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  • Claire Tills

Framing: A primer

I realized that I've talked a lot about framing and never taken the time to actually discuss what I mean. Framing theory is used in a lot of disciplines. It's all about how one chooses to present information to influence perception - how are messages and meaning constructed?

The idea is that communication is used to construct (social) reality (Hallahan, 1999). I don't want to dive into a debate about what reality is. The idea is that perception is based on the information made available to us and framing can be a way to influence perception in other people. As the communicator, you're starting with the full data set and you're deciding what to share or emphasize in order to create the desired perception in your audience.

A useful metaphor I've seen is that you're framing a picture, not a house. You aren't building something up as you would constructing the frame for a house Think about cropping an image. You're selecting what information to include and what to crop out so that people perceive it a certain way. Boom, you just framed a message. You can take a single image and create a variety of perceptions based on how you crop/frame it.

When you frame a message, you decide what conclusions you want the audience to draw - what information is most important to them - and draw attention to those pieces of the information. You also draw boundaries to exclude the rest of the information. Maybe there's a weird guy photobombing in the back that you want to crop out of those lovely engagement photos. By doing that, you're limiting the inferences they can draw from the information and directing their perception - biasing their cognitive processes (Hallahan, 1999). What a lovely moment not who is that weird guy?

There are a lot of specific types of framing: valence (presenting something as good or bad), story (creating themes and narratives), diagnostic (identifying a problem and causality), prognostic (recommending actions), to name a few. The types aren't that important here - the idea that framing can be used for a variety of purposes is.

So when I talk about framing, I mean how communication is being used to (try to) construct a specific reality. In my posts on Sony and SCCT, I discussed Sony attempting to frame themselves as victims of the crisis. Sony selected specific aspects of the incident to focus on that supported that perception. On the other hand, basically everyone else focused on the information that highlighted Sony's missteps - framing them as responsible for the crisis.

In the next post, I'll talk about gain-loss framing - how you present the outcomes of actions. You're using language to either focus on the positive or negative aspects of a situation. If you do X you will get a puppy; If you don't do X you won't get a puppy. Same action-outcome relationship, different framing.


Hallahan, K. (1999). Seven models of framing: Implications for public relations. Journal of public relations research, 11(3), 205-242.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of communication, 49(1), 103-122.

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