Breaking the Frame

When communications consultant Susan Nall Bales talks to environmental groups, she tells them that they can't fix government policies until they first fix themselves. For Bales, that means these groups must become acutely conscious of the stories that they're telling and the hidden chains of reasoning their narratives can set off in the public mind.

In explaining their issues, environmentalists tend to predict a wide range of disasters: catastrophic weather phenomena, species extinction, tropical pests heading north, you name it. The canonical example is probably Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb, which began: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970's the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." The point is not whether environmentalists have science on their side; many of today's disaster forecasts, such as global warming, may well be accurate. But Bales can demonstrate why doomsday scenarios, factual or not, alienate voters.

She shows two slides. First she displays a cover of the children's book Chicken Little. When greens sound like Chicken Little, she says, the message is that the sky is falling, it's your fault and you have to lower your living standards. Not surprisingly, that message attracts only true believers. Then she puts up a second slide of The Little Engine That Could. A far better message is that good old American technology can solve environmental problems, and that citizens can hold government and business accountable if only they have the political will.

Susan Bales is not just another spin doctor. As president of the nonprofit FrameWorks Institute, she has synthesized four decades of social-science research into an approach called "strategic frame analysis," which is designed to help progressive groups understand public prejudices and thereby better advance their objectives. Bales has worked with advocacy groups on issues from child development and health care to foreign policy. She and her collaborators -- pollster Meg Bostrom of Public Knowledge LLC, anthropologist Axel Aubrun and linguist Joseph Grady of the firm Cultural Logic, University of California, Los Angeles political scientist Frank D. Gilliam Jr. and numerous others -- have gone beyond merely stressing better messages to advancing a whole new, empirically based communications model. It is one that liberal groups could definitely learn from.

A constant refrain in Bales' work is that people have deeply held preconceptions ("frames") that render their views almost impervious to new, contradictory information. "It's not enough to present evidence," Bales says. "You have to change the frame."

In social science, the idea of a conceptual "frame" goes back to 1955, when the anthropologist Gregory Bateson first used the word to describe how preconceptions influence the way the public interprets and assesses a given political position or issue. In 1974 sociologist Erving Goffman published the book Frame Analysis, which explored how people think and make judgments from within a nexus of consistent narratives that help them to process information. Goffman's approach later merged with a similar trend in psychology and was applied by other researchers to the field of communications.

One premise of FrameWorks is that Americans overwhelmingly get their information about public affairs from the news media, which in turn establishes persistent frames. To help advocates, the FrameWorks team first surveys and analyzes past media coverage of an issue to detect the patterns or frames. They use extended cognitive interviewing or "elicitations," in addition to conventional polling and focus groups, to uncover the "hidden reasoning" or mental shortcuts that condition people's responses to the topic. Finally, Bales and her crew test out different "reframes" to learn how to open minds to new policy solutions. Often, as on the issue of global warming, the goal is to bridge the gap between a group of academic experts who have reached a consensus on a given problem and a political and media discourse that has placed their solution beyond the realm of possibility.

Strategic frame analysis is research intensive and geared toward the long term, which allows for welcome distance from the daily spin game. "If you're always running from the next political context to the next one to the next one, it's no wonder you can't say what you're for," says Bales.

Some of the failures of well-intentioned groups to understand the power of frames would be comical if the stakes weren't so high. For instance, teenagers have a terrible reputation among the adult public because of the general perception of endemic teen violence, promiscuity, drug use and sloth. Thanks in part to the media, which frequently depicts teens in the context of crimes, accidents or frivolous pursuits, this stereotypical view of adolescents is deeply embedded. Indeed, a poll by Bostrom found that just 16 percent of Americans believe that "young people under the age of 30 share most of their moral and ethical values." Rather, youth are viewed as self-absorbed and materialistic.

Why does this matter? If the public is convinced that teens have rotten values -- that the whole problem is with the individual or his or her no-good parents -- it's very hard to gain support for social investment but easy to pass extremely punitive laws for youth offenders. If, on the other hand, most teens are seen as potentially solid citizens, they will be deemed deserving of support.

