Participants discussed
how to respond to inquiries from
reporters and how to plan events to
carry the message. The media caucus conducted role-playing sessions, in which some participants
would take the part of reporters,
sometimes hardball ones, to give
each other practice and training in
being a spokesperson on the issue. RICADV encouraged the
development and autonomy of SOAR, a sister organization
of women who had personally experienced domestic violence. They worked to ensure that the voices of abused
women were heard.
The press conference in 2003 was the culmination of
years of work with reporters that succeeded in making the
conference a “must attend” event for journalists. They had
not only learned to trust RICADV and the information it provided but perceived it as an important player. RICADV and
SOAR jointly planned the press conference, choosing the setting, talking about what clothes to wear, and planning the
order in which people would speak. Without Karen Jeffreys’
knowledge, but to her subsequent delight, the two
spokespersons from SOAR, Rosa DeCastillo and Jacqueline
Kelley, had caucused again and added visual effects, including the tape over the mouths. The planning and support
gave the SOAR women the courage and the skills to innowinter 2006 contexts
Crime stories about
domestic violence routinely suggested that victims were at least
partially responsible for
their fate. At other times,
coverage would focus on
the perpetrator’s motive,
while the victim would
18 contexts winter 2006
vate and helped make the press conference an effective
launching pad for the campaign that followed.
Framing matters, but it is not the only thing that matters.
There is a danger in “quick fix” politics—the sexy frame as the
magic bullet. Framing work is critical to this process, but framing work itself must be framed in the context of movementbuilding. If those who aim to reframe political debates are to
compete successfully against the carriers of official frames,
who have lots of resources and organization behind them,
they must recognize power inequalities and find ways to challenge them. This requires them to recognize citizens as potential collective actors, not just individual ones.
The participatory communication model appeals to people’s sense of agency, encouraging them to develop the
capacity for collective action in framing contests. You cannot transform people who feel individually powerless into a
group with a sense of collective power by pushing hot buttons. Indeed, you cannot transform people at all. People
transform themselves through the work of building a movement—through reflection, critique, dialogue, and the development of relationships and infrastructure that constitute a
major reframing effort.
In the spirit of the communication model that we are
advocating, it is only fitting to give our RICADV partners the
last words. The collaborative process inside the organization
allows them to finish each other’s sentences:
Alice: Each concerned group is a small stream. RICADV’s
job is to make the small streams come together, to involve
the whole community and make social change for the whole
state. And that’s our mission—to end domestic violence in
Rhode Island. But to do this, all RICADV’s work—lobbying,
policy, services, public relations—had to come together. We
were moving . . . (pause)
Karen: . . . moving a mountain. As organizers, we think
strategically. Organizers think of social justice, and social justice is always about changing systems. So we were trained
to read situations differently, to see gaps in institutional layers and links. We saw the potential of… (pause)
Alice:. . . of social justice, of making that change.
Whereas a traditional publicist thinks, “Let’s get publicity for
our organization’s work,” as organizers, we saw systems and
movements. We were definitely going to move the domestic violence issue to another place!
Karen: It’s our instinct to . . . (pause)
Alice:. . . to get the community involved and fix this. We
saw a whole movement.
recommended resources
David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Charlotte Ryan, eds.
Rhyming Hope and History: Activist, Academics, and Social
Movements (University of Minnesota Press, 2005). Essays on
the joys and frustrations involved in collaborations between
academics and activists.
George Lakoff. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values
and Frame the Debate (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004).
Popularizes many of the most important insights of frame
analysis, but implicitly adopts a social-marketing model that
ignores movement-building and power inequalities.
Duane M. Oldfield. The Right and the Righteous: The
Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party (Rowman and
Littlefield, 1996). Describes the methodical movement-building process that helped the Christian Right succeed in its
reframing effort.
Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV).
Domestic Violence: A Handbook for Journalists(,
2000). Offers succinct and practical lessons for journalists on the
reporting of domestic violence.
Charlotte Ryan, Michael Anastario, and Karen Jeffreys.
“Start Small, Build Big: Negotiating Opportunities in Media
Markets.” Mobilization 10 (2005):111–128. Detailed discussion of how the RICADV built its media capacity and systematic data on how this changed the framing of domestic
violence in the Rhode Island media market.
Amount President Bush’s
Millennium Challenge
Corporation was to have
distributed to the world’s
poorest nations, 2003-
2005: $10 billion
Amount distributed as of
late 2005: $400,000

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