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  • What does it mean to frame the issue?

  • Why should you think about how the issue is framed?

  • When should you consider framing (or reframing) an issue?

  • How should you best frame an issue?

  • How should you reframe an issue?

What does it mean to frame the issue?

Framing is a way of structuring or presenting a problem or an issue. Framing involves explaining and describing the context of the problem to gain the most support from your audience. Your audience is key to framing. The way a problem is posed, or framed, should reflect the attitudes and beliefs of your audience.

Who is your audience? It might be anyone, including a single influential person, a person or group affected by the problem, a community group, or the media. It may also change from day to day, as you talk to different people.

Regardless as to who your audience is, when framing an issue you should be specific about:

  • What is the issue?
  • Who is involved?
  • What contributes to the problem?
  • What contributes to the solution?

More details on these questions are found under "How should you best frame an issue," below.

Why should you think how the issue is framed?

The answer is simple. Framing an issue helps structure thinking about what the problem is about and how it can be addressed. It gives your audience a particular mindset about your issue. And mindsets are powerful; they govern future thoughts and action.

In other words, the framing hints at what the issue is, who is responsible, and what possible solutions are. Successful framing puts your group in a favorable position to direct the discussion of the problem and improves the chances of a successful solution, in a way that is best both for your group and for the community.

Just as how a picture or painting is framed affects how we see it and how we value it, how a social issue is framed similarly affects our perceptions and values.

Reframing is the flip side of framing. It is a way of altering the presentation of an issue to counter opposing views.

Sometimes the original frame in which the issue is described or explained may not be the best one for you or others who are concerned with the problem. In such cases it may make sense to reframe the issue for your audience. This may also improve your chances of solving the problem.

When should you consider framing (or reframing) an issue?

  • Every time you present your issue and want to gain support
  • When you are attempting to influence what is on the public agendas
  • When the opposition's framing may interfere with your plan of action.

Most of the time, thinking in advance about framing the issue pays off!

How do you best frame an issue?

To frame an issue, you should begin by asking these questions:

  • What is the issue?
  • Who is involved?
  • What contributes to the problem?
  • What contributes to the solution?

Once you've asked these questions, you can begin to answer them. For some guidelines on how to do this, see the sections below.

What is the issue?

Framing begins with naming the issue as a problem. Naming and framing the problem allow you to address the issue in specific terms to suit your cause or the purpose of your audience.

Two common ways of framing are 1) framing an issue broadly as "common ground," and 2) framing an issues from a "single angle."

Framing as "Common Ground"

Common ground framing allows you to address the broad issue from many angles. Most societal concerns are a result of several different factors. By examining the issue at its broadest level, you can address many of these factors.

For example, abstinence and access to contraceptives are two of the many factors associated with teen pregnancy. The common ground framing approach would portray the problem broadly, as "teen pregnancy," as contrasted with a single factor such as "lack of contraceptives." For instance:

  • View one: Abstinence is the only acceptable method to prevent teen pregnancy.
  • View two: Teens must have access to contraceptives to prevent teen pregnancy.
  • Common ground: Teen pregnancy is the higher issue. A variety of strategies may be needed to prevent adolescent pregnancy.

By keeping the issue at a broad level--teen pregnancy--the group can help establish common ground for working together.

Framing from a "single angle"

The single angle approach allows you to emphasize one or more particular factors contributing to the problem. It may be most helpful when you are working with a small, specific group of people.

In many cases, the single angle approach can have an impact on a number of broader issues. For example:

  • View one: Teen pregnancy is a big problem in our community.
  • View two: Sexually transmitted diseases are affecting our youth at alarming rates.
  • Single angle: Contraceptive access for teens is important to prevent a variety of health concerns, including teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

By identifying either abstinence or contraceptive access as the particular issue, your efforts for either objective will not only have an impact on teen pregnancy, but can also affect the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Depending on both what you are trying to accomplish and who you work with, which of these methods you use to frame the problem may change. In fact, it may even change depending on your audience at a given moment. Generally speaking, a common ground approach is better for large, diverse audiences, who may not agree on all strategies, and a single angle approach can be used with more heterogeneous groups. However, each situation should be looked at carefully on a case by case basis.

Who is involved?

Framing the issue also involves identifying the audience you are speaking to or for. A primary audience is made of targets of change--those individuals who are affected by the problem, or whose actions may contribute either to the problem or solution.

