Framing as a theory of media effects
- ISSN: 00219916
- DOI: 10.1093/joc/49.1.103
Research on framing is characterized by theoretical and empirical vagueness. This is due, in part, to the lack of a commonly shared theoretical model underlying framing research. Conceptual problems translate into operational problems, limiting the comparability of instruments and results. In this paper I systematize the fragmented approaches to framing in political communication and integrate them into a comprehensive model. I classify previous approaches to framing research along two dimensions: the type of frame examined (media frames vs. audience frames) and the way frames are operationalized (independent variable or dependent variable). I develop a process model of framing, identifying four key processes that should be addressed in future research: frame building, frame setting, individual-level processes of framing, and a feedback loop from audiences to journalists.
Framing as a theory of media effe...
Framing as a Theory of Media Effects
by Dietram A. Scheufele
Research on framing is characterized by theoretical and empirical vagueness. This
is due, in part, to the lack of a commonly shared theoretical model underlying
framing research. Conceptual problems translate into operational problems, limit-
ing the comparability of instruments and results. In this paper I systematize the
fragmented approaches to framing in political communication and integrate them
into a comprehensive model. I classify previous approaches to framing research
along two dimensions: the type of frame examined (media frames vs. audience
frames) and the way frames are operationalized (independent variable or depen-
dent variable). I develop a process model of framing, identifying four key processes
that should be addressed in future research: frame building, frame setting, individual-
level processes of framing, and a feedback loop from audiences to journalists.
Entman (1993) referred to framing as “a scattered conceptualization” (p.␣ 51), with
previous studies lacking clear conceptual definitions and relying on context-spe-
cific, rather than generally applicable operationalizations. Brosius and Eps (1995)
went even further, positing that framing is not a clearly explicated and generally
applicable concept, but only a metaphor that cannot be directly translated into
Partly because of these vague conceptualizations, the term framing has been
used repeatedly to label similar but distinctly different approaches. For example,
Wicks (1992) identified subtle but distinct differences between various concepts
of cognitive categorization. Hamill and Lodge (1986) and Lodge & Hamill (1986)
saw only a terminological difference between concepts like frame, script, or schema.
At the same time, studies have operationalized framing in combination with other
concepts such as agenda setting or priming (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987). More re-
cently, McCombs, Shaw, and Weaver (1997) suggested that not only are agenda
setting and framing effects related, framing is, in fact, an extension of agenda
setting. They used the term second-level agenda-setting to describe the impact of
the salience of characteristics of media coverage on audiences’ interpretation of
these news stories. Perhaps as a result of these terminological and conceptual
Dietram A. Scheufele (MA, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997) is a doctoral candidate at the Mass
Communications Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include
public opinion, media effects, and research methods. He thanks Patricia Moy, Jack M. McLeod, and
Diana C. Mutz for their helpful comments. An earlier version was presented at the convention of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Anaheim, CA, August 1996.
Copyright © 1999 International Communication Association
inconsistencies, other studies have referred to agenda setting, priming, and fram-
ing without differentiation (e.g., Popkin, 1994).
Therefore, additional research demonstrating framing effects for particular me-
dia or in specific content areas is of limited use to the field. Rather, research
should address framing from a more metatheoretical perspective. In other words,
how can framing be used to broaden our understanding of media effects? Is it
possible to categorize framing research by key inputs, processes, or outcomes?
Finally, what are the theoretical and methodological implications for future stud-
ies on framing effects? This essay proceeds in three steps to answer these ques-
In the first part, framing as a concept is embedded in the larger context of
media effects research, and its theoretical premises are outlined. In the second
part, I develop a typology of framing research that classifies the applications of
framing in media effects research along two dimensions: media versus audience
frames, on the one hand, and frames as independent versus dependent variables,
on the other. This typology responds to Entman’s (1993) call for the development
of a consistent concept of framing, a “common understanding [that] might help
constitute framing as research paradigm” (p. 56). By integrating the various, atom-
istic approaches to framing, the typology serves as a tool for theory building, thus
contributing, as Entman argued, “to social theory in the largest sense” (p. 58).
Based on this typology, previous studies on framing are evaluated with respect to
their conceptual and operational contributions to framing as a concept in media
effects research.1 In the third part of the essay, I develop a process model of
framing, addressing deficits of previous studies and suggesting guidelines for fu-
ture research in framing in the area of mass media effects.
Framing, Mass Media, and Audiences
This section has two goals. First, framing needs to be differentiated from other
closely related concepts in mass media effects research. This differentiation re-
quires examining framing analysis in the larger historical context of media effects
research. Second, a general conceptual definition of framing needs to be devel-
oped. This endeavor involves identifying theoretical premises common to all
conceptualizations of framing, and, based on these premises, developing a defini-
tion of framing generally applicable to media effects research.
