Policy controversies inevitably involve battles over meaning. Think of them as framing contests. On most issues, there is typically a conventional, dominant frame that most people use without thinking since much of it is taken for granted. Controversy is created when one or more challengers offer an alternative way of framing the issue. These challenges often come from the nonprofit sector.

There are three principal meanings of “frame” in the English language, the first two of which apply here. The first, as in a picture frame, is a rim for encasing, holding, or bordering something, distinguishing it from what is around it. A frame, in this sense, specifies what is relevant and what is not. A second meaning, as in a building frame, is a basic or skeletal structure, designed to give shape or support. The frame of a building, covered by walls and insulation, is invisible once construction is completed. Although we don’t actually see it, we can infer its presence in the finished product from its visible manifestations.

As a social science concept, both of these meanings apply. Issue frames call our attention to certain events and their underlying causes and consequences and direct our attention away from others. At the same time, they organize and make coherent an apparently diverse array of symbols, images, and arguments, linking them through an underlying organizing idea that suggests what is at stake on the issue. Framing deals with the gestalt or pattern-organizing aspect of meaning.

Nonprofit organizations must come to terms with the dominant way of framing the issues that concern them. Accepting the dominant frame is every bit as much of a political act as advocating an alternative frame–it is an act that reinforces the status quo. Following, is an example of how a coalition of nonprofit organizations succeeded in challenging and reframing the coverage of an incident in Boston.

In September 1998, Boston newspapers ran stories about an incident which the Boston Herald headlined as “Babysitter, 15, Charged in Tot’s Death” and the Boston Globe as “Babysitter Accused of Killing Boy, 2.”  Two-year old, Raheem Dixon, had died from internal bleeding, allegedly punched or kicked by his baby-sitter, a 15-year-old boy. Raheem’s mother, 27-year-old Sophia Dixon, fearing a pending welfare cut-off had taken a job. She had hired the teenager to watch her son after a long and fruitless search for childcare.  The details of the case study that follows are taken from a paper by two Media Research and Action Project (MRAP) colleagues, Charlotte Ryan and William Meinhofer, “Passive to Active Voice: Participatory Action Research and the Expansion of Media Democracy.”

Sophia Dixon and her three children lived in an area served by the Franklin Field-Franklin Hill, Dorchester Healthy Boston Coalition (hereafter, “the Coalition”), an alliance of 13 groups serving a large, predominantly African-American section of Dorchester. The victim’s mother initially refused to talk to reporters and is barely mentioned, if at all, in the articles that first appeared. Some of the articles refer to a Department of Social Services investigation of an earlier complaint of abuse and neglect, noting that the DSS found the charges to be “unsubstantiated.” The focus of the articles was on the 15-year-old, eighth grader who was to be tried as an adult under a 1996 Massachusetts law covering juveniles over age 14 charged with murder.

The incident highlighted the difficulties that the Coalition encountered as it tried to assist people in dealing with the consequences of welfare reform. The initial media reports simply assigned blame while ignoring the larger issues raised by the incident. As Ryan and Meinhofer put it, media coverage had  “disassociated the event from the daycare crises rampant in poor communities as the state forced welfare mothers into the workplace without providing adequate child care supports.”

The Coalition decided to challenge the emerging media coverage. In Massachusetts, welfare reform had produced one of the more restrictive programs in the nation while at the same time putting few services in place to support the thousands of welfare recipients being hustled into low-wage jobs. According to Ryan and Meinhofer, single mothers on welfare were arriving in the workforce in increasing numbers without adequate childcare. “In short, Sophia Dixon was not a rarity. More families would suffer if the state did not address the need for state-subsidized quality childcare. The . . . Coalition saw an opportunity to place Raheem’s tragic death in the context of the existing structural problems with Massachusetts’ welfare reform.”

The Coalition pulled together a working group (“media caucus”) that included Coalition staff, three MRAP staff members, Raheem’s family, neighborhood social service providers and resident leaders of the public housing development including a grandmother working to establish training for family day care providers. Over the next two months, the Coalition implemented a successful media campaign that challenged the dominant framing of the incident, reframing it as a crisis in the provision of childcare.

In addition to identifying the appropriate message, the group discussed interrelated issue of access strategy: How could they maximize their chances to obtain coverage of their message regarding Raheem’s death?  The group identified a journalist who was interested in examining the story in context. As Ryan and Meinhofer recount, “Over the next six weeks, she researched the incident itself, welfare reform and childcare reform, and struggled with two supervising editors at the Boston Globe about how to pitch the story. She ultimately was able to tell the mother’s story and frame it within the bigger picture of welfare reform and the state’s inadequate support for childcare.”

The headline of the article reflected the change in framing: “Welfare Reform: What Happens to the Children? Reliance on Informal Care Dangerous, Some Say.” And the initial paragraphs provide vivid illustration of how a case like this can be used to influence the dialogue around policy issues.

“Until this fall, Sophia Dixon was on the verge of becoming a symbol of welfare success, following a path laid out by the state’s landmark welfare reform law: After six years on public assistance, she had found a job, a babysitter, and her independence.

“Now, however, after her two year-old-son, Raheem Dixon, was allegedly beaten to death by his 15 year-old babysitter, Dixon’s case is being held up as a symbol of the potential brutality of welfare reform.” (Robertson, Boston Globe, 12/27/98)

The above example involves reframing a particular event but it was part of a broader effort aimed at changing the way people think about issues of social policy. The campaign opened space in the public debate around welfare reform in Massachusetts. On an institutional level, the Coalition built their own ties to the area’s newspaper of record, the Boston Globe, meeting several reporters, and developing a strong working relationship with one of them.

More generally, the example demonstrates how nonprofits, especially when working in larger coalitions, can successfully challenge dominant frames and provide alternative ones that further their policy agenda. The Coalition was seeking what many progressive policy organizations seek: recognition that the provision of an appropriate human service was not merely a private responsibility but a public one as well.

Choosing an alternative frame involves facing a dilemma of how broad or narrow the challenge should be. If the alternative is too narrow, it makes fundamental changes virtually impossible by accepting so many assumptions about the status quo that only incremental changes at the margin are possible. On the other hand, frames that challenge fundamental assumptions–even when the challenge is well-deserved–run the danger of being marginalized and not-taken seriously by the media and, as a result, by the major players in the policy arena. Unfortunately, there is no formula for finding a path through the dilemma but there are enough successful challenges and reframing efforts to offer encouraging models.

If you want to think more about how you might use the framing approach in your own work, how would you answer the following questions:

  • What is the dominant framing of the issues that my organization is most interested in?
  • What is the preferred frame of my organization and how is it different from the dominant frame?
  • What other organizations share this preferred frame?

1. The third meaning, irrelevant for our usage, is to rig evidence or events to incriminate someone falsely.

William A. Gamson is a professor of sociology and co-directs the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP) at Boston College. He is the author of Talking Politics (1992) and The Strategy of Social Protest (2nd edition, 1990) among other books and articles on political discourse, the mass media and social movements. He is a past president of the American Sociological Association.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of framing and suggestions and materials on how to apply it, see Charlotte Ryan, Prime Time Activism, Boston: South End Press, 1991.

For more about BC MRAP and its approach to using the media for social change, see Charlotte Ryan, Kevin M. Carragee, and Cassie Schwerner, “Media, Movements, and the Quest for Social Justice,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 26 (1998), 165-81.

To order a manual that applies this approach to the issue of domestic violence, write to Karen Jeffries, Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 422 Post Road, Suite 202, Warwick, RI 02888. Ask for “Domestic Violence: A Handbook for Journalists” Cost: $25.