For example, targets of change for teen pregnancy logically include teens, but could also include parents and teachers. The audience might also include agents of change, people who can contribute to a solution. That is, teens can be potential agents of change for other teens who are at risk for adolescent pregnancy. Explicitly identifying the audience you are addressing will help clarify who is responsible for the issue and will help solicit champions for addressing it.

A key to successful framing is knowing your audience and directing your presentation in a way that addresses its needs. Gaining support from your audience is essential to the framing process.

What contributes to the problem?

Framing helps communicate information about what factors are contributing to the problem. Problems in larger systems, such as the educational system or the economic system, can add to or perpetuate the problem.

For example, one of the risk factors for teen pregnancy is time spent unsupervised. Some might argue that this is a result of the economic or educational systems, which do not provide for alternative activities for youth. Identifying large system barriers and resistance will help clarify the factors lending to the problem. Framing these points to your particular audience will enhance support for your cause.

What contributes to the solution?

By knowing who is responsible for the problem and what other factors are contributing to it, you can begin to seek solutions or strategies for addressing it. Framing the issue with possible solutions can help to focus the actions of your audience. Possible strategies for solutions include:

  • Education and skill building
  • Promoting access (or reducing it)
  • Providing incentives and disincentives
  • Arranging opportunities and resources
  • Influencing public policy

How do you choose among these? The strategy choice will depend upon the values of those doing the choosing. For example, schools and religious organizations who want to prevent teen pregnancy may be more interested in promoting sexuality education, while health organizations and businesses may promote access to contraceptives. Framing allows the various strategies to be presented at the proper time and in the proper manner, so as to maximize support from the audience which hears them.

How should you reframe an issue?

Reframing is accomplished in the same manner as original framing. However, often more effort is needed to get your message across. Effective media advocacy may be necessary to change the original framing. For more information on media advocacy.

One of the most basic requirements for successful reframing is to structure the issue on your own terms, yet at the same time tailor it to your audience. Reframing the issue should maximize your efforts and counteract the efforts of the opposition.

Example: The tobacco industry has, for many years, framed cigarette smoking as something that "real men" do. These companies were successful by representing strong, rugged men as smokers. Advocacy groups who protested the use of tobacco had to change that image by reframing the issue as one of a health concern. Such groups began the battle by representing cigarette smokers as having black lungs, yellowing fingernails, and bad breath. This reframing has been successful at changing the focus of the issue.

Here are some other examples of reframing involving the tobacco industry. Tobacco industry framing is given first, with health-oriented reframing following in bold.

Smoking is a matter of personal choice.

People smoke because they are addicted.

Smoking bans discriminate against smokers.

Non-smokers have the right to breathe clean air.

The tobacco companies do good through sponsorship of cultural, athletic and community events.

The tobacco companies attempt to gain innocence by association.

Tobacco is just one of many presumed health hazards. Why don't we regulate fat?

Tobacco is the only legal product that when used as intended, kills.

Online Resources

Framing an Advocacy Message is a guide to reframing advocacy messages distributed by UN Women: Advocacy Toolkit for Women in Politics. 

Reframing Advocacy is a resource specific to reframing an advocacy message as it pertains to gender-based violence. 

Reframing the Issue from Advocacy International provides an example of how the issue of maternal mortality in Africa has been reframed from failure and despair to success and survival.

Reframing Obesity is an article by Lori Dorfman and Lawrence Wallack that discusses the ramifications of a poorly framed advocacy issue, using nutrition and obesity as the example.

Reframing Youth Issues is a guide to reframing advocacy issues in order to appeal to public consideration and support. 

More than a Message is an article by Dorfman that discusses framing public health advocacy to change corporate practices. Dorfman discusses frames extensively and why they matter.

Framing a Persuasive Advocacy Message is a science-based guide from Berkeley Law with information on how to convey the most persuasive possible advocacy message.

Print Resources

Altman, D.G., Balcazar, F.E., Fawcett, S.B., Seekins, T., and Young, J.Q. (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Argyris, C., Putnam, R., and Smith, D.L. (1990). Action science. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, C. (1991). Prime time activism. Boston, MA: Southland Press.

Wallack, L., Dorfman, D., Jernigan, D., et al. (1993). Media advocacy and public health. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.