Framing as the Construction of Social Reality
“The entire study of mass communication,” McQuail (1994) wrote, “is based on
the premise that the media have significant effects” (p. 327). This diagnosis, how-
ever, must be understood as the temporary result of a scholarly discussion that has
1 The intention here is not to provide an exhaustive overview of existing operationalizations, but to use
existing research to illustrate the theoretical model outlined in this essay. Space constraints force me to
limit my examination to media effects in the area of political communication. This does not mean,
however, that the typology developed cannot be applied to other areas.
been characterized by significant changes in paradigms over the past decades.2
According to McQuail, the history of research on media effects can be divided into
four stages. The first stage, from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1930s, was
dominated by an experience with strategic propaganda during World War I, which
led to a growing fear of the influence of media messages on attitudes. The second
stage, which ended in the late 1960s, revised the paradigm of strong media effects.
Personal influence was considered to be the main influence on attitude change.
Klapper (1960) summed up the findings: Campaigns do not influence people;
their major effect is the reinforcement of existing attitudes. Even for those who
actually do change their mind, the effects are minimal. The third stage, beginning
in the 1970s, was dominated by the search for new strong media effects (Noelle-
Neumann, 1973). The focus of research shifted from attitude change, as found in
the Columbia studies, to more cognitive effects of mass media (Beniger & Gusek,
1995). The fourth and present stage, started in the early 1980s, is characterized by
“social constructivism.” The description of media and recipients in this stage com-
bines elements of both strong and limited effects of mass media. On the one hand,
mass media have a strong impact by constructing social reality, that is, “by framing
images of reality . . . in a predictable and patterned way” (McQuail, 1994, p. 331).
On the other hand, media effects are limited by an interaction between mass
media and recipients. “Media discourse is part of the process by which individuals
construct meaning, and public opinion is part of the process by which journalists
. . . develop and crystallize meaning in public discourse” (Gamson & Modigliani,
1989, p. 2; see also McLeod, Kosicki, Pan, & Allen, 1987).
Within the realm of political communication, framing has to be defined and
operationalized on the basis of this social constructivism. Mass media actively set
the frames of reference that readers or viewers use to interpret and discuss public
events (Tuchman, 1978, p.␣ ix). According to Neuman, Just, and Crigler (1992)
“They give the story a ‘spin,’ . . . taking into account their organizational and
modality constraints, professional judgments, and certain judgments about the
audience” (p. 120). At the same time, people’s information processing and inter-
pretation are influenced by preexisting meaning structures or schemas. Three
dimensions of news processing have been identified (Kosicki & McLeod, 1990).
Active processing refers to an individual seeking out additional sources based on
the assumption that mass-mediated information in general is incomplete, slanted,
or in other ways colored by the intentions of the communicator. Reflective inte-
grators ponder or think about information they gather from mass media, or they
talk to others about what they have learned from mass media to understand fully
what they have learned. Finally, selective scanners use mass media only to seek
information relevant to them. They skim over or ignore irrelevant or uninteresting
content. In sum, according to a constructivist media effects model, audiences rely
on “a version of reality built from personal experience, interaction with peers, and
interpreted selections from the mass media” (Neuman et al., 1992, p. 120).
2 McQuail’s (1987) book itself is an indicator of this change in paradigms. In the second edition the
author talked about the agreement “that there are effects from the media” (p. 251). The third edition
referred in the same context to “significant effects” of mass media (McQuail, 1994, p. 327).
This interactive model of construction of reality has important implications for
conceptualizing framing as a theory of media effects. An analysis of the roles that
audiences and mass media play in this constructivist approach requires research
on various levels of analysis. Linking macrolevels and microlevels of analysis is
not new and has been formulated as a postulate in other disciplines such as
sociology (e.g., Coleman, 1987; Luhmann, 1995), social psychology (e.g., Doise,
1986) and political psychology (e.g., Eulau, 1977, 1986). For mass communication,
multilevel analyses can be systematized by using a metatheoretical model for
between-level and within-level analyses (McLeod & Pan, 1989; McLeod, Pan, &
Rucinski, 1995; Pan & McLeod, 1991). Gamson (1992a) implicitly called for the
application of this model for framing research when he noted the lack of theories
examining “the interplay between two levels—between individuals who operate
actively in the construction of meaning and socio-cultural processes that offer
meanings that are frequently contested” (p.␣ 67).
Media Versus Individual Frames
Because frames have to be considered schemes for both presenting and compre-
hending news, two concepts of framing can be specified: media frames and indi-
vidual frames. This terminological and conceptual distinction follows the Kinder
and Sanders (1990) suggestion that frames serve both as “devices embedded in
political discourse,” which is equivalent to the concept of media frames, and as
“internal structures of the mind,” which is equivalent to individual frames (p. 74).
The definitions by Gitlin (1980) and Entman (1991) are more specifically related to
the field of political communication. According to Gitlin (1980), frames, “largely
unspoken and unacknowledged, organize the world both for journalists who re-
port it and, in some important degree, for us who rely on their reports” (p. 7).
Similarly, Entman (1991) differentiated individual frames as “information-processing
schemata” of individuals and media frames as “attributes of the news itself” (p. 7).
