Last week saw the killing of 14 and the wounding of an additional 21 in San Bernadino by a County Health Department employee. He apparently left a company training event after  some kind of argument, and later returned with his wife, as well as an arsenal of tactical military equipment. The event was a tragedy for the families, the San Bernadino community, and the nation. The scenario itself was also confusing enough that for the first day or two after the attack, the media struggled to determine which frame it would put it in: Was this a terrorist attack or was it a case of armed workplace violence? As the facts become more clear, it is likely to turn out to be both. But the struggle to determine what box it would be put in at first, provides a very clear example of the notion of a "Frame Game." A staple of narrative theory, the notion of framing is that the same set of facts can be viewed quite differently depending on how they are presented. Facts are facts, but the “frame” provided by our language and the larger story is what provides the meaning.

Calling persuasion a “Frame Game” is based on the recognition that both sides in a dispute will try to frame the event in a light that suits their interests. In the San Bernadino tragedy, for example, advocates on one side saw the “gun murder” framing as an opportunity to press for greater gun control based on the argument that well-armed attacks have become far too common in the U.S., while advocates on the other side saw the “terrorist attack” framing as a chance to call for greater security measures at home, more bellicose policies abroad, and potentially an end to planned resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.. That battle over the right frame parallels what legal advocates are trying to do in the typical case. While there is a fair amount of discussion on the importance of frames in the study of human communication and persuasion, there is surprisingly less on what exactly creates a frame. So, based on the interests of legal persuaders, the focus of this post is to share my own thoughts on four qualities that make up a frame.

The Four Corners of Your Frame: Character, Keywords, Context, and Theme

An opening statement is not going to determine jurors’ final leaning, but it will establish in a pretty durable way the “This is a story about…” part of the message. In other words, the opening statement sets a frame for the case. So what exactly makes a frame? My own list includes four elements. There are probably more, including some that draw from the fancier neighborhoods of narrative theory, but from