The inter-disciplinary research on framing has many useful applications. In separate projects funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Science Foundation, Nisbet, Scheufele, Brossard, and colleagues are studying how framing applies to effective communications about climate change and nanotechnology. As part of this research, social science techniques such as in-depth interviews, surveys, and media analysis are used to systematically identify the metaphors, examples, and mental frameworks that the public, journalists, and experts use to understand, discuss, and make choices about the issue.

Following peer review and publication, this research will then inform government agencies, universities, and media producers on how to better reach specific groups within the general public, build trust, and adapt their communication efforts to non-elite audiences. (Similar research on framing and climate change was recently profiled in a cover story at The New York Times Magazine and discussed in a report (pdf) by the American Psychological Association.)

Emphasizing conflict over context

Framing is one of the most prominent explanatory models that the social sciences can apply to understanding public engagement. Researchers agree there is no such thing as an unframed message. Every form of communication relies on signals that play to socially shared schemas held by audiences. The question, therefore, is how messages are framed, rather than if they are framed. Understanding this process and translating it into practice requires research.

By arguing that communications should be left to public information officers and not to scientists, Holland simplistically defines a complex issue in terms of conflict, pitting one group of researchers against the other. Reducing the argument to a question of “to frame or not to frame,” is not just simplistic, but also scientifically inaccurate. Perhaps worse, Holland reports on technical research articles without interviewing the researchers involved. Somewhat embarrassingly, he also fails to recognize that the two teams of researchers are long time collaborators, and that Scheufele and Brossard are colleagues in the same department. No doubt, if we were on the faculty at Ohio State, Holland the reporter would likely get a call from Holland the public information officer.

Matt Nisbet, Dominique Brossard, Dietram Scheufele are professors. Nisbet is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. Brossard and Scheufele are professors in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.