All these researchers decomposed framing into media and audience frames and
linkages between them. Friedland and Zhong (1996) summarized the perspective
that all these studies share the belief that frames serve as “the bridge between
. . . larger social and cultural realms and everyday understandings of social inter-
action” (p. 13). Consequently, a concept explication of framing must take into
account both kinds of frames and link them consistently.
Media frames. Gamson and Modigliani (1987) conceptually defined a media
frame as “a central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an
unfolding strip of events . . . The frame suggests what the controversy is about, the
essence of the issue” (p. 143). Viewing media or news frames as necessary to turn
meaningless and nonrecognizable happenings into a discernible event, Tuchman
(1978) offered a similar definition for media frames: “The news frame organizes
everyday reality and the news frame is part and parcel of everyday reality . . . [it]
is an essential feature of news” (p. 193). Media frames also serve as working
routines for journalists that allow the journalists to quickly identify and classify
information and “to package it for efficient relay to their audiences” (Gitlin, 1980,
p.␣ 7). This concept of media framing can include the intent of the sender, but the
motives can also be unconscious ones (Gamson, 1989).
Entman (1993) offered a more detailed explanation of how media provide
audiences with schemas for interpreting events. For him, essential factors are
selection and salience: “To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality
and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote
a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or
treatment recommendation” (p. 52).3 The framing and presentation of events and
news in the mass media can thus systematically affect how recipients of the news
come to understand these events (Price, Tewksbury, & Powers, 1995, p. 4).
Individual frames. Individual frames are defined as “mentally stored clusters of
ideas that guide individuals’ processing of information” (Entman, 1993, p. 53).
Two frames of reference can be used to interpret and process information: global
and long-term political views and short-term, issue-related frames of reference.
Whereas global political views are a result of certain personal characteristics of
individuals and have a rather limited influence on the perception and interpreta-
tion of political problems (Kinder, 1983, p. 414),4 short-term, issue-related frames
of reference can have a significant impact on perceiving, organizing, and inter-
preting incoming information and on drawing inferences from that information
(Pan & Kosicki, 1993, p. 56). Similarly, McLeod et al. (1987) employed the concept
of individual frames to describe how audiences make sense of political news.
They conceptually defined individual frames as cognitive devices that “operate as
non-hierarchical categories that serve as forms of major headings into which any
future news content can be filed” (p. 10).
Frames as Independent and Dependent Variables
In addition to classifying studies with respect to their focus on media or audience
frames, framing research can be broken down into research examining frames as
independent or dependent variables. Studies of frames as dependent variables
have examined the role of various factors in influencing the creation or modifica-
tion of frames. At the media level, journalists’ framing of an issue may be influ-
enced by several social-structural or organizational variables (e.g., Shoemaker &
Reese, 1996) and by individual or ideological variables (e.g., Tuchman, 1978). At
the audience level, frames as the dependent variable are examined mostly as
direct outcomes of the way mass media frame an issue (e.g., Price, Tewksbury, &
Powers, 1995, 1996).
Studies in which frames serve as independent variables typically are more in-
terested in the effects of framing. In the case of media frames, the most logical
outcome is a link to audience frames. In the case of individual frames, the ques-
3 Two aspects of Entman’s (1993) definition are especially important for differentiating framing as a
media effect from approaches like agenda setting or gatekeeping: selection and salience. Whereas
research on gatekeeping (e.g., White, 1950; Whitney & Becker, 1982) and agenda setting (e.g., McCombs
& Shaw, 1972) has commonly examined the selection and salience of issues, Entman’s (1993) defini-
tion of framing referred to the selection and salience of particular aspects of an issue rather than to the
4 Research has identified six personal characteristics that influence global political views of individuals:
personality, self-interest, leadership, group identification, values, and inferences from history (see
Kinder, 1983, p. 401; Kinder & Sears, 1985, p. 671).
tion becomes, does individual framing of issues influence evaluations of issues or
political actors? Also, does the way individuals frame issues for themselves have
an impact on their willingness to engage in political action or participation?
A Typology of Framing
Based on the two dimensions—research examining media versus audience frames
and frames as independent versus dependent variables—a four-cell typology can
be constructed that allows for a classification of previous studies in this area with
respect to their main focus (see Table 1). The typology is valuable in three re-
spects. First, it classifies existing research on framing with respect to the way in
which it has conceptualized frames and the relationships between frames and
other variables. Specifically, it permits a direct comparison of findings both within
cells (i.e., consistency across different studies of essentially the same phenom-
enon) and between cells (i.e., compatibility of processes at different levels of
Second, the typology provides information on how well previous studies have
answered questions pertinent to each cell. More specifically, several research ques-
tions have to be answered.
With respect to media frames as dependent variable, we should ask:
RQ1: What factors influence the way journalists or other societal groups frame
RQ2: How do these processes work and, as a result, what are the frames that
With respect to media frames as independent variable, we should ask:
RQ3: What kinds of media frames influence the audience’s perception of cer-
tain issues, and how does this process work?
With respect to individual frames as dependent variable, we should ask:
RQ4: Which factors influence the establishment of individual frames of refer-
ence, or are individual frames simply replications of media frames?
