May 07, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope these days has been writing for social change. You'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please consider clicking on some earlier entries. The series began a week ago Monday.

Framing messages continues to be a hot topic. Since that has a lot to do with the subject at hand, I'm going to "reprint" something I wrote that appeared hear about a year and a half ago. Here goes...

There's been a lot of talk the last few years about the importance of "framing" issues so that progressive messages get across. You could even say that this has become a micro-industry in some circles.

There is a lot of research that indicates that the how of communication is as important as--sometimes more important than--the what. And no one would dispute the importance of skilled messaging and media work.

Also, some of the message styles or frames that advocacy groups use have been demonstrated to be counterproductive. Some examples:

*framing something as a crisis sends the unintentional message that nothing can be done;

*trotting out poor people for media stories often makes viewers or readers think more in terms of the personal worthiness of the people depicted than about what is happening to them. At best, it often makes people think in terms of charity, not change;

*burying the reader or viewer with wonky statistics can lose an audience whereas good use of metaphors and "social math," which graphically depict a situation, can help get a message across.

So far, so good.

However, any good thing can be overdone. I have run into a few of what I call "frame fundamentalists" who seem to believe that all you need to do to influence public policy or achieve some public goal is to frame the issue effectively. The problem is that this leaves out the whole power/strategy thing, which, as you may have noticed, has a lot to do with how things shake down.

To get things done, you need both.

To use a historical example, thinking that framing things alone will solve a problem is kind of like thinking that Allied propaganda in World War II was the sole factor in defeating the Nazis. It probably helped, but it didn't do the whole trick.

El Cabrero is reminded of something Confederate General George Pickett said when asked why his famous charge at Gettysburg failed: "The union army had something to do with it."

A story from the ancient Greeks may illustrate the problem. In his Politics, Aristotle alludes to a parable of Antisthenes in which the hares demanded equality with the lions. (Maybe they even have hired media consultants.) The lions replied, "You speak well, hares, but where are your claws and teeth?"

The point of the claws and teeth story here is not that one has to get mean, but that one has to get organized and be strategic. Framing by itself, however useful, isn't enough.

IN DEFENSE OF GRAMMA. Here's progressive economist Dean Baker in defense of Social Security and Medicare.

ACUTE LINK SHORTAGE. El Cabrero is traveling today so the link feature is down. It should be back tomorrow.


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