Framing Science


From the Associated Press to the Guardian to Reuters to Agence France Presse,protesters and journalists create a confusing storyline focused on chaos, conflict, and law and order

It’s too early to say what impact the protests in Copenhagen will have on the negotiating process or on world public opinion. However, when it comes to social protest generally, past research suggests several common and powerful barriers to communication success. There are a few rare exceptions, such as the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s, but on issues such as world trade, food biotechnology, or the war in Iraq, social protest has had difficulty achieving effective communication outcomes.

Protests over climate change are unlikely to be any different. Which raises the question: By taking to the streets, do climate advocates undermine the chances of policy action? A preliminary answer might be in the affirmative. Consider, for example, that the Agence France Press image at the top of this post serves as the visual frame in more than 300 news stories worldwide.

Generally, not only are participating protest groups, despite passion and months of intensive planning, often disorganized and uncoordinated in their message, but they also often fail to consider even the very basics when it comes to effective visuals and storylines for the mainstream media, the broader public or policymakers, the supposed direct target of their campaign.

The messages certainly appeal to protesters, reinforcing ideology and recruiting like-minded others to the cause, but these very same messages may actually serve to undermine the ability of the protests to achieve policy outcomes or to influence public opinion.

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The unfortunate communication mish-mash offered by protest groups is made worse by the routinized tendencies of journalists and news organizations in covering social protest. Below are four possible frames through which the media historically cover protest, drawn from a body of scholarship that has labeled these media tendencies “The Protest Paradigm.”

Research finds that protest is almost exclusively covered through the first two frames of reference and it is rare that coverage spans into more substantive or sympathetic portrayals of the protest event.

My reading of the protest coverage this morning suggests to me that predictably, journalists have applied the first two frames and storylines to the Copenhagen protests [For examples, see links in the caption to the picture atop this post]:

Marginalizing frames

Violent crime story, Property crime story, Carnival, Freak show, Romper room, Riot

Mixed frames

Showdown with policy or public officials, Dissection of strategies and tactics, Comparison or association frame with other groups that legitimize or marginalize

Sympathetic Frames

Protest defined as creative expression or as unjust prosecution. An emphasis on telling “our story” or that “protesters are not alone” in working for change.

The Balanced Frame

The debate: Focuses on issues and complaints.

The Copenhagen protests offer the opportunity for an in depth scholarly analysis of key differences by country or across news organizations, blogs, and alternative media in how the protests have been portrayed. Consider, for example, coverage at the NY Times and WPost, which features elements of the second and fourth frames in this typology, respectively.


  1. #1 EMJ
    December 14, 2009

    I’m sympathetic to your critique from a framing perspective. However, what of the suggestion that anti-war protest in the 60s was crucial for pushing the US withdrawal from Vietnam?

    From The Oxford Companion to American Military History:

    The American movement against the Vietnam War was the most successful antiwar movement in U.S. history. During the Johnson administration, it played a significant role in constraining the war and was a major factor in the administration’s policy reversal in 1968. During the Nixon years, it hastened U.S. troop withdrawals, continued to restrain the war, fed the deterioration in U.S. troop morale and discipline (which provided additional impetus to U.S. troop withdrawals), and promoted congressional legislation that severed U.S. funds for the war. The movement also fostered aspects of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately played a significant role in ending the war by undermining Nixon’s authority in Congress and thus his ability to continue the war. It gave rise to the infamous “Huston Plan”; inspired Daniel Ellsberg, whose release of the Pentagon Papers led to the formation of the Plumbers; and fed the Nixon administration’s paranoia about its political enemies, which played a major part in concocting the Watergate break-in itself.

    When the media continue to carry the story that the US is a leading advocate in the climate negotiations, when in fact we’re insisting on only a 17% reduction from 2005 levels (the IPCC Working Group III Report calls for a minimum safe reduction of 25 – 40% from 1990 levels) doesn’t the narrative need to be changed?

  2. #2 Someone
    December 14, 2009

    And anti-abortion/pro-life (even what you call it reveals your stance!) protests. The Tea Parties. Protests at the town hall meetings this summer in the US. To name a few on the right-wing side.

  3. #3 wagdog
    December 15, 2009

    How protests get framed by onlookers, journalists, and news consumers depends on the correspondent inferences that they make.

  4. #4 Gaythia
    December 15, 2009

    How the media is likely to convey a storyline depends on the nature of the protest. Protesters who wish to put some thought into being effective are considering these issues. Wagdog’s link is a good example of this.

    Great leaders for social change, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, may not have been able to read research on framing or the “Protest Paradigm” but they certainly knew how to select protest venues and mechanisms that appealed to the moral sensibilities of the dominant culture.

  5. #5 mark penn
    December 23, 2009

    How much can you really get done in 24 hours?? Start by making a difference at home: tictacdo – But tell me, are these world leaders so busy that they can’t give easily one of the most PRESSING issues in the world today a little bit more time?? It’s no wonder that nothing REAL came out of this.

  6. #6 mark penn
    December 23, 2009

    America expected more. This is one disappointment of many… he better shape up because crazy Palin is busy gaining the support of the nutty right… we need him to step it up now more than ever

  7. #7 prelevent
    December 25, 2009

    hehe, I have to admit that when I first read the headline it sounded exactly like an Onion piece.

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