RQ5: How can the audience member play an active role in constructing mean-
ing or resisting media frames?
With respect to individual frames as independent variable, we should ask:
RQ6: How do individual frames influence individual perception of issues?
Third, and closely related to the previous two points, the typology goes be-
yond hypothesis testing in relatively isolated or eclectic studies in different disci-
plines to develop a “common understanding of the concept of framing” (Entman,
1993, p. 56). In this sense, the four-cell typology can serve as a tool for theory
building by providing a common set of conceptual definitions and theoretical
statements about between-level and within-level relationships.
Applying the Typology: Previous Approaches to Framing
Classifying and evaluating previous framing studies based on this typology is not
a clear-cut task. Certain studies can fall into more than one cell. Several experi-
mental studies examined a relationship between media and audience frames by
manipulating the independent variable and measuring the dependent variable
(e.g., Iyengar, 1991; Price et al., 1995, 1996). Similarly, Pan and Kosicki (1993)
conceptualized a relationship between media frames as the independent variable
and audience frames as the dependent variable. Their analyses, however, pro-
vided operationalizations for only one type of frame. Although these studies make
important contributions to framing theory, they raise problems with respect to
where they fit in the typology. For purposes of consistency, all studies are classi-
fied according to the operationalized frame.
Media Frames as Dependent Variables
Although many researchers have examined extrinsic and intrinsic factors influenc-
ing the production and selection of news (e.g., Gans, 1979; Shoemaker & Reese,
1996; Tuchman, 1978), no evidence has yet been systematically collected about
how various factors impact the structural qualities of news in terms of framing.
Based on previous research, at least five factors may potentially influence
how journalists frame a given issue: social norms and values, organizational
pressures and constraints, pressures of interest groups, journalistic routines,
and ideological or political orientations of journalists (e.g., Shoemaker & Reese,
1996; Tuchman, 1978).
Table 1. Typology of Framing Research
Studies Examining Frames as . . .
Dependent Variables Independent Variables
Frames as . . .
Media Frames Tuchman (1978) Pan and Kosicki (1993)
Bennett (1991) Entman (1993)
Edelman (1993) Huang (1996)
Individual Frames Iyengar (1987, 1989, 1991) Snow et al. (1986)
Gamson (1992b) Snow and Bedford (1988, 1992)
Price et al. (1995, 1996, 1997) Entman and Rojecki (1993)
Huang (1996) Nelson et al. (1997)
For an examination of media frames as the dependent variable, these five fac-
tors can be grouped into two categories. Van Dijk (1985) raised the question,
“why, for instance, . . . [do] news items [have] the kind of thematic or schematic
structures we want to study?” (p. 70). He suspected that the way news is framed in
the mass media is a result of social and professional routines of journalists. Ac-
cording to Edelman (1993), the choice of frames often is “driven by ideology and
prejudice” (p. 232). Gamson and Modigliani (1987) assumed that the formation of
frames can be explained by an interaction of journalists’ norms and practices and
the influence of interest groups (p. 168).
Bennett (1993) and Edelman (1977, 1993) offered a qualitative approach to this
aspect of framing. For Edelman, the framing of issues by societal groups is a result
of intentional considerations. He provided some evidence in the form of an ex-
ploratory qualitative analysis of the news coverage on the Gulf War of 1991.
Edelman (1977) concluded that “authorities and pressure groups categorize be-
liefs in a way that marshals support and opposition to their interests” (p.␣ 51).
These groups use mass media to construct opinions and reality, and their societal
influence to establish certain frames of reference.
Tuchman’s (1978) work on the construction of reality in news media has been
cited as conceptualizing and measuring media frames as dependent variables. Her
study provided some tentative support for the assumption that organizational struc-
ture or media and work routines of journalists have an impact on the way news
stories are framed (see Tuchman, 1978, especially chapter 9). Her results, how-
ever, were limited in two respects. First, Tuchman’s work lacked a definition of
framing that can serve as a guideline for future research in this area. She referred
to earlier theoretical work on the general notion of frame analysis, but did not
develop a clear conceptual or operational definition of media framing as the de-
pendent variable in her analyses. Second, the dependent variable in her study was
“the act of making news” (p. 12) rather than the framing of reality, with the latter
being a subdimension of the former. Probably as a result of this broader focus on
news production in general, rather than framing in particular, Tuchman’s analysis
revealed less about the relationship between news organizations or journalistic
norms and framing than could a more narrowly designed study.
Media Frames as Independent Variables
Conceptualizations of framing developed by Pan and Kosicki (1993), Entman (1993),
and Huang (1996) examined media frames as the independent variable. These
studies are highly pertinent when it comes to examining framing effects as media
effects. In addition to the theoretical statements and links that they provide on a
conceptual level, the question arises as to how these studies operationalized the
links between media frames as independent variables and audience frames as
Studies that have examined media frames as an independent variable can be
classified into two groups. Researchers in the first group have conceptually de-
fined media frames as an independent variable having an impact on attitudes,
opinions, or individual frames. To a large degree, however, they did not provide
empirical data on the links between media frames as inputs and other variables,
including audience frames, as outcomes. Pan and Kosicki (1993) and Entman
(1993), for example, conceptually predicted a link between media and audience
frames, but provided only exploratory analyses of media frames.