Most young people are not, in fact, out trashing the neighborhood. But how to change public perceptions? In 1997 the National Crime Prevention Council and The Advertising Council ran an ad campaign that proved too clever by half. Titled "Prove Them Wrong By Doing Something Right," the ads sought to inspire teenagers to subvert anti-youth stereotypes by becoming active in opposing crime among their peers. But the advertisements used harsh stereotypes, such as an image of a young skateboarder with his hat on backward and the words "Vandal," "Heroin Addict" and "Purse Snatcher" superimposed over it. Only in smaller print could one read "… all kicked out with the help of kids like me." The problem, Bales and company say, is that once you conjure a powerful and negative stereotypical frame such as troubled teens, you can't just suppress it again. "Think of it as the reptilian brain being triggered," jokes Aubrun. "Once that's there, it's going to last a little while."

FrameWorks has worked with the William T. Grant Foundation to systematically investigate how to alter defeatist public perceptions of teenagers. Simply presenting widely available data that cast teens in a more positive light can't reverse anti-youth stereotypes. "Over the course of six focus groups with parents, we observed astonishing unanimity in the way adults discounted positive statistics about youth," report Bales and Gilliam in a study on adolescence. So, seeking a new frame, the FrameWorks crew tested several hypotheses, including the seemingly promising idea that depicting adolescents working would appeal to adults' respect for industriousness and responsibility. That also failed utterly. "They interpreted it as purely self-interest on the part of teens," says Gilliam. "That they wanted new Xboxes and Air Jordans and Sony PlayStations."

FrameWorks retraced its steps and considered other frames. Depicting teens in the context of athletic competition and volunteering had garnered some more positive reactions. Bales and Gilliam also advanced the idea of using "seniors to attest to youth's worthiness," because older Americans "appear to convey a lifetime of work habits and values." To see both the power of anti-youth prejudices and the possibility of reframing, consider a recent issue of Context, a magazine Gilliam edits. The cover shows a close-up of an African American teenager reaching for something. Turn the page and you see the full wide-angle context: He's at the library reaching for his library card. This demonstrates both the power of prejudices and the possibility of reframing.

If Susan Bales were giving advice about how to write this article, she would probably say to mention her as little as possible. It's not that Bales is shy, though she keeps a low profile compared with other veteran Washington communications consultants. Her reasons would be more theoretical.

A constant theme in her work, clearly evident in the FrameWorks research on teens, is that the media's penchant for anecdotal or human-interest stories distracts from a more systemic presentation of social problems. In fact, such coverage places implicit blame on individuals, rather than government or society, for hardships and is thus inherently hostile to liberal policy solutions. So if this article were just about Bales -- her background in English and French literature, how she works from her home in the woods of Potomac, Md., has five cats and once had to rescue a captured chipmunk from one of them in the middle of a FrameWorks conference call -- it might be part of the problem.

That's why this story isn't only about Bales, though it uses her as a narrative device. (Some journalistic habits die hard.) It's just as much about liberal activists who are despondent after Republican victories in the last two elections and on the defensive as the Bush administration pursues sweeping deregulatory policies for the environment and in other areas. Many of these advocates are casting about for a new approach. Some may even be willing to suppress their instinctual reservations about coming off as calculating and Machiavellian, instead of idealistic, pure and high-minded. But it's still a tough struggle. "There was a huge resistance to this," says Diane Benjamin, director of the Minnesota Kids Count Project and a FrameWorks devotee, about her group's implementation of strategic frame analysis. "Either people thought it didn't matter what their media message was or they felt it was somehow selling out to be strategic about how they think about issues."

Founded in 1999, FrameWorks grew out of Bales' two decades of experience in communications, starting with her work on women's- and civil-rights issues and continuing through her years at the firm Public Affairs Research and Communications, which consulted for a wide range of liberal groups. Among other projects, Bales worked for the National Women's Law Center to oppose the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Later, during the late Bush Senior and early Clinton years, Bales organized the Coalition for America's Children and its campaign, called "Who's For Kids and Who's Just Kidding?", which coordinated more than 300 groups dedicated to raising the visibility of children's concerns as real "voting issues."

