I learned about frames, mental models and schema (all similarly concepts) back in the 80s when I was studying cognitive development in grad school. There is strong evidence that frames are how most of our knowledge and understanding of the world is organized. Frames are incredibly powerful and can be manipulated by those who understand how they work.

Republicans learned a long time ago that people often have competing frames/models of different issues and that the words we use can activate one scheme over another. That is the basis for the work of people like Frank Luntz. Luntz conducted focus groups to test which phrases evoke the frames Republicans want us to bring to mind. That is why Republicans decided to use the term “privatize” when talking about Medicare. The public hated the idea of giving Medicare to insurance companies because that idea brings up frames or storylines about greed, price gouging, denial of coverage, etc. Luntz found the term “privatize” was the most positive way to frame their Medicare messages because it conjures up frames about controlling your own money and having choices rather than the big bad gubmint choosing for them.

The framing of government as bad, as the cause of our problems was one that Reagan worked hard to implant in Americans’ minds. I am convinced that while some people already had that frame, many adopted it after that kind of right wing, anti-government propaganda.

Many, if not most of our frames/mental models come from experience. For example I have two mental models about welfare based on my personal experience growing up. One is of an older relative who lived in a state that had generous welfare benefits. He wasted his life drinking and was often unemployed because he got enough money to scrape by with just odd jobs. He was smart guy who could have done well in many things. I always thought he might have been forced to get a regular job if his benefits had been lower. (He was not someone who would not have tolerated being homeless.) This is the frame that Reagan’s “welfare queen” was designed to activate — the person who is capable of work but lives off the money provided by those of us who work.

My second frame/model comes from growing up in a small town in Appalachia before LBJ’s War on Poverty. The town itself was prosperous but the surrounding rural areas were not. I had classmates who were literally dirt poor because their homes had no indoor plumbing and they rarely washed. They were filthy, smelled bad and were clearly undernourished. Most were terrible students because their parents didn’t think learning was worth the time. Parents often kept them home from school to help out and encouraged them to drop out as soon as they turned 16. Because our school didn’t do social promotions I had often boys in my grade school classes who were over six feet tall! (My husband freaked out the first time he saw my class pictures). One of my classmates managed to move out of poverty but she was the rare exception. She recently told me that she had only succeeded because our 4th grade teacher had taken her aside and told her she didn’t have to live like that, that she was smart and could improve her life if she stayed in school. She said it had never occurred to her before that she had any choice. Most of her 16 siblings dropped out and still struggle to get by but at least their standard of living is higher because of anti-poverty programs that started with LBJ.

This is the mental model that frames my understanding of poverty — most people are trapped in poverty and need help to get out of it. They aren’t stupid, bad or greedy. I understand that a small percentage of people may abuse welfare but that doesn’t offset the great good it can do.

All of these examples are of white people. The black kids I grew up with had parents whowere working class or middle class. Most graduated and many went on to college or job training.

Because of the frames I subconsciously created growing up I have always supported anti-poverty programs. People I know who have never known personally known any poor people and whose exposure to poverty has been in urban areas think most poor people are black or Hispanic which evokes their (usually negative) frames about race. Hollywood helped strength that image with their constant depiction of urban poverty and violence. As a result of their experience many of these folks have the “welfare queen” model in their minds. They see those programs through the frame of “inferior people taking away my money”. That mental model has been strengthened by the media’s obsessive focus on sensational crime stories. Those people are all Republicans who have fell for their welfare queen messaging.

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Great piece!

I consistently see the framing problem in coverage of college access and affordability, a subject of great interest to me. Most media attention is directed toward the access deficiencies of elite colleges instead of the access capacities of the regional public colleges (CUNY, the Cal States, public HBCUs, etc.) that are the nation's biggest drivers of economic and intergenerational mobility, and whose missions are increasingly threatened by the cycles of state funding cuts that date back to the 80s.

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Jim, not sure if you've mentioned this before, but a book I'm recommending to everyone who hasn't read it... Human Kind - A Hopeful History - by Rutger Bregman. He presents a thoroughly well-documented rant about the seriously inappropriate framing done by the sensational press. The world is a much better place than they would have us believe.

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Jim...it is so heartening to be reading your blog. I am glad to see someone else write about the miracle that is the Webb Telescope. Why do I have to search the back pages to find out how it is progressing? It is an example of what can be the best -- the 'exceptional' -- of this country, as was (and is) the Hubble. And of course, as you say, if something had gone awry, that would have been the front page news, another example of American failure. Its success (so far.....) is so much more interesting than the political inside baseball and scare stories that grace our front pages. And I say this as a fellow political junkie.

I am so looking forward to seeing the images coming from the Webb, looking deep into Creation. That is a true gift from the US to mankind....

Thanks for all, Randy

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Another example for item 4:

Remember Y2K? There were headlines all over the world about the impending disaster because of the suspicion (largely true ) that computer programs around the world would fail in the year 2000 because date fields imbedded within them were too short to correctly handle understand that the year 2000 was after 1999 (and also that the leap year algorithms were so simple-minded that they would treat 2000 as a leap year). In large measure, both of these assumptions were true.Large organizations were forced to deprioritize new development and spend resources to examine old code and fix these issues. But on January 1, 2000 and March 1, 2000, no disaster happened; a few small problems showed up and were dealt with. Y2K faded from memory as a 'fake problem' rather than being remembered as a successful effort. I believe the forced examination and restructuring of old code made it easier to transition from the mainframe-centered world to today's distributed world.