Using a newspaper article on an antiabortion rally in Wichita, Kansas, as an
exemplar, Pan and Kosicki (1993) described the structure of news discourse in
general and potential framing devices in particular. They identified four types of
structural dimensions of news that influence the formation of frames: (a) syntactic
structures, or patterns in the arrangements of words or phrases; (b) script struc-
tures, referring to the general newsworthiness of an event as well as the intention
to communicate news and events to the audience that transcends their limited
sensory experiences; (c) thematic structures, reflecting the tendency of journalists
to impose a causal theme on their news stories, either in the form of explicit
causal statements or by linking observations to the direct quote of a source; and
(d) rhetorical structures, referring to the “the stylistic choices made by journalists
in relation to their intended effects” (p.␣ 61).
Examining the coverage on the downing of a Korean and an Iranian airplane,
Entman (1993) conceptually defined media frames as an independent variable
(i.e., as “attributes of the news itself” [p.␣ 7]), influencing both political decision-
making and public opinion. In content analyses of newspapers, news magazines,
and network newscasts, Entman identified five traits of media texts that set a
certain frame of reference, and, therefore, have a critical impact on information
processing: (a) importance judgments; (b) agency, or the answer to the question
(e.g., who did it?); (c) identification with potential victims; (d) categorization, or
the choice of labels for the incidents; and (e) generalizations to a broader national
It is important to note that these studies make valuable contributions to using
framing as a theory of media effects. The fact that they generally use data as
illustrations rather than as rigid tests of their theoretical arguments is not a short-
coming. Pan and Kosicki (1993) explicitly pointed to the exploratory character of
the empirical part of their study and considered it only “an initial step towards
analyzing the news discourse process as a whole” (p. 55). The type of data these
authors have used is an important characteristic that distinguishes them from a
second group of studies.
This second group of studies has conceptualized and measured media frames
as the independent variable and individual frames as the dependent variable. The
most promising approach here is a combination of content analytic data and
survey data by Huang (1996). Huang’s study is the only approach conceptualizing
and measuring media frames as the independent variable and audience frames as
the dependent variable. It is therefore listed in both these cells of the typology.
Using the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy as an exemplar, Huang (1996)
analyzed “to what extent media frames are operative in audience frames” (p. 1).
She measured frames on both a macro- and micro-level. On the one hand, she
analyzed all news stories on the network evening news and in two local newspa-
pers in terms of how they frame the controversy. On the other hand, she tried to
identify individual frames among audiences by coding answers to open-ended
questions on the Hill-Thomas controversy. To both types of data she applied the
same coding scheme to show potential links. Huang’s results showed that media
frames not only find their way into audience frames, but that when media and
audience frames overlap, the media and the audience accord different weights to
those frames. Moreover, in the case of congruent individual and media frames the
media and the audience focus on different dimensions of those frames. As Huang
wrote, “what was central to the media might be rather peripheral to most respon-
dents” (p. 19). These findings are consistent with Neuman et al.’s (1992) results,
which compared depth interviews (coded for individual frames) with results from
media content analyses, and revealed “very different priorities” in terms of fram-
ing issues (p. 111). Neuman et al. identified a more moral individual framing of
certain issues that did not follow the objectified frames employed by journalists.5
Individual Frames as Dependent Variables
Similar to the previous group, studies on individual frames as a dependent vari-
able (Gamson, 1992; Iyengar, 1987, 1989, 1991; Price et al., 1995) conceptualized
a relationship between media frames as the independent and individual frames as
the dependent variable. These studies focused on individual frames as outcomes,
given specific types of media frames. Consequently, all these studies measured
only the dependent variable and experimentally manipulated media frames as the
independent variable. Therefore, they are classified here as studies on individual
frames as dependent variable.
Iyengar’s (1987, 1989, 1991) content analysis of network television newscasts
showed that networks frame newscasts in episodic or thematic terms.6 Episodic
newscasts depict public issues in the form of concrete instances or specific events.
Thematic newscasts report on a more abstract level in the form of general out-
comes. Iyengar’s (1991) analyses also showed that the networks rely extensively
on episodic framing. He hypothesized that the type of media framing influences
how audience members attribute responsibility. According to results on open-
ended questions in the posttest questionnaire, two dimensions of attribution of
responsibility can be differentiated: causal and treatment responsibility (Iyengar,
1987, pp. 818–819; Iyengar, 1991, p. 28). The hypothesized relationship was ex-
amined for five issues: crime, terrorism, poverty, unemployment, and racial in-
equality. Iyengar’s (1991) results showed that a relationship between media frames
and audience frames is strongly contingent upon the issue under study. An ex-
perimental manipulation of highly salient issues like unemployment, for instance,
proved to have little or no impact on individual attribution of responsibility
5 Neuman et al. (1992) offered an explanation for this seemingly paradoxical result. They assumed that
there is a strong difference in how private thought and discussion are framed and how public and
media discourse is framed. “This disjuncture in public and media frames,” they argued, “demonstrates
that alternative frames are out there in the public discourse on issues” (p. 112).
