Media Frames

Media frames in the context of mass-media communication refer to the way interpretations of a message are encouraged or discouraged. It was first introduced by Erving Goffman in 1974 through his book, ‘Frame Analysis’. 

What are media Frames?

A frame is a set of meaningful signs connected to specific types of social action. Together they create a 'logic' of action and make the action understandable for those involved in it. In Frame Analysis, Erving Goffman developed the notion of 'frame' as a key to understand how human beings organize their social experiences. 

In common media discourses, 'framing' is usually used as something negative, as something 'the other side is using'. 'We' never frame. This understanding of framing isn't worth much from an analytical point of view. As Goffman explained, we all frame when we communicate. Framing is used to get a certain message across. We thus use it to try to communicate in a clear way and to get the other side to understand what we want to say.

When we talk about media frames, we are thus talking about journalists trying to make sense. The fact that frames are a crucial part of communication of course those not mean that they don't have impact. They have. And especially mass distributed media frames have the ability to change the way that we think, and even act, when receiving news about a particular subject (Goffman, 2010). This is because the way that something may be framed usually emphasizes particular parts of the message, helping us as the audience to interpret, organize and compartmentalize the information.

There are two types of frames; natural and social (ibid). Natural frameworks identify events as physical occurrences and refrain from attributing any social forces to the causation of events. Social frameworks view events as socially driven frameworks and are built on natural frameworks. Both of these impact our communication and influence how data is interpreted, processed, communicated, and even managed (ibid).

The foundation of Goffman’s framing theory argues that the media focuses attention on certain events and then places them within a field of meaning (ibid). This meaning-making has the ability to become an even more important topic because of its power since the framing of the topic at hand can be seen in a specific context (Ross, 2019) whether that’s social or political. 

The Red MAGA hat and frames

A common example of how we do this can be how we interpret the messages, or even symbols, given to us by the media. For example, the red MAGA hat. Democrats in the United States may see it as a symbol of disrespect or even racism, while Republicans can view it as a symbol of patriotism. The media covers and defines the meaning of (socio)political issues and in mass-media communication (Ross, 2019), the frame presents information to us in a way that often suggests that there is a problem and we can be the solution (Goffman, 2010).

Politics is an easy way to do so, and if we look at the 2020 Presidential Debate, it’s clear to see that there is a sense of urgency to vote for either Biden, a Democrat, or Trump, a Republican, based on how the media has previously framed the two politicians. The terms ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ each have their own connotations and this could also be considered a type of media frame depending on the news outlet that is presenting it to us. 

Framing and Agenda Setting Theory

Framing, according to Goffman (2010), is closely related to the Agenda Setting Theory which focuses on how the media shares a message in such a way that specific topics are being highlighted as more important than others. This is how the agenda of a framework is set so that individuals interpret what is happening.

The way that news is created almost always has an agenda, or frame, for the way that information will be shared. Goffman argues that it is a conscious choice that journalists make. This is due to how gatekeepers organize and present information to the general public in order to get them to do or think what they intend with the message they are sharing (Ross, 2019). Framing is a useful communication source, as it is useful when aiming to mobilize people. 

Five different media frames

In a study by  Andrew S. Ross and Damian J. Rivers (Ross & Rivers, 2018), the authors describe five different media frames that influence the manner in which news is both delivered and interpreted. The study focussed mainly on the use of memes in the discourse of climate change. In their article they introduce five frames that have been used within climate change discourse since it became an issue of major importance:

  1. The risk is present (“real” frame)
  2. The scientific claim of the risk is true (“hoax” frame)
  3. The risk is caused by human activities (“cause” frame)
  4. The potential consequences of the risk (“impact”frame)
  5. How to handle the risk (“action” frame)

Each frame has been separated in either ‘convinced’ of climate change or  ‘sceptical’ of climate change. In the first frame, “real”, the risk of climate change is perceived as either present or not. The study shows that the convinced memes revolve around climate change denial, as it being impossible. The sceptical view shows memes that are sceptic about climate change itself.  The second frame, “hoax”, relates to the truthfulness of the risk of the claim. Convinced memes included memes that projected the science behind climate change as being true and accurate, and ridiculed anyone who states otherwise. Sceptical memes question the science behind climate change, and state that climate change has always been present, and therefore it must be a hoax. Frame 3, “cause”, relates to the (dis)belief that climate change is the direct result of human activities. Convinced memes argue that humans are the cause of climate change, while sceptical memes argue the direct opposite. The fourth “Impact” frame deals with the risks associated with climate change. Convinced memes revolve around the supposed consequences of climate change. Sceptical memes contrast with the convinced memes by questioning or rejecting the climate change supposed consequences. Finally, the “action” frame relates to how to handle the risk of climate change. Convinced memes offer possible solutions to climate change in an satirical manner, while sceptical memes question or deny probable solutions to climate change.

Frame theory has served the domain of media and communication studies effectively, but as internet changes, the theory cannot be understood and applied consistently. This study has shown the ease of how memes are created and shared, which makes participation in debate and discussion in relation to social and political issues such as climate change more feasible and simple. This is important to attract new interactions with individuals or groups who might have otherwise avoided an interaction. The fast that internet memes are created rather simply means that the message is also delivered in an equal simplistic manner. The accessibility of these memes may offer an alternative to traditional media channels to influence viewpoints and opinions of viewers. Thus, these internet memes ought to be seen as a rather powerful form of media communication. The study ends on the note that this matter could lead some possible directions for future research. An interesting approach would be to see how this time of frame is utilized across other platforms and domains beyond memes.


Goffman, E. (2010). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

Ross, A. S., & Rivers, D. J. (2018). Internet Memes, Media Frames, and the Conflicting Logics of Climate Change Discourse. Environmental Communication, 13(7), 975=994. doi:10.1080/17524032.2018.1560347