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Excellent and very useful as always, thanks, James.

Re the lack of coverage and proper awe for the space telescope, the coverage for another space story has been positively boosterish—Billionaires in Space. We had Bezos, Musk AND Branson all covered live in their utterly self-indulgent 15min space trips, like they were Glenn doing his first orbit. So framing-wise, this seems like a legitimate story getting co-opted by billionaire glitz—I heard a lot about the wonders such space travel would unleash, but nothing about how the private fortunes of billionaire were being put to use to buy a huge thrill but also, of course, to find ways to make money in space. Because what these people need is more money...and in the glitz/awe framing, no questions were asked about what this entire episode actually means. It was pretty much just mindless cheering, and marveling at Captain Kirk actually going to space for a few minutes.

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Another way of looking at framing, I believe, is context. And it is especially problematic in foreign policy and war reporting. The US/NATO/Ukraine/Russia ‘conflict’ is a perfect example. The US media has reported on the Ukraine issue as so urgent, so ominous, so immediate, that President Zelensky called them out for promoting panic, saying (with ample disdain) that he believes being the President of Ukraine gives him a much better understanding of the situation than foreign journalists and pontificating politicians. Some journalists even suggest this crisis may lead to WW3!

“War Looms Between Russia and Ukraine….” “On Putin’s Strategic Chessboard…” “US and NATO don’t budge…” = fear All from NYT.

Contrast that with the larger context that these headlines promise: “Four Western Provocation that led to U.S.-Russia Crisis….” “When Washington Assured Russia NATO would not expand….” = another side of the story ( from American Conservative and CATO)

The first covers the immediacy of the situation with a daily play-by-play. The second gives some of the history of the NATO expansion problem since the re-unification of Germany and Russia’s perspective on why they oppose it. It doesn’t matter if you hate Putin and hope rockets from NATO countries crush the Russian army. As Americans, we need to know how each player sees the situation without the riveting bluster and emotion that’s normal in U.S. media. Otherwise, we can’t hold any politician accountable for U.S. actions around the world

and never do.

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thanks Jim, another excellent piece. On the #1 topic about Fox News and fear-mongering, what I find startling is that historically that kind of "watch out, they are coming to get you" is typically led by politicians, not by journalists. It seems Fox News in this century is creating a precedent in taking over that role away from demagogue politicians (whether in Russia, Germany, the US or China, in prior periods) and baiting the public on its own, thereby creating politicians who follow this lead.

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Thank you so much for this site and this commentary. This is exactly what I have been trying to preach to people. I read several of those you mention, and you all are as right, to invoke a great line from Red Smith, as a second martini at lunch.

Now to the next problem: Not only the framing, but allowing others to do the framing. Fox has influence on these people, and it is mind-boggling to me. I'm a history professor. We don't take well to people who make up history. Why do so-called journalists tolerate people who are not their fellow journalists because they do not practice journalism? And I don't mean the hosts. I mean the alleged reporters. Remember when the Obama administration tried to crack down on Fox and the rest of the White House press corps complained? Why would everyone in a junior high school class, which they resemble in so many ways, demand that the principal not discipline the bully who terrorizes them?

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In his "somewhat less than diplomatically" titled book a few years back, Al Franken corrected one of the more common distortions regarding the "MSM": there is no liberal bias, there is a monetary bias. The old "if it bleeds, it leads" concept appears to have been stretched to its most extreme level: once Ted Turner decided news could be a profit center instead of a loss leader for broadcast organizations, "infotainment" has been on a steady march toward economic supremacy. I gave up watching any televised news programs long ago - even local news - because of this pathetic attempt to make it "fun" or "entertaining." I grew up watching Walter Cronkite - who was as reliable as he was unentertaining. Comparing today's "news personalities" with Cronkite is an exercise in despair.

So when we're talking about "framing," we have to accept the fact that the elephant in the center of the room has a name: Profit. As you say, Fox discovered that outrage sells. (To be fair, Rush began this with his radio program that millions of Americans latched on to; Fox only raised it to the next level.) Before long, most other "news" outlets had adopted the "Fox framework" to one degree or another, and as a result, America is now addicted to outrage. Righteous indignation is a powerful drug indeed, and as a culture we're consuming mass quantities of this drug daily. And at the risk of being accused of "both-side-ism," I have to point out that it is definitely not only the "righteous right" who are addicted. As much as I admire Maddow's intellect and narrative skills, I stopped watching her years ago for this very reason. I want to be informed, not outraged.

Like any other drug dealer, the purveyors of this outrage are thoroughly unconcerned with the effects of their product, and extremely pleased with themselves for their financial success. But, also like any other drug dealers, they are destroying the neighborhood.

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Can you follow up on why influential journalists continue to frame stories so ineptly and misleading? You mention leading journalists who recognize this, and write extensively about the issue, yet the status quo remains. Do you have any editors or headline writers you can interview who can explain WHY this persists?

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Feb 3, 2022·edited Feb 3, 2022

Absolutely terrific post, for which: many thanks. I have been tired of hearing coverage of the midterms since it started, which I began to notice sometime before the Biden inauguration. It really does feel as if mainstream journalism is peopled by journalists who fancy themselves political analysts. I happen to be VERY interested in politics but even MORE interested in governance. I find it is quite a bit easier to find "news" about political implications of what's happening in the world -- as you have aptly and usefully noted -- than news about what ACTUALLY is happening in the world. I appreciate your efforts to bring this to the public's attention.

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