Conceptual Derivations of Framing Theory

Jaya Srivastava*
Dr. Puja Mahesh**


The present paper attempts to draw a short historical account of framing theory by presenting the conceptualizations of framing as put forward by Gregory Bateson (1972) and Erving Goffman (1974). The different definitions of the concept of ‘frame’ in both the social constructionist paradigm and the social constructivist paradigms are reviewed with a focus on news frames and the typologies of frames present in the literature are summarized. The methods of analyzing frames in news texts through framing and reasoning devices are discussed. In the last section, we discuss the potential advantages of using framing theory in mass communication research in the Indian context.

The concept of framing can be traced back to Gregory Bateson’s paper ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ published in 1955. The philosophical groundings of the concept of framing by the British anthropologist were constructivist in nature. However, much of the applied work on the subject has a constructionist underpinning. Whereas in the constructivist theory, individuals have a central role in processing information they encounter through cognitive processes, in the social constructionist epistemologythe formation of knowledge is ascribed to social and cultural contexts of knowledge production. The origins of the theory in the constructivist paradigm can be traced back to the conceptualization of ‘schema’ by Bartlett (1995) (Bewulf et al., 2009; van Gorp, 2007, Taanen, 1979) as an embodied, dynamic, temporal, holistic, a social concept (Wagoner, n.d.), adaptive and efficient (Livingstone, 1988, p. 91), which has been extensively studied to understand framing effects. Looking at framing from the constructivist (cognitive) or constructionist (interactional) lenses, it is always termed as an ongoing and a dynamic process (Scheufele&Iyengar, 2012).

Framing Theory in Retrospect

According to Reese (2010), frames are organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time that symbolically work to meaningfully structure the social world. The term ‘organizing principles’ entails that frames employed in a text are necessarily inclusive and correspondingly exclusive in that it falls on the author–and in the context of media-the journalists, to shape the text in such a way that a part or an interpretation of some facts relating to an event are offered via the medium and consequently the others are denied this presence.

The origins of research in framing studies is attributed to Erving Goffman’s 1974 seminal work, ‘Frame Analysis – An Essay into the Organization of Experience’. In his ethnographic research that examined how individuals make sense of their environment and inter-personal interactions, he explains that frame is a ‘schemata of interpretation’ that provides the reader with a context for understanding an issue through which they can “locate, perceive, identify and label”. Words according to Goffman are triggers that help individuals negotiate meaning through the lens of existing cultural beliefs and worldviews (Nisbet, 2010).

Social constructionism follows that it is through social interaction that ‘reality’ takes form. It is thus created and institutionalized via the characteristics unique to the routines of everyday life in each culture. Thus, culture determines the way we look at the world and facilitates the formation of knowledge that carries idiosyncrasies with that of other societies. Therefore, frames are inextricably inter-twined, reside and emanate from within cultures. The approach to frames as cultural phenomena does not imply that all cultural concepts are frames by definition but they only become frames when someone applies them for their defining capacity (van Gorp, 2007). This presents a significant problem for the researcher to find out exactly where and how are the preferred frames construed and picked up by the media and individuals.

In media studies, social constructionism refers to the presence of an active, interpreting, meaning-constructing audience (van Gorp, 2007). According to specific frames in specific cultures, the repertoires of frame provide a grounding that guides news production and subsequently, news consumption. The way specific frames are used to explain specific events also activates the schemata to draw logical interpretations from the premises offered in the news story. The complimentary phenomena of inclusion and exclusion, highlighting and ignoring of certain themes grant leverage and legitimize the repertoires of frames in the cultural stock by developing the ‘web of facticity’ around them (cf. Tuchman, 1980).

