Power of the frame

Who gets to name?  

My formal scholarship in mass communication studies has focused on framing: how words, terms, metaphors and meaning emerge from the way in which concepts are “framed.”


Framing has been used liberally and loosely in media research, often without clear linkages to what the concept means and how it’s measured. My colleagues and I captured “frames” as “meaning packages” that emerge from the individuals accorded the authority to create them.  

Let me give you an example. American voters react strongly to the word “tax,” according to pollsters. A 2006 study noted that when you ask people how they feel about taxes “virtually all” respondents have negative feelings (see Birney, Graetz & Shapiro, 2006). So imagine what would happen if you wrapped a political campaign around the term “death tax.” Most certainly voters would oppose a death tax, right?  

That’s exactly what happened with Congress, which repealed the tax in 2010. Next year the tax returns to 2002 levels, benefitting those with huge inheritances.  

What is the death tax? It’s the reframing of the inheritance tax: a tax levied on an estate when someone dies. But here’s the catch: only the wealthiest 2% of the U.S. population is affected by the inheritance tax.  For most of us, we won’t face an inheritance tax when our parents die.  

The clever reframing of the term by political conservatives resulted in a revision of federal laws: no easy task. The example illustrates how deft re-packaging of language impacts us. 

Such packaging has long influenced how we think about Indian peoples, and many scholars have written eloquently on how framing has influenced Indian citizenship, politics, wealth, health and identity.  

The difference is that such framing—the ability to name and define Indian ontology—has been the vision of non-Indians. Whether it’s citizenship or politics, those outside Indian communities have executed authority in framing Indian identity, whether it’s the framing of the noble-and-bloodthirsty savage by James Fennimore Cooper or the skimpily clad Pocahontas by Disney.  

But only a few communication scholars have focused on how framing in popular cultural discourse reveals Indian identity, and even fewer have examined how such framing emerges in a discussion of science, health, risk and the environment.  

That’s why my colleagues and I have been writing about American Indian ontology and science. We think it’s important to reveal the frames that describe Native cultures and our aim is to examine how such frames link back to those with the power to package the frame. So stay tuned, there’s more to come.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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