Framing Science

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Following the AAAS meetings in February, I had this to say about the future of science and environmental journalism:

The future will be online, in film, and/or multi-media, merging reporting with synthesis, analysis, personal narrative, and opinion. The goals will be to inform but also to persuade and to mobilize…However, the new forms, modes, style, and sponsors for science coverage will mean that journalists will have to rethink their standard orientations and definitions of objectivity and balance. The future is already here, it’s time to talk about what it all means.

This week’s Time magazine cover story on global warming is an occasion for that discussion. As I wrote on Friday, the framing of the issue by the magazine marks a major departure from a past emphasis on doom and impending disaster, offering a new focus on national unity around a common challenge similar in nature to the Great Depression, the Space Race, or World War II.

The cover, however, is not without controversy. Some media critics have alleged that Time’s reporting on climate change has strayed into advocacy. On Monday, the magazine’s deputy managing editor Romesh Ratnesar appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation to discuss with host Neal Conan the cover and their new framing of climate change (audio).

Ratnesar’s comments reflect what I see as the necessary new mode for public affairs and science coverage of climate change, a mode that merges reporting with analysis, a sense of urgency, and a specific focus on a range of policy options. Below the fold are Ratnesar’s comments from the interview.

CONAN: And the second paragraph of the special report on the environment reads, in part, “The steady deterioration of the very climate of our very planet is becoming a war of the first order, and by any measure, the U.S. is losing. Indeed, if we’re fighting at all, and by most accounts we’re not, we’re fighting on the wrong side.” Which is strong stuff, and you may be right about all that, but doesn’t that read more like an editorial than a news story?

Mr. RATNESAR: Well, what we try to do every week at Time is not just make sense of the big ideas facing the world, but also try to give readers some way to think about them, and sometimes provide a strong point of view, and this isn’t the first time we’ve done that.

What we had decided to do with this story is try to say, OK, there is a rough consensus in the world that global warming is happening, that something needs to be done, and that dramatic steps need to be taken if we’re going to get to a point where we have this problem under control. What would it take for the United States to actually tackle the climate crisis?

And so we went about trying to lay out a blueprint for a kind of national strategy, backed up by reporting by our environment writer, Brian Walsh, and I think the result is a clear and defensible blueprint for how you would go about tackling climate change if we were to make it a national priority.

CONAN: If we were to make it a national priority, which Time Magazine clearly thinks we ought to do.

Mr. RATNESAR: Well, I think that we believe that the climate crisis is one that is going to be affecting us, affecting our planet. We’re seeing the consequences every day. To some extent, the food crisis we’re watching unfold around the world has some roots in global warming. So we do believe this is a subject that we need to be tackling as a nation and coming up with better strategies to fight.

. ..CONAN: And Romesh Ratnesar, but is that journalism or is that advocacy?

Mr. RATNESAR: Well, I think if we were simply writing an editorial that was not backed up by reporting, a journalism-intensive study of the issue, then I would say that would tilt toward advocacy. But what we’ve done is do a kind of report and analysis of this problem. It’s an issue that we have studied and our writers have studied and written about over the years, and it’s one we feel very comfortable with.

CONAN: Also, then, about the cover, was there some discussion of this idea that it might be offensive to some people?

Mr. RATNESAR: Well, we felt that the story that we were publishing, and our view of this issue, merited this choice of taking an enduring symbol, an image of American patriotism, of American heroism and national purpose, and essentially saying that, through this image, saying that the same kind of commitment is going to be needed if we are to solve the global-warming crisis. So we didn’t intend to, nor did we feel that we did, offend, in any way, by publishing this cover, using this image.

CONAN: Well, clearly, you did offend some people. I mean, Marine Corps veterans of Iwo Jima have called it “disgusting,” “disrespectful.”

Mr. RATNESAR: Some of the criticisms that I’ve seen, and I’ve not read all the criticisms of the cover, although we’re aware there are some, have specifically raised the question of whether the global-warming issue is comparable to the fight against fascism, and Japanese imperialism in World War II.

Obviously, those are debatable issues that reasonable people can disagree about. But I have seen some of the criticisms, essentially, say that global warming is not a crisis, that it’s an invented fact. It’s not backed up by the science. And I disagree with that and I think we, the editors of Time, disagree with it and our government disagrees with it.

Comments

  1. #1 James
    April 24, 2008

    I’d pay more attention to this crisis if publications like Time (and the New York Times, WashPo, etc.) would announce they will no longer appear in print.

