When you’re talking, the frame matters
We’ve all been in a relationship in which resolving conflict often is a matter of staying on point.
Here’s an example: Cletus has a drinking problem. His buddy Jack, who enjoys the occasional drink but doesn’t have a problem, decides to have a come-to-Jesus talk with Cletus about his behavior. But when he brings it up, Cletus starts enumerating Jack’s flaws and asks him why he doesn’t do something about them. The discussion becomes about those things and in the end, Cletus’ drinking problem doesn’t get addressed.
There’s actually an academic name for that: framing.
It’s another one of those things that are part of academic studies of communications, although these days, it’s far from an academic thing. In fact—given that we’re mere weeks away from elections— it’s pretty much all around us.
Framing is basically how a person sets the terms, or the context, of a conversation. By changing the basic subject of the conversation, a person can avoid talking about something they don’t want to talk about. In the example above, Cletus didn’t want to stop drinking, so he shifts the context of the conversation to something else, even if Jack didn’t originally intend to talk about that.
(I use drinking as an example because if you’ve ever known somebody with substance issues, you’ll recognize this as one way they manipulate people to avoid talking about it.)
When it comes to politics, it’s an extremely common tactic.
A politician (at least a successful one) learns early on to not answer a question he doesn’t want to answer. Instead, he uses his answer to respond to a question that might not have actually been asked, but that he wants to answer, because he has a good, useful response ready.
That’s one reason I’ve always disliked interviewing professional politicians. It makes the job harder, because you have to keep reminding them of the actual question, which often as not still doesn’t get answered.
There was a real-world example of framing recently in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings about the Supreme Court nomination.
After Brett Kavanaugh was accused of having attempted to sexually assault a woman when both were in high school, both testified. It had taken a long time and a lot of frog-walking to get the testimony arranged.
When Kavanaugh was questioned, the Democrats on the committee framed their questions to be about the woman’s accusations and didn’t talk much about the hearing process. When Republicans questioned him, they talked about the (admittedly broken) process by which the hearing itself came about and asked little if anything about the allegations. No matter which side you came down on regarding the issue, it was pretty obvious the two sides were talking past each other. That was by design, because neither really wanted to address the opposite side’s point.
There’s another term of art for framing in political writing. It’s often called “whataboutism.” As in, “you say politician X is corrupt, but what about all the corrupt things politician Y did?”
It’s an extremely effective tactic in arguments, because it easily sends the discussion careening off the rails. It goes in directions that it was never meant to go and the original question, often as not, gets hopelessly lost.
So how do you get around framing if you need to?
Professionally speaking, it’s not that difficult for me. An interviewer’s No. 1 job is to keep control of the interview and if a reporter keeps that top of mind, it’s not that hard. You let that politician ramble and answer the question you didn’t ask, ignore it and then you ask the question again, sometimes rewording it and sometimes asking it exactly the same way. And if you have to, you say, “You didn’t answer the question.”
As a news consumer, there’s a way to at least detect framing. When a politician answers a question, consciously ask yourself if he actually answered it and sort of mentally rephrase the answer to check it out. With a little practice, it becomes very easy to spot.
You also have to develop an ear for a euphemism. A tax hike, for example, can often be called “revenue enhancement,” which sounds much more neutral. But ask yourself, if you’re going to do that, just exactly where does the actual “enhancement” come from?
With personal matters like your pal’s drinking, things can get a little dicier. The best thing you can do is suggest that his issue get settled first, and then you can discuss yours.
Sometimes that works. Sometimes you end up with a continually drunk friend. Unfortunately, in the wider world, the consequences can be a bit more substantial than one person’s addiction.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org