Drawing on Erving Goffman’s work, Gaye Tuchman, in her 1978 book ‘Making News’, extended the concept of framing to news analysis. According to her,

News is a window to the world. Through its frame, Americans learn of themselves and others, of their institutions, leaders, and life styles, and those of other nations and their peoples… But like any other frame delineates the world, news frame may be considered problematic. The view through a window depends upon whether the window is large or small, has many panes or few, whether the glass is opaque or clear, whether the window faces a street or a backyard. (Making News, 1980)

Elaborating the concept of framing, she contended that newsmen typify events in an organizational set up by the manner in which they happen, thus promoting ‘events as news’. Each typification is steered by organizational needs that guide the working environment. According to the journalists, ‘the subject matter of certain kinds of events-as-news tends to happen in certain kinds of way the event took place’ along with the organizational structures that influence the news making process. Shecontended that news framing does not involve ‘distortion’ but’re-construing’ the world through redefinition, reconsideration, and re-accounting.

Taking into account the psychology of a journalist, news framing might not be consciously done but unconsciously driven at certain occasions, as clearly mentioned in Bateson’s paper. He assumes some degree of real existence in psychological frame. While in certain instances a frame is recognized consciously whereas in other instances there is no direct implication of a frame, leaving the subject unaware and without consciousness of it. However in case of a media organization, organizational pressures and the frames of the journalists themselves greatly influence the news produced.

What is a frame?

There are varying definitions of frames that can be found in the vast literature covering the subject. Entman, Matthes&Pelliciano (2009) define a frame through its functional specifications:

A frame repeatedly invokes the same objects and traits, using identical or synonymous words and symbols in a series of similar communications that are concentrated in time. These frames function to promote an interpretation of a problematic situation or actor and (implicit or explicit) support of a desirable response, often along with a moral judgment that provides an emotional charge. (p. 177)

Frames can be divided on the basis of being categorically limited to an issue or transcending thematic boundaries, namely issue-specific and generic frames respectively. Strong frames have been identified as those that arise from public discussions and offer the best rationales for contending positions on the issue (Chong &Druckman, 2007). De Vreese, Peter &Semetko (2001) offered a typology according to the nature and content of the frames. They differentiated between ‘issue-specific news frames’ and ‘generic news frame’. Issue-specific news frame belong to certain topics or news events. They help in analyzing and understanding an issue under investigation with ‘profound level of specificity and detail’ by particularizing it. This advantage is also a drawback as the frames tend to be generalized, compared or used as empirical evidence for the purpose of theory building. Generic frames transcend thematic limitations; can be identified across topics, time and even culture (de Vreese, 2003, p. 28). They are not bound by a specific topic and can be generalized to other contexts and issues (for details on typology and examples see de Vreese, 2003).

Semetko and colleagues (Semetko, Valkenburg, de Vreese, 2004; Semetko, 2000;Valkenburg, Semetko&de Vreese, 1999, p. 551) listed five frames that are recurrent in the news – (1) Conflict Frame, (2) Human Interest Frame, (3) Responsibility (4) Economic Consequences and (5) Morality Frame. Conflict frames are interpretive lenses through which disputants see, conceptualize, and interpret the conflict (Pinkley, 1994; Guha, 2010). They draw attention to conflict between individuals, groups, institutions, or countries (Neuman, 1992). The conflict frame reduces substantive political discussions and debates to overly simplistic conflict with a set of winners and losers. Conflict frame is theoretically linked with the strategy coverage in the news with winning and losing as its central concern; contains the language of wars, games, and competition along with the centrality of performance, style, and perception of the candidate (as cited in Cappella & Jamieson, 1996, p. 33). The human interest frame brings a human face, an individual’s story, or an emotional angle to the presentation of an event, issue, or problem (Semetko& de Vreese, 2004). It helps in personalizing the news and capturing audience interest by arousing sentimentality. The responsibility frame in news helps attribute the responsibility of solving or causing a problem to the government, group or individual. The economic consequences frame helps presents a news story in the light of actual or potential economic consequences for a person, group, institution or government.

How are frames identified in a news story?

As frames reside and emanate from within culture, their origins are hard to locate. In the context of media, however, frames can be reconstructed through an analysis of various construing elements that forms a frame. Each frame that a journalist has applied in a text can be represented as a ‘frame package’. In doing framing analysis, it is therefore important to identify and reconstruct these framing devices. A frame package consists of three parts: the manifest framing devices, the manifest or latent reasoning devices, and an implicit cultural phenomenon that displays the package as a whole (van Gorp, 2007).