    Cutting down trees in Canada, converting wood to paper, shipping paper to the printer, printing the magazine, shipping the magazine to readers … all of that seems carbon-rich and energy-wasteful especially since there’s an alternative … it’s called the web … that consumes much less energy (per edition) and uses much less carbon.

  2. #2 RoySV
    April 24, 2008

    To james: Mind explaining? You would be more willing “pay attention” to the crises if some businesses changed their waysto suit you? So, to analogize a bit, If your child had a health crisis and your spouse wasn’t doing (enough) of the right things then you would also refuse to help until the spouse got it right? Sounds daft I think.
    So please consider what planet you child will be living on.

    Climate change (and hardship) doesn’t just happen on TV and we can’t just change the channel

  3. #3 Danny Bloom
    April 24, 2008

    When America decided to go the moon, we witnessed a nation divert
    huge resources into achieving that seemingly impossible goal, and we
    succeeded. The world is faced with climate disaster in the not so
    distant future,
    so why are not proportionately huge resources being diverted into
    developing solutions? Are we incapable of acting pro-actively and
    collectively?

  4. #4 Comstock
    April 25, 2008

    I stay out of the SB framing wars, but I have a serious question now. I expect you’ve dealt with this question before, so if that’s the case please point me in the relevant direction for catch-up reading.

    In reading you post about how Time took a major departure in their framing of the issue, I wondered what might distinguish a frame from an angle. Speaking as a journalist, the Time issue didn’t strike me as anything radical, just a news source trying to distinguish itself by picking a new/fresh/different angle for a story. It happens every day. (Isn’t every other story about renewable energy spun out of the same angle: we should do something to fight global warming?)

  5. #5 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 25, 2008

    Yep, journalists rely on frames all the time. In order to condense a story down to 800 words and to define an issue in a way that relates to an intended audience, journalists will focus on some dimensions of an issue often to the exclusion of others.

    In this Time example, in order to dramatize the issue and attract reader interest, the editors switch the lens away from a focus on a Pandora’s box of unknown consequences symbolized by melting polar ice, hurricanes, or the threat to polar bears and instead re-frame climate change as a matter of national moral duty with a secondary frame focus on the potential to grow the economy through clean energy technology.

    Some journalistic angles are frames, but not all angles. In the Time cover example, the “new angle” of focusing on a national call to arms is indeed representative of a frame shift.

    But in other reporting, some angles– such as the threat to polar bears– is just more of the same type of “Pandora’s box” reporting on climate impact threat scenarios.

    The question, as a journalist, is what mental box are you putting the complexity of climate change? And which examplars and storylines activate that new mental box?

    Are you using angles or examples such as sea level rise to put climate change in the mental box of ever more risky environmental consequences?

    Or are you communicating why climate change matters because it boils down to a question of national unity and “going to war” to solve a common problem?

    Or are you writing a story that defines climate change as an economic opportunity, growing the economy through clean energy development and “green collar jobs”?

    These mental boxes matter because they appeal to different audiences. The Pandora’s box interpretative lens activates concern among citizens who already hold moderate to strong environmental orientations, while many other Americans ignore the threat to polar regions, remote animals, or far off risks.

    On the other hand, switching trains of thought from the environmental consequences to that of moral and national duty is likely to activate concern from new publics.

    See this online column I did specific to framing of climate change:

    http://www.csicop.org/scienceandmedia/beyond-gores-message/

    See these recent post about climate change as a public health story focused on urban populations:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2008/04/urban_areas_climate_change_com.php

    See this cover story at The Scientist for more explanation and details of framing related to science issues:

    http://www.soc.american.edu/docs/Scientist.pdf

    As well as these special sections of my blog:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/about.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/contact.php

  6. #6 Tony Jeremiah
    April 25, 2008
  7. #7 Anna Haynes
    April 25, 2008

    This issue of Time is not available on newsstands in my area. Instead our stores are displaying either the previous week’s issue (“Raising Obama”, April 21) or an undated “Special 40th Anniversary Issue” (the fine print says to display it until July 2008).

    I checked Longs, KMart, Raleys, SaveMart, 2 Safeways, and 2 local stores (SPD), in Grass Valley & Nevada City, California, on the evening of April 24.

  8. #8 Bee
    April 25, 2008

    “Some journalistic angles are frames, but not all angles. In the Time cover example, the “new angle” of focusing on a national call to arms is indeed representative of a frame shift.

    But in other reporting, some angles– such as the threat to polar bears– is just more of the same type of “Pandora’s box” reporting on climate impact threat scenarios.

    The question, as a journalist, is what mental box are you putting the complexity of climate change? And which examplars and storylines activate that new mental box?

