FRAMING is the identification of a set of values and themes within which we will present our issue. Since there are usually many ways to think about and talk about each issue we work on, it’s important to be strategic in the way we present our story to audiences. This means carefully considering the way we start the story—what values, ideas, or familiar stories are we evoking? How will we lead them to the solutions we want? Who are the heroes and villains of our story?
NARRATIVE refers to the set of frames we use to tell the story of a specific issue. By identifying overarch- ing key themes and values we want our audiences to identify with an issue, we can help to ensure a level of reso- nance and consistency that won’t happen if we frame each sub-issue independently of a larger theme.
MESSAGES are developed for a specific opportunity and should be tailored according to medium, venue, and audience. While messages will fit within our larger frame, and reflect an issue’s narrative, they will vary in tone, vocabulary, length, and other considerations.
Narrative Case Study: Immigration
In 2006, The Opportunity Agenda completed the first in a series of media analyses on media coverage of immigration issues. We found that anti-immigrant voices not only outnumbered pro-immigrant voices in the media, but they also reflected a consistent set of themes, regardless of their specific message or audience. Whether they were talking to conservatives about our borders, or progressives about low-wage workers, they relied on two main narrative themes: that immigrants are a threat to law and order, and that they overwhelm the country’s scarce resources. At the same time, we found that pro-immigrant spokespeople had a tendency to communicate an assortment of policy- or campaign-specific messages, with little connection in terms of theme or story.
Together with a cadre of national and regional partners, we set about addressing this, naming the effort “narrative development.” We spend the first half of 2007 reviewing public opinion research, interviewing those in the field, and monitoring media coverage. By the middle of the year, the group had settled on three main themes that together would form a pro-immigrant narrative: Upholding our Nation’s Values, Workable Solutions, and Moving Forward Together. These themes, working together, would tell a story of broader community, systemic level solutions that were inclusive and participatory, and most importantly, of preserving and protecting our national values of opportunity, equality, and community, as well as human rights.
In the years since the development of the narrative, we have seen not only greater cohesion in pro-immigrant voices, but also improvements in media coverage, in public perceptions, and increasingly, in policy debates. A 2010 media analysis found that the themes of the narrative had penetrated the media discourse, that coverage was increasingly positive, and that pro-immigrant voices were outnumbering opponents. Public attitudes toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants remained largely supportive despite high unemployment rates, and support for undocumented young people increased. And after several years of policy defeats, 2012 marked a shift away from harsh enforcement laws and back toward more constructive approaches. Gains have also included a series of pro-immigrant laws passed in California and explicit use of the narrative language in legislation proposed in Nebraska.
Recent public opinion research has further underscored the need for a strong, values-based narrative, finding persuadable audiences best moved by discussions of the values and positive solutions the narrative promotes.