6 Because a clear distinction between thematic and episodic frames is impossible, news stories are
“classified on the predominant frame” (Iyengar, 1991, p. 18). It is important to note that little research
followed Iyengar’s (1991) seminal work on thematic and episodic frames.
Gamson (1992b) operationalized individual frames more qualitatively. He ex-
amined the relationship between ideas and symbols used in public discourse on
the individual frames “that people are able to construct on many issues” (p. 6). In
focus group discussions, he confronted subjects with four different issues: the
Arab-Israeli conflict, troubled industry, affirmative action, and nuclear power. The
independent variables were “critical discourse moments,” in the form of cartoons
and news stories on the four issues (p. 26). Gamson identified three ideal types of
formation of frames on the group level: cultural, personal, and integrated. A cul-
tural approach to develop a common individual frame was defined as a group
discussion that relies exclusively on media discourse and popular wisdom. A
personal approach relies only on experimental knowledge and popular wisdom
in framing the issue, but does not integrate media discourse to support it. Inte-
grated discussions use media discourse, popular knowledge, and experimental
knowledge to form individual frames in group discussion (Gamson, 1992b, p. 129).
Price, Tewksbury, & Powers (1995, 1996, 1997) offered the most elaborate
approach to studying individual frames as the dependent variable. They argued
that previous studies have focused exclusively on politically relevant outcomes of
framing and have not “examined directly the more immediate influence of story
frames on readers’ cognitive responses” (Price et al., 1995, p. 5). They examined
the influence of certain characteristics of media coverage on “the knowledge acti-
vation process, in particular effect of news frames on the applicability of ideas and
feelings” (p. 5). Undergraduate students were asked to read news articles about
possible cuts in state funding to the university. These articles were experimentally
prepared to manipulate various news frames: (a)␣ a conflict frame, in which the
conflict between opposing interest groups is described; (b) a human interest frame,
operationalized by an article covering the retirement of a state budget director
tired of struggling to provide equitable funding for all Michigan universities; and
(c) a consequence frame, in which potential financial consequences for all stu-
dents were mentioned. In a posttest questionnaire the subjects were asked “to
write down all thoughts and feelings you had while reading the preceding article,
including those thoughts that are not necessarily relevant to the article” (p.␣ 13).
Coding of the open-ended question showed that issue frames of news stories
had a significant influence on the respondents’ cognitive responses. The most
interesting finding is a phenomenon that Price et al. (1995) called “a kind of
‘hydraulic’ pattern, with thoughts of one kind, stimulated by the frame, driving out
other possible responses” (p.␣ 23). Similar to Huang (1996), Price et al. (1997)
found that individuals’ frames do not exclusively depend on media coverage of an
event or issue. Rather, “participants demonstrated a capacity to introduce their
own thoughts, going beyond the information provided and drawing out some
basic implications on their own” (Price et al., 1997, p. 496).
Individual Frames as Independent Variables
To find an explicit and direct link between individual frames as the independent
variable and individual information processing or political action, one can turn to
the social movements literature. Gamson (1985), for example, conceptualized a
potential impact of the frames people use to interpret conflicts on the “mobiliza-
tion for collective action aimed at social change” (p. 620). Snow, Burke Rochford,
Worden, and Benford (1986) and Snow and Benford (1988, 1992) noted the im-
portance of master frames and collective action frames for studying cycles of
protest.7 Klanderman and Oegema (1987), Klanderman (1988, 1992), and Entman
and Rojecki (1993) focused more on how master frames invented by social move-
ments can influence people’s motivation to support these movements and to form
consensus. Gerhards and Rucht (1992) tried to synthesize the previous findings
into a single model (p. 582), differentiating three types of framing: diagnostic
framing (identifying a problem and attributing blame and causality), prognostic
framing (specifying what needs to be done), and motivational framing (the “call
to arms for engaging in ameliorative or corrective action,” Snow & Benford, 1988,
If these studies are considered exemplars of research examining individual
frames as independent variables, the issue of ecological fallacy arises. In other
words, the aggregate-level data used almost exclusively in these studies is of only
limited use when examining the potential impact of individual frames on political
participation or action. This is not to say that individual-level survey measures of
audience frames and individual political action per se would provide stronger
evidence of framing effects. Experimental designs in lab settings would be neces-
sary to achieve this. It is safe to say, however, that the link between audience
frames and individual action needs to be explored more closely in future research,
possibly using different types of research designs.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In addition to providing a scheme for classifying research on framing as media
effects, the typology developed here fulfills a second, and probably more impor-
tant, function. It helps to explicate framing as a theory of media effects. When
examining media effects, however, the focus automatically shifts from a mere
description of variables or classification of previous research, as provided by the
4-cell typology, to processes or the links between key variables.