But something was missing. Bales began to doubt whether the news coverage she was getting was actually advancing the issues she cared about. At the same time, she was reading the work of Stanford University communications theorist Shanto Iyengar, who observed in his 1987 book News That Matters: Television and American Opinion that most media coverage uses "episodic," rather than "thematic," frames. In other words, the dominant media approach is an anecdotal story that focuses on individuals and their problems but is short on social context or a discussion of public issues. As Bales read more deeply in the academic literature, she realized that advocacy groups and the foundations that fund them weren't integrating this knowledge of how the mass media affects political debate into their public-relations practices. No wonder they were getting burned.

Bales threw down the gauntlet before funders, journalists and liberal advocates at a 1995 Brandeis University conference that she organized called "Media Matters: The Institute on News and Social Problems." "All those engaged in describing, analyzing, and intervening in social problems need to rethink media, discarding the old clipbook mentality born out of a publicity-oriented approach," argued a group document signed by Bales and other conference collaborators. The paper called on foundations in particular to rethink their traditional "we don't fund media" paradigm, which had relegated communications to a second-tier pursuit. When it came to work in the trenches, meanwhile, advocates needed to learn that more media coverage wasn't necessarily better. In fact, by putting out ill-conceived messages and reinforcing stereotypes that hurt their ultimate objectives, liberal groups were engaged in nothing less than "the media equivalent of friendly fire."

Why do conservatives seem to communicate better than liberals? One reason for the liberal left's chronic difficulty is a tendency to overintellectualize issues. Liberals bombard the media and the public with figures and statistics that prove their case. But again and again the data glance off without making any impression, and the issues don't go anywhere. "If the facts don't fit the frame, it's the facts that are rejected, not the frame," is an oft-repeated FrameWorks aphorism. For a classic example of overintellectualization, think of Al Gore in one of the presidential debates assuming his audience would get a reference to the Dingell-Norwood bill.

Rush Limbaugh was up to his usual tricks as I drove my rental car out to visit Susan Bales at her home in Potomac. The car happened to have been set to Limbaugh's station when I picked it up, and with liberal talk radio still little more than a distant dream, I went with the flow.

I'd listened to Limbaugh before, of course, but everything he was saying that gray afternoon seemed cast into a new light -- reframed -- by what I'd already learned from Bales. Rather than an arrogant windbag, Limbaugh suddenly seemed like a brilliant conservative tactician. Counterintuitively he told his listeners that they should be glad when liberal groups attack the president on something like war with Iraq. If the liberals are on the attack, Limbaugh explained, that means they're not putting forward a positive agenda -- and that means conservatives are winning.

"Unfortunately, the research would say he's right," said Bales when I told her of Limbaugh's advice. "Negative attacks by many of the groups, like children's advocates and environmentalists, that we see as being caring kinds of groups do more damage to them than they do to the opposition. That's one of the real hardships [of] liberal advocacy."

That and the fact that conservatives, from Limbaugh on down the line, already know how to come up with clever frames and stick with them. Take the "death tax," the right's reframing of the estate tax. According to a report in The New York Times, Republicans spent five years teaching their troops to use this terminology. One lobbyist, Jack Faris of the National Federation of Independent Business, even hit on the idea of making everyone in his office who used the wrong phrasing put a dollar into a "pizza fund." Soon Newt Gingrich instituted the pizza-fund concept on Capitol Hill -- and today, Republicans always say "death tax." A similar story could be told of the frame "partial-birth abortion," an extremely rare procedure that the right renamed for propaganda purposes. The Times also reported recently that Republican pollster Frank Luntz has circulated an entire lexicon on how to rename environmental issues in a way that benefits the Republican Party.

