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Framing occurs when the construction and dissemination of messages acts to highlight, emphasize or obscure some aspects of the message over others.  We can do this through language via how we organize and structure information, choose signs out of a polysemic group that have overlapping denotic meaning and even appeals to wider context, and the intertext of prior experience which combines to help guide the recipient towards a particular dominant reading.  Framing’s relationship to intertext and context is particularly important to underline, as framing is best seen as a cumulative process, or one in which continued exposure to a certain frame helps to guide and internalize that frame’s intended recipient response.  It is often argued that framing is one of the central, if implicit, tools we bring to bear to understand complex and diverse experiences – by framing together experiences or texts that seem similar, we mentally simplify and reduce complexity and can then make decisions about what and how to engage with texts.

Both when talking specifically about frames or about language more generally, it is important to highlight that by language we don’t just mean formal spoken or written language. Any coherent symbolic system can be taken as a linguistic system. Under this broad definition one of our earlier examples, street signs and lights, collectively form a linguistic system.

Because we are exposed to consistent language systems and the frames that encompass them repeatedly, language systems and frames become landmarks, part of our day-to-day system of cues and markers that help guide us to solve problems and come to conclusions as members of a culture.

But how do frames actually work within a cultural and communicative context? Firstly, we can break framing approaches down into two broad categories, episodic and thematic framing.  Just as their names suggest, episodic framing is where an issue is approached in terms of a specific event or episode.  Episodic frames often position individuals in the narrative as free of any constraint or influence of society – as such, individual actions are not usually considered in terms of wider discourses or institutions.

In contrast, thematic framing approaches an issue as part of a continuing topic or theme, rooted within wide social trends or functions. Episodic and thematic frames have different approaches to an issue and can have a dramatic impact on how that issue is subsequently read and understood.  Interestingly, it is argued that news media in particular tends to favour episodic over thematic frames because episodic framing better suits the constraints of broadcast and print journalism (such as a 90 second slot or 200 word articles).  However, the emphasis on episodic framing means that news as a whole tends not to encourage a reading of issues that takes into account broader themes, issues, or undercurrents. These might otherwise build collectively into a more textured understanding of an issue.  This is a major critique of current news systems.

A great example of this is this interview with Maori commentator Willie Jackson where he tries to position the Tuhoe leaders as “good guys” and does so using an interesting set of language and framing techniques.  He positions the accused as ‘not bin Ladin’ types, evoking current global stereotypes about what a “terrorist” is, and instead tries to reframe it as part of a wider conversation about institutional racism — both thematic framing (and reframing) approaches.

(c) maraetv under Youtube Standard License

Consider that interview (filmed for Maori tv) with this interview from 3News NZ, which isolates another of the accused, Marama Mayrick, but this time takes an episodic frame, positioning the subject, Mayrick, simply as an artist, ‘caught up’ in an event that floats in the news narrative without reference to wider contexts or issues (such as terrorism or racism).

(c) David Farrar under Youtube Standard License

Discussion Questions

Identify examples of both episodic and Thematic framing in some news or general documentary media sources.

After examining these ask, why would they be presented in the respective manners? Is it because of something inherent in the story or does it satisfy the media presenter’s agenda? Or indeed, can you argue any other reason for the presenting style?