A Process Model of Framing
I, therefore, developed a process model of framing, breaking important links down
into inputs, processes, and outcomes. Figure 1 conceptualizes framing as a con-
tinuous process where outcomes of certain processes serve as inputs for subse-
quent processes.8 More specifically, I examine four processes: frame building;
8 I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this idea.
7 For Snow and Benford (1992), master frames and movement-specific collective action frames perform
the same function. They are modes of “punctuation, attribution, and articulation” (p. 138) of certain
aspects of social movements. Whereas master frames operate on more macroscopic levels, however,
social movement frames have a more conflict-related or movement-specific character (Gerhards &
Rucht, 1992, pp.␣ 574–576).
frame setting; individual-level effects of framing; and a link between individual
frames and media frames (i.e., journalists’ and elites’ susceptibility to framing
Frame building. As mentioned earlier, there has been several studies on the
impact of factors like organizational restraints, professional values of journalists,
or their expectations about audiences on news form and content (for an over-
view, see Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). This research, however, has not determined
how media frames are formed or the types of frames that result from this process.
Future research, therefore, should address the processes that influence the cre-
ation or changes of frames applied by journalists. The term frame building, bor-
rowed from agenda-setting research, seems to capture these processes best. Simi-
lar to Cobb and Elder’s (1972) model of agenda building, the key question is what
kinds of organizational or structural factors of the media system, or which indi-
vidual characteristics of journalists, can impact the framing of news content.
Gans’s (1979) model of news selection processes (pp. 78–79) and Shoemaker
and Reese’s (1996) work on influences on media content suggest at least three
potential sources of influence. The first source of influence is journalist-centered
influences. Journalists actively construct frames to structure and make sense of
incoming information. The formation of frames is moderated by variables such as
ideology, attitudes, and professional norms (for an overview, see Donsbach, 1981)
and is eventually reflected in the way journalists frame news coverage. The sec-
ond factor influencing the framing of news is the selection of frames as a result of
factors like the type or political orientation of the medium, or what Gans (1979)
called “organizational routines.” The third source of influence is external sources
of influence (e.g., political actors, authorities, interest groups, and other elites). In
Figure 1. A process model of framing research.
this model, news events are covered with “journalists simply holding a mirror to
them and reflecting their image to the audience” (Gans, 1979, p. 79). Thus, frames
suggested by interest groups or political actors as sound bites are adopted by
journalists and incorporated in their coverage of an issue or event. It is rather
likely that this frame-building function of mass media has a greater impact for
relatively new issues (i.e., issues for which no frames have yet to be established).
Frame setting. The second process of interest for framing as a theory of media
effects is what I label frame setting. Again, the terminology is similar to McCombs
and Shaw’s (1972) idea of agenda setting. Indeed, McCombs, Llamas, Lopez-Escobar,
& Rey (1997; also McCombs, Shaw, & Weaver, 1997) have argued that agenda
setting and frame setting are based on essentially identical processes. Whereas
agenda setting is concerned with the salience of issues, frame setting, or second-
level agenda setting, as McCombs and his colleagues have labeled it, is concerned
with the salience of issue attributes. McCombs, Llamas et al. (1997) wrote, “The
first level of agenda setting is . . . the transmission of object salience. The second
level of agenda setting is the transmission of attribute salience” (p. 704).
Empirical work by Nelson, Clawson, and Oxley (1997) and Nelson and Kinder
(1996), however, directly contradicted the theorizing put forth by McCombs and
his colleagues. Although Nelson and his colleagues did not completely reject the
notion of frame accessibility, or salience, and their role in framing processes, they
suggested that perceived importance of specific frames, rather than their salience
among audiences, is the key variable. In other words, “frames influence opinions
by stressing specific values, facts, and other considerations, endowing them with
greater apparent relevance to the issue than they might appear to have under an
alternative frame” (Nelson et al., 1997, p. 569).
At first glance, this difference between perceived importance and salience of
frames seems to be an operational one, with salience and perceived importance
representing different ways of measuring essentially the same construct. Beyond
operational issues, however, there are conceptual differences between salience of
frames and perceived importance of frames. Salience of frames, in this sense,
refers to their accessibility, or the “ease in which instances or associations could
be brought to mind” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, p. 208; see also Hodges &
Wilson, 1993; Houston & Fazio, 1989). In other words, how people think about an
issue is influenced by the accessibility of frames. The frames that are most acces-
sible are the ones that are most easily available and retrievable from memory
(Hastie & Park, 1986; Iyengar, 1990). The perceived importance of frames, in
contrast, is the outcome of a more conscious process of information gathering and
processing. Consequently, previous research (e.g., McCombs & Shaw, 1972) has
assessed perceived importance of issues and frames more directly using self-re-
ports in survey designs.
The data collected by Nelson et al. (1997) allowed them to test directly the
assumption that perceived importance and accessibility of frames are indeed dis-
tinctively different constructs. In addition to measures of perceived importance of
frames similar to those employed by McCombs and his associates, Nelson et al.
operationalized salience of frames by measuring response latency of answers (for
a review, see Bassili 1995). Their results clearly demonstrated the discriminant
validity of both the perceived importance of frames and the accessibility of frames.
