According to Dorfman, framing public health issues is complicated and difficult in part because it involves the issue of race, one of the most difficult topics to discuss in the United States. Although there are no easy answers or magic words, understanding how these issues are framed is a good place to start.
To begin, a definition of the concept of “framing” itself is needed. “Framing” is an abstract idea, one studied by individuals from many disciplines, including social psychology, cognitive linguistics, sociology, economics, and political science. Scholars from these fields teach that frames are the conceptual bedrock for understanding anything. Frames help people extract meaning from all sorts of texts: words, pictures, events, or interactions.1 That is, people are able to interpret words, images, actions, and text of any kind only because their brains fit those texts into a conceptual system that gives them order and meaning. Just a few cues—say, a word or an image—trigger whole frames that determine how people understand the matter at hand. Frames, Dorfman says, are structures that people’s minds bring to text to make sense of it. Frames are mental structures that help people understand the world.
At the same time that people have frames operating from within, there are cues from the environment that also influence people’s understanding of the world. Framing is therefore an interaction with the ideas in people’s minds and the cues that they encounter. The external cues can activate people’s internal assumptions and values. Recent research in the field of cognitive linguistics indicates that some assumptions, values, explanations, or stories are more easily triggered than others.
To illustrate, Dorfman used the example of looking up a new word in the dictionary. After one goes to the trouble to look up and really learn the new word, it suddenly seems as if one sees it everywhere. It is a paradox of sorts: the word was there all along, but the person’s brain did not recognize it until after he or she learned it. As Walter Lippmann put it, “For the most part we do not first see, then define, we define first and then see” (Lippmann, 1965).
Dorfman used a second example to illustrate how people’s brains react to cues in the environment (Figure 3-1). With a few external cues, people think that they know what is said in the first box. In other words, a person’s brain fills in the blanks. The second box, however, which shows the actual text, indicates that the person’s interpretation would have been wrong. This
There is a broad literature on framing. See, for example, the work of Lakoff (1996) and Hall (1997). For studies of how public health issues are framed in news coverage, see http://www.bmsg.org/; for studies of how people interpret frames, see http://www.culturallogic.com/ and http://frameworksinstitute.org/.