Talk about your great messengers. Two first-term republican legislators, one a former sheriff and the other a former chief of police, making the argument for investing in early childhood programs in this op-ed titled “Quality early education key to ending generational crime“
This well intentioned editorial in the Bangor Daily News is a framing nightmare. Main argument? Reference the title: “Welfare fraud by providers is bigger problem than individual ‘welfare cheats.'” Effect of this kind of framing?
1. Repeating myths and destructive frames, even to refute them = reinforcing myths and destructive frames.
2. It provides anti-welfare folks sufficient evidence that it IS in fact a broken system – it’s just that they got wrong WHO was defrauding that system. Ugh
*Bonus: I threw the content of the editorial in a word cloud creator, and the result is the image below. Think that pretty much sums up the framing problems.
The cover article of the April 29 issue of the New Republic, authored by Jonathan Cohn, is titled, “The Hell of American Day Care: The Shady Business of Looking After Our Kids,” and has been finding its way, repeatedly, into my social media feed. The investigative piece examines how we have come to a child care “system” with wide state-by-state variation, to put it mildly, in regulations and safety procedures. It offers a historical perspective, as well, on political efforts and social changes that have impacted the development of child care in America. There is a lot to admire in and learn from this piece.
It is also instructive from a framing perspective; its narrative structure presents some challenges in terms of how non-experts are likely to reason about the causes of and solutions to this “hell of American day care.” If you ever took Journalism 101, you would be familiar with “5 W’s…and sometimes an H,” the concept that stories are complete when they explain the Who, What, When, Where, Why…and How of an event or incident. This piece follows that structure:
Who is this about? Kenya Mire
What happened? A tragic fire at the day-care she’d chosen for her 20-month old daughter, Kendyll, that also killed three of the seven other children there that day
When? February, 2011
Why? The center director had left the children alone and unsupervised, and the fire started in her absence
How? Directly: Sub-standard regulations and inspections of day care. Indirectly: Lack of public will for the prioritization of quality day care for American children.
This structure also reflects what political scientist, Shanto Iyengar, refers to as an episodic story – one that focuses on an individual case or event. His (and others’) research tells us that when social problems are portrayed with episodic stories, non-experts are far more likely to attribute responsibility for solving the problem to the individuals portrayed – not to policy or public action.
Fortunately, Cohn includes “…and sometimes an H.” He tackles the How with highly contextualized explanations. He presents readers with a historical lens on the issue of child care, so that we have a much better understanding of how we’ve arrived at the child care we have today. He also shows how the system we’ve got was not built in ways that reflect what the science of child development tells us promotes optimal development.
The problem is that all of this great context comes after the organizing frame – the personal tragedy of Kenya Mire – has been vividly set-up; lay publics are likely to think the problem so dire, so widespread (it is titled, after all, the “Hell of American Day Care”), that the best we can hope for is that parents become more informed consumers in the child care market.
We have a presumption, from journalism and from traditional PR, that personalizing news stories about social problems will arouse public support on behalf of those portrayed. But political and framing science shows us that the opposite is true.
That’s why, in my own work, I encourage experts and advocates to work within a different narrative structure, one that answers different questions for their audience, and which makes the public or civic dimensions of issues more visible. I’ll call it, “2 W’s and always an H.” Why does this matter? What‘s the problem or challenge and How can it be solved? When you start with an explanation of Why instead of Who, you give your audience a wider lens on the issue and a stake in its resolution. This template also requires communicators to connect the dots between the problem (the What) and the solution (the How). This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give real life examples of the consequences of the problem – it just allows you to set in motion a different interpretive storyline, to paraphrase Matthew Nisbet, one that is constructed as shared, not personal, from the get-go.