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Basic Principles of media Advocacy

"The news has the power to set public agendas, direct attention to particular issues, and, ultimately, influence how we think about those issues... In short, [the news] is an important link between citizens and their government." says media scholar Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr.

The work of Stanford Professor Shanto Iyengar suggests a simple equation: the media sets the public agenda, which, in turn, sets the policy agenda.  In short, by structuring public discourse, the media determine our social priorities.

For tobacco control advocates, this finding is critical.  You cannot solve a problem that is not perceived to exist by the public. That tobacco use causes disease and death must be heralded by the media, as often as possible, and in as dramatic a story as possible."

But it is not merely the volume of news that determines an issue’s ascension onto the policy agenda, but also the composition of that news.  The way that a problem is presented, its news composition, determines how the public will view that issue.  This is what is referred to as "framing."

The frame is the central organizing principle that structures meaning.  It determines the boundaries of the story - what gets left in, and what gets left out.  As such, it conveys what is relevant to any given issue, and what is not. The frame is a construct of messages and messengers, of soundbites and symbols, of pictures and narratives.   These elements add up to a powerful message that connects to people’s values and reasoning. In essence, the frame is a "cue"; it signals to people how to think about an issue, not merely what issue to think about.

Because of the effects of framing, it is important to consider the kind of news you want to make, not merely how much of it you can generate.

For example, If tobacco is not viewed as a public health problem, only a problem of individual heath choices, publicizing new research findings on the disease toll of tobacco, the growth in Teen-age smoking rates, or the corrupt behavior of the transnational tobacco companies, etc. will not signal to the public that governmental action must be taken unless tobacco use is seen as a issue which must be addressed by political leaders.

To practice media advocacy for tobacco control, it is important to understand three effects of framing:

  1. Frames evoke conceptual models.
  2. Frames determine whether policy solutions will be accepted or rejected.
  3. Frames signal responsibility.

Let us explore each of these aspects of framing effects briefly in order to consider their applicability to tobacco control:

First, frames connect, through language and symbol, to bigger models we hold about how the world works and to our core beliefs. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff has explained, "People understand almost everything by applying conceptual frames...and the conclusions one draws depends on the frame one uses.  People reason metaphorically."  In speculating on the impact of any given news frame, it is useful to understand the larger model that is being called into play by the way the news is presented to the public.  Similarly, in "reframing," or considering one’s options for taking an issue into the public dialogue, the entailments of the model must be considered if one is to avoid conjuring models that impede policy solutions rather than advance them.

Thus, if tobacco use by young people is seen as the inevitable product of teen-age rebellion, or the susceptibility of teen-agers to peer pressures, rather than behavior deliberately stimulated by the tobacco industry’ deliberate psychological manipulation of children’s vulnerability to images of popularity, virility or femininity, then evidence that teen-age smoking is growing will not translate into demands for eliminating cigarette advertising and promotion glamorizing smoking. In this case, teen-age smoking issues are dominated by an individualistic, psychological frame – not a public health frame.

If smoking is seen as behavior responding to the individual’s psychological needs, or the effects of the teenagers immediate social environment, then curbing tobacco advertising will not be seen as a solution to the teen-age tobacco use problem.  If the frame does not fit the facts, the facts get rejected, not the frame.  Hence, our second important effect of framing: the frame determines whether the policy solution presented will be deemed relevant.

Finally, framing affects the way an issue is defined and its identity as a public or private issue, with built-in signals about the role of government, if any, in fixing the problem.  As media scholar Charlotte Ryan has observed, "every frame carries within it the notion of who made the problem and who gets to fix it."  While a news barrage may succeed in getting an issue before the public, the news frame itself may erode that issue’s identification as a public issue in favor of a more individualistic, consumer-oriented approach.

Shanto Iyengar identifies two basic types of frames: the episodic and the thematic.  The episodic reduces life to a series of disconnected episodes, isolated events or case studies.  "Betty Jones and her family of four are braving the elements tonight because the homeless shelter was full," begins an episodic news frame on the homeless.  Such a news story might go on to describe vividly how the children miss their toys, how cold it is, when they last ate, etc.  What it will not describe is how many people are homeless in this city, whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing, or any of the root causes of homelessness.