Pan & Kosicki (1993) place the definition of a frame at the conjunction of the constructivist and constructionist paradigms. According to them, a news media frame can be perceived as ‘a cognitive device used in information encoding, interpreting, and retrieving; (which) is communicable; and is related to journalistic professional routines and conventions (p.57). The structural and lexical features of news text set the boundaries and provide direction for the way the text is to be interpreted by the audience. There are four organizing structures in news through which frames may appear in the text: syntactic, thematic, script and rhetorical.

According to Gamson and Modigliani (1989) there are five framing devices which help to eventualize framing in a news story: metaphors, exemplars, catch-phrases, depictions, and visual images.An 11-point typology of framing devices was proposed by James Tankard (2001) in an attempt to empirically study framing mechanism, which includes measuring: headlines, subheads, photos, photo captions, leads, source selection, quotes selection, pull quotes, logos, statistics and charts, and concluding statements and paragraphs.

Although, the framing devices in a news story give the frame package a form (Donati, 1992), on their own they are insufficient in deciphering a frame since they lack the ability to provide an understanding of other events, persons and issues. To help understand the promotion of a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment/ recommendation, reasoning devices are required to be analyzed. Reasoning devices are not manifest in a news story. Their core function is to facilitate causal interpretations once the text, the individual schema and the frame form a mental connection (cf. van Gorp, 2007). Along with the above mentioned framing devices Gamson and Modigliani (1989) introduced three reasoning devices: roots, consequences, and appeals to principles.

While some argue that a frame can be deciphered through various textual and stylistic elements contained in it (i.e. quantitative analysis), others (Cooper, 2010) believe that a frame employed can be understood only in the ‘take-away’ sense of the meaning of the events, i.e. an understanding of a frame can be gathered only by deriving its holistic meaning after reading a story. Thus, a frame may be an overall understanding or impression the reader collects from a text, and hence, not identifiable in the form of specific word choices or phrases (Cooper, 2010, p.150). In the qualitative tradition, an inductive approach is particularly suitable when the issue at hand is exploratory. Making distinctions between quantitative and qualitative techniques in framing analysis Cooper points out that while quantitative approaches are befitting for measuring prevalence, proportion and size, and can also make use of statistical tools – both descriptive and inferential; a qualitative approach has its own relevance, especially when the researcher is trying to study a novel problem or an issue (Cooper, 2010, p.148). He further argues that at the beginning of any research – whether qualitative or quantitative, an inductive approach is the foundation of trying to derive a coding scheme.


Recent advances in mass communication research have gone along with the evolving nature of the society, culture and the audiences. This change in research is pertinent due to the fact that methodologies used in previous years stand insufficient in advancing our understanding of the complex nature of micro-level processes concerning the individual and macro-level processes concerning organizational, institutional, and ideological level factors as globalization and privatization have rapidly emerged in India. However, methodologies such as content analysis as conceptualized in the 1970s by identifying search words and the initial methodological and theoretical underpinnings of the agenda-setting research (first level or object level agenda-setting) are still being used in the communications research in India. Needless to say, this puts us far behind in the global field of media research.

In this section, the importance of the theory of framing as a research method that is apt for studying the Indian media scenario today is discussed. In fact, the interdisciplinary nature of the theory makes it applicable in many fields of inquiry. Framing theory has been used in various disciplines such as business management, political communication, sociology, psychology, social movement research, policy discourse, public relations, advertising, news production, etc. In the Indian context, it can be used in studying news media content (print, broadcast, new media), for example political, sports, crime coverage, etc.; news production – the societal, organizational and individual level factors that help promote a particular interpretation on an issue; policy discourse – budget analysis, education policies or international relations, etc.; media effects research (through framing research); advertising content and effects research, new media and social media studies, film studies etc. There are a plethora of areas that can be and need to be investigated that are relevant to the India society. It is our belief that framing theory can provide a strong theoretical base for conducting researches across disciplines.


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