Among Democrats, Bill Clinton seemed to have an intuitive feel for the frame game. His resolution to talk about "gun safety" rather than "gun control" was as good a reframe as it gets, notes Cornell University communications professor Dietram Scheufele. But it's not easy for many on the liberal left, in part because progressives seem to have a hard time being disciplined about message, preferring tolerance of wide diversity. At the Seattle anti-globalization protests and in the recent anti-war demonstrations, radical messages and realist ones were casually intermingled. But protests characterized by extremism, anti-Americanism and violence can only be expected to alienate moderates who might otherwise have questioned the Bush administration's Iraq policy, notes San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Rich Louv, who has worked with Bales in the past. Observing the current protests through the FrameWorks lens, Louv notes, "They're so hesitant to consciously frame what they're doing, because they believe in 'let a thousand flowers bloom.'"

Isn't all of this just a more elaborate form of spin? The people at FrameWorks characterize themselves as serious social scientists who happen to be progressives but won't work for either political party. They believe that if liberals and conservatives had equal access to resources and state-of-the-art techniques for getting their messages out, liberals would win more battles than they currently do. Strategic frame analysis, says UCLA's Gilliam, is "totally nonpartisan." "We can't control who asks us to apply it to their problems. We could do tobacco if we wanted to. We haven't," he quickly adds, "and we probably wouldn't."

FrameWorks is walking something of a tightrope with this posture. For example, University of California, Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, author of the book Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't, has worked closely with FrameWorks in the past but believes that, in some ways, it doesn't go far enough. In particular, Lakoff doubts whether FrameWorks' project-by-project approach can unify progressives behind a "common moral vision" capable of rivaling the sense of shared purpose on the right. Nor can FrameWorks fight back. "They have to be positive. What that means is, you can't attack the conservatives," says Lakoff. "But oftentimes you have to."

Conversely, neutral watchers of the spin wars fear the FrameWorks methodology provides a potent new weapon in the ever-escalating public-relations arms race. "I'm worried that press secretaries and PR flacks are going to start carrying cards around with bullet-pointed principles based on this kind of research in their pocket, and will devote even more attention to shaping people's perceptions as opposed to honest give and take," says Brendan Nyhan, co-editor of the Web site, which tracks manipulations of political language and debate.

The FrameWorks group insists that its mission is fundamentally about enhancing democracy by opening minds that have been dulled by spin, or constantly forced into confrontational and partisan modes of thought. "Framing is in many ways the opposite of spinning. Spinning is trying to convince people, 'You know, this really isn't blue, it's really green,'" argues pollster Bostrom, holding up a glass from the conference-room table during my group meeting with FrameWorks' members. "What we're trying to do is help people understand not just that it's blue but the shape, the size, the weight."

Susan Bales comes across as scholarly and unfailingly collaborative, always interested in bringing in new intellects to talk about framing. But she's also a charismatic and passionate figure who has her liberal heroes. Martin Luther King Jr. is often cited as one who knew, intuitively, how to stay on message without sacrificing inspiration. Another is the famed World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, who just happens to have been a relation. The Bales and Pyle families had adjacent farms in Dana, Ind. What is her exact relationship to Pyle? "You can call it cousin; it probably works in Indiana," Bales jokes. She may also be his reincarnation.

Bales has written of Pyle's columns in which the journalist crossed the nation describing how the New Deal could fix the system rather than just help individuals. She concludes, "Progressives have also lost the ability to translate from individuals to programs, and from programs back to individuals."

"I continue to believe that Pyle's style of journalism is a real antidote to the kind of popularized television news [format]," says Bales. In a 1939 column about poverty in the rural South -- namely Elba, Ala. -- Pyle put it this way: "They have a way of using the word 'sorry' down here that I've not heard in other parts of the country. A listless, no-good, poor-paying fellow is known as sorry. You can be poor without being sorry. You're sorry when you lack character." But Pyle wouldn't let these economic problems be described as mere personal failings. "You can't blame any individual, least of all the poor people themselves," he wrote. "No, it's a combination of the landlord and the supply merchant and poor land and low prices and sickness and ignorance -- in other words, it's the whole system.

"It will take generations to get the rural South raised above its system," Pyle concluded. "Sorryness is a disease that America hasn't paid much attention to before now. It will take a long time to purge it." And, Bales suspects, a long time to get journalists to write like that again.