    Are you using angles or examples such as sea level rise to put climate change in the mental box of ever more risky environmental consequences?

    Or are you communicating why climate change matters because it boils down to a question of national unity and “going to war” to solve a common problem?

    Or are you writing a story that defines climate change as an economic opportunity, growing the economy through clean energy development and “green collar jobs”?” – M.Nisbet

    I am finding it difficult to understand the difference among your examples, and why comparing a needed response to climate change to a war is framing, while pointing out that sea level rise will inundate coastal communities is not.

    In both cases, climate change is presented as a problem which will directly affect people, and therefore should be appropriately addressed.

    I am wondering if your concept of, or at least your presentation of framing is difficult for me to comprehend because it is something you intend to be specifically US-centric. Certainly Canadians are very aware of fears for the polar bear, and of the threat to coastlines and the likelihood of future crises in our grain producing areas, and on the whole, Canadians badger the government to do something about climate change at every opportunity (even if not always successfully). I very much doubt that comparing climate change to war would be well received here. So what you call ‘angle’ in your examples works as ‘framing’ in this country (Canada), AFAICS, and if I have actual understood what you mean by the difference between frame and angle.

  9. #9 Tony Jeremiah
    April 25, 2008

    Bee,

    I had never heard of the framing concept until reading about it on SciBlogs, so either this explains why I’m also having difficulty arriving at the basic idea of framing, or, possibly it’s because it’s difficult to wade through the political underpinnings of the construct to identify it’s scientific underpinnings. After reading about it for awhile, I’ve identified three postings that have less of a political/ideological tone, and seem to come closer to revealing the fundamental scientific constructs behind framing. Given my background is in cognitive and educational psychology, It is likely my conceptualization of framing is based mostly on cognitive and education frames; the three angles related to these frames include: Schema Theory, Elaboration Likelihood Model, and the Semantic Network Model.

    The basic idea behind schema theory is that through experience, people construct a set of unconscious mental blueprints that influence the way in which they interpret the world. Basically, the world is interpreted according to one’s personal experiences. That seems to be the general message behind the National Academies: Framing & State Policy Adviceposting, especially the idea that the popular science model (a scientist’s view of the world) does not appeal to non-scientists because it is a frame that represents a scientist’s view of the world. Here, framing sounds like it could be defined as differences in worldviews.

    When one reads A dialogue on framing, the F-Word, and the future of scienceblogs, Part II: Where do we actually disagree the indicated premises look very much like the Elaboration Likelihood Model, which is a theoretical framework that forms the foundation of the persuasive communication literature in social psychology. Here, framing sounds like a method involving persuasive communication.

    The attempt to distinguish between a frame and an angle in this posting gets closer to the Semantic network model in cognitive psychology, which explains how knowledge is stored in the brain (i.e., it’s a memory theory). The model suggests that information is stored in the form of clusters and associations. Clusters would essentially be categories in which similar items are linked together–essentially frames; the items themselves would essentially be angles. So my cognitive and education view of framing would be a cluster/frame with the items/angles being Schema theory, Elaboration Likelihood Model, and the Semantic network model.

    So from my perspective, it looks like framing essentially involves the recognition that people have different views about the world that are essentially experiences stored in the form of memory, and the assumption is that one can influence these memories via external means.

  10. #10 Pascal Lapointe
    April 26, 2008

    Yep, journalists rely on frames all the time. In order to condense a story down to 800 words and to define an issue in a way that relates to an intended audience, journalists will focus on some dimensions of an issue often to the exclusion of others.

    I must say, as a journalist, I was first unable to understand, last year, what “framing” was, since it seemed to me that framing was simply what journalists are doing all the time. They choose an angle for a story. And this choice is frequently determined by the public of the media they are writing. In other words, journalists are adapting to their audience. We don’t write the same say for Scientific American or for your local weekly, even if it’s the same subject.

    So, why was it necessary to create a new concept? If framing is only “I must adapt to my audience”, well, not only journalists, but all science popularizers, are doing this since decades.

    The Time example has an other problem, in my view. It is that before Time could do a long feature about how to adapt to climate change, it was necessary to have years of articles talking about catastrophic futures: this kind of coverage, or frame or angle no matter how we choose to name it, was necessary to first convince a lot of people -including journalists- that something is really going on about our planet… and it is only once they were convinced that we could begin to think about how to adapt to climate change.

    In other words, this new angle (how to adapt) could not be used, at least not in a general audience magazine like Time, before the first angle (catastrophic events) had been used.

  11. #11 Anna Haynes
    April 26, 2008

    (update to my earlier comment “This issue of Time is not available on newsstands in my area” – it’s there now)

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