More specifically, causal modeling revealed that various dimensions of perceived
importance accounted for major proportions of the variance in framing effects.
Salience or accessibility of frames played only a minor role. Future research should
address the obvious incompatibility of these competing explanations further.
Individual-level effects of framing. Individual-level influences of audience frames
on several behavioral, attitudinal, and cognitive variables have been examined
using, in most cases, black-box models. In other words, studies examining this
link have focused on inputs and outputs (see Figure 1), and, in most cases, ne-
glected the processes linking the key variables.
Most research examining individual-level outcomes of framing, has assumed a
direct link between media frames and individual-level outcomes. For example,
Iyengar (1991) examined the impact of episodic and thematic media framing of
issues on attributions of personal or societal responsibility. However, is this rela-
tionship mediated by audience framing? This question of whether audiences adopt
media frames or the degree to which they use frames similar to media frames in
their own information processing, has not been answered. In other words, al-
though making important contributions in describing effects of media framing on
behavioral, attitudinal, or cognitive outcomes, these studies provide no explana-
tion as to why and how these two variables are linked to one another. More recent
research has started to explore these links in greater detail. Nelson et al. (1997),
for example, demonstrated, in a first step, how media frames impact the impor-
tance assigned by individuals to various ways of framing an issue. In a second
step, they examined the link between these individual-level frames and tolerance
for a Ku Klux Klan rally.
Journalists as audiences. The final link that deserves more attention than it has
received is the link between individual-level variables and media frames. It can be
expected that journalists, like their audiences, are cognitive misers. Consequently,
they are equally susceptible to the very frames that they use to describe events
and issues. Previous research has suggested that this is indeed the case. For ex-
ample, Rhodebeck (1998) argued that, although the process of framing is com-
monly conceptualized as a hierarchical process originating from elites, interest
groups, or mass media, “there is a reciprocity in framing that the ‘top-down’ de-
piction omits” (p. 5). Using the term “themes” rather than explicitly referring to
“frames,” Fishman (1977, 1980) suggested that, similar to “regular” audiences,
journalists are susceptible to frames set by news media. Fishman (1980) demon-
strated how news coverage of crimes was framed as “crimes against the elderly”
by initially a small number of local media, and how that frame was soon picked
up by other journalists and news media. Fishman labeled this phenomenon a
Of course, influences of media frames on similar content in other media are a
function of many factors that are of only minor interest here, (e.g., professional
ethics, time pressures, and differential prestige of news sources). Are journalists’
frames of an issue mostly a function of how elites, interest groups, or other sources
frame an issue? Or, do journalists themselves interpret issues based on frames
conveyed to them by other news sources? Patterson’s (1993) finding that journal-
ists are highly congruent in how they use a horserace frame in election contexts,
for example, suggested one of two possible explanations: Either covering elec-
tions as competitions between two contenders is a function of journalistic norms
and pressures from news directors, or these frames are, once introduced, repro-
duced constantly though the feedback loop suggested by previous research (e.g.,
Fishman, 1977, 1980; Rhodebeck, 1998) and shown in Figure 1.
Questioning Answers or Answering Questions?
The presentation of operationalizations and empirical results shows that the frac-
tured paradigm to which Entman (1993) referred still exists. Even in the area of
media effects, the concept of framing is far from being integrated into a consistent
theoretical model. As a result of the numerous approaches to framing developed
in recent years, the comparability of empirical results obtained in these studies is
rather limited. Therefore, future research should integrate previous findings into a
consistent model and fill in the missing causal links to develop a complete model
of framing in political communication.
The classification scheme depicted in Table 1 offers a first step in this direction.
It identifies clear subdimensions of framing research in media effects, conceptual-
izing frames as media or audience frames, on the one hand, and as independent
or dependent variables, on the other. Each type of framing is conceptually defined
and differentiated from other cells in the typology. A typology like the one pro-
posed is important, considering the seemingly contradictory findings in this area.
In other words, are we dealing with an artifact if two researchers claim to examine
the same relationship but come to different conclusions, or are there real discrep-
ancies between their results? Based on the typology, it is relatively easy to classify
studies and decide if research should be placed in different cells (i.e., if inconsis-
tent results are an artifact, or if approaches should fall into the same category, and
the results are indeed contradictory).
Beyond classifying research, framing as a theory of media effects needs to be
conceptualized as a process model. Rather than focusing on inputs and outcomes,
therefore, future research should address the four key links indicated in Figure 1:
frame building, frame setting, individual-level framing processes, and feedback
from individual-level framing to media framing. In explicating these links, I have
raised at least as many questions as I attempted to answer. McCombs and his
colleagues’ (e.g., McCombs, Llamas et al., 1997) work on second-level agenda
setting, and Nelson et al.’s (1997) work on the salience of individual frames, for
example, illustrate nicely how essentially incompatible approaches to the same
area of framing research continue to coexist. The process model proposed here is
a framework for future research to address systematically unresolved issues in
framing research and ultimately integrate atomistic approaches into a coherent
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