Research Methods

Strategic Frame Analysis™, developed by the FrameWorks Institute, is an approach to communications research and practice that integrates essential constructs from the cognitive and social sciences to describe and explain how communications in general, and media in particular, influence public support for social programs and policies.  

The innovative research that undergirds Strategic Frame Analysis™ comprises a set of multi-disciplinary, multi-method, iterative processes that emphasize empirical testing of potential frame effects.  Below we list the basic methodological components of the Strategic Frame Analysis™ approach. Some methods are unique to FrameWorks, others are more common social science methods, but all underscore the power and potential of strategically reframing social issues.

Content Analysis of News Media

FrameWorks conducts media content analyses that review and analyze the framing of various issues in a wide variety of news outlets including: network television, major national and regional newspapers, news radio programs, online news from major outlets such as CNN.com or MSNBC.com, and news magazines such as Time and Newsweek. This research allows FrameWorks to review media coverage of issues, discern important thematic patterns in news reporting (in terms of reporting style, content, allocation of news time, etc.) as well as to identify the leading frames and narratives within that coverage.

Cognitive Interviews: Semi-Structured One-on-One Interviews with the Public  

FrameWorks routinely invests in a series of interviews with the general public to discern how they think about the issues we are studying. This approach combines techniques from cultural anthropology and cognitive linguistics. Essentially we examine the way people think about a topic, the pattern of reasoning, the connections they make to other issues, and the devices they use to resist new information. In-depth interviews conducted from this perspective allow FrameWorks researchers to identify the cultural models—implicit shared understandings and assumptions—that guide people's thinking about abstract social issues.

Peer Discourse Analysis  

Peer discourse analysis captures the effects of frames in social settings by exploring inter-group negotiations around social issues. The analysis uncovers the effects of this social context on the findings from the cognitive interviews and the media content analysis, to see which cultural models are brought to bear in as groups interpret and make sense of graphs and facts commonly employed by advocates, to experiment with promising values as one possible frame element, and to begin the process of uncovering and experimenting with explanatory metaphors as potential reframing tools. The analysis consists of a discourse analysis conducted using data from a set of moderated focus groups.

Expert Interviews and Field Frame Analysis

To better understand how experts and advocates communicate about an issue, as well as to better understand the basic content of the messages they want to advance with the public, we interview them, attend their professional meetings, and analyze an array of publicly available materials they produce. In addition, we use dedicated software to track and understand the impact of these messages across the web space. Using the data from these sources, FrameWorks is able to draft an un-translated story that lays out the central problems associated with the issue, the evidence or science base that supports these conclusions, as well as the policy and program solutions that expert knowledge and understandings suggests will help resolve the issue.

Mapping the Gap Conceptual Analysis

In the Map the Gap analysis, FrameWorks' researchers juxtapose public understanding of an issue (identified through the cognitive interviews, peer discourse analysis, and media content analysis) and those of policy experts and advocates on the issue (gathered via the expert interviews and material reviews). In this way, we “map” or situate the ways that experts and advocates explain social issues against the dominant cultural models that the public brings to bear on the same issue. In this analysis, we specifically look for places where there is incongruity between experts’ and the public’s conceptualization of the issue. These incongruous spaces become primary targets for reframing.

Explanatory Metaphor Development

An explanatory metaphor is a reframing tool that concretizes and clarifies technical concepts and processes through a familiar and easily understood metaphor. These metaphors capture the essence of a scientific concept or explain an important mechanism on an issue and have a high capacity for spreading through a population. Numerous studies in the cognitive sciences as well as a growing body of FrameWorks research have established that the public’s ability to reason about complex, abstract or technical science and public policy concepts rely heavily on metaphor and analogy. As a result, FrameWorks actively develops simple and concrete metaphors that help people to organize information on issues in new ways, to fill in understanding currently missing from the public’s repertoire, and to shift attention away from the unproductive patterns they default to in understanding those issues. FrameWorks identifies, empirically tests, and refines explanatory metaphors for complex social problems using a wide range of discrete methodologies discussed below.

National Experimental Surveys

FrameWorks uses experimental surveys to test the efficacy of using some frames over others. To conduct these experiments, we employ web-based surveys and randomly assign a nationally representative sample to one or more treatments and a control group. The treatment groups are exposed to framed messages and are subsequently asked a series of question that assess their support for a variety of related policy questions. By comparing the responses of the treatment groups to the control condition (which receives no stimulus at all), we can ascertain any effects that emerge as a result of the way in which the issues were framed in the stimuli. Using this method, we can demonstrate the magnitude and extent to which exposure to particular frames affect the public’s policy preferences and the extent to which they attribute responsibility for solving social problems at the public policy or systemic levels.

Persistence Trials and Usability Match Tests

Persistence Trials are based on established cognitive science techniques and allow FrameWorks to make evaluations of which explanatory metaphors and other frame elements are most easily understood by the public, allow the public to most productively use new information, have the best chance of seeping into the public discourse and have the least chance of breaking down and morphing unproductively from their original form during transmission. In conversational group settings, subjects are asked to think about a particular explanatory metaphor or frame element, and are then asked to communicate with a third party about the issue. By measuring and comparing subjects' acceptance of and facility with different explanatory metaphors and frame elements — as they try to explain and reason about an issue — FrameWorks is able to judge how effectively these elements are likely to be absorbed and used once introduced to the wider public. Usability Match Trials work similarly but test the usability of frame elements by the experts and advocates that would be employing them to explain complex topics to policy makers and members of the general public. Together these methods lead to concrete recommendations of which frame elements to use and about how to most effectively deploy them in communications.


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