A news story about a prominent citizen dying of lung cancer, even if it mentions that she was a life-long heavy cigarette smoker, will be seen as a matter of individual choice, or weak will-power. What it will usually not say is that science has established that cigarette smoking is as addictive as heroin or cocaine and that she began smoking as a teenager and became addicted before fully appreciating how harmful smoking is. And it will not reveal that many smokers, like the deceased, failed to make the difficult effort to quit because tobacco company public relations campaigns for decades denied and undermined the scientific evidence that tobacco causes disease and death. Or that smoking rates among older smokers drop dramatically in those states where comprehensive tobacco control programs and policies are in place.

By contrast the thematic news frame takes the form of a take-out or backgrounder, it is linked to the conditions that cause the particular instance, and it explores context.  This time the announcer interviews a prominent tobacco control advocate who uses her soundbite strategically to contextualize breaking news.... "The death of prominent actress X at only 59 reminds us that too many of our citizens are still dying prematurely, unnecessarily, because our public health officials and legislators are still taking huge campaign contributions from tobacco company lobbyists and failing to enact the laws and policies that will alert all of our citizens to the seriousness of the tobacco epidemic, provide free access to smoking cessation programs, and counteract the tobacco company propaganda which minimizes the addictive nature of smoking and the severe health risks."

When the dominant frame for tobacco issues is a willful teenager or a week-willed adult, this individualistic frame sets up the idea that the smoker, and the smoker alone, is responsible for smoking and its consequences. If you broaden the frame to include public health officials, politicians, and the wrongdoing of the tobacco companies, you expand the possibilities for solving the smoking problem.

It is interesting to note that Iyengar’s research also found that the "vividness" of the story tends to erode its salience as a public issue.  That is, the more specific and dramatic the case study, such as the more outrageous a child’s efforts to buy cigarettes illicitly and the more attention paid to describing those efforts, the more likely it is that the viewing public will remember the issue as that child’s problem, not as a public issue.  Advocates who expend energy on supplying media with dramatic case studies of particular situations, or who focus on "worst case" examples to dramatize broader social issues would do well to reconsider the value of this practice.

Here is a simple chart that traces the impacts of the two types of frames:

                              Media Effects at a Glance 
Episodic                                                              Thematic
individuals                                                           issues
events                                                                   trends
psychological                                                      political
                                                                               environmental
private                                                                   public
appeal to consumers                                        appeal to citizens
better information                                               better policies
treatment responsibility                                    causal responsibility
(fix the person)                                                    (fix the condition)

The vast majority of all news accounts of social issues is episodic. The challenge therefore is to build a frame that avoids these pitfalls and gets as much theme and context into the story as possible, while still respective basic tenets of journalism.

In order to do this, tobacco control advocates must constantly work from a simple equation, ensuring that their news releases, news conferences, and soundbites reinforce a thematic frame:

By incorporating into any communications strategy an understanding of framing and its consequences, tobacco control advocates will avoid the five most common mistakes associated with public interest campaigns:

1. The policy is the message
Remember that the policy is the outcome, but a narrative must be invented to lead us to this conclusion. The policy must be the inescapable conclusion our values lead us to consider and, hopefully, support.

2. The public opinion is the message
Remember that the public’s understanding of an issue is often what you are up against, not where you want to end up; while you need to connect to public opinion, you do not need to repeat faulty models and further reinforce them.

3. The message is a slogan or silver bullet
While it’s always useful to have a good strong soundbite, you still have to have a story to tell.  Remember that language is a system that directs reasoning.

4. All people need are the facts, or more facts
Remember that, until you change the frame, the facts will not add up to a change in attitude or policy preference.

5. All we need to do is think like journalists
It’s easy to figure out how to mimic current news coverage.  It’s a lot harder to rethink your issue and reframe it as a public issue.  One is called framing for access, the other framing for content.  You will need to control the story if you want to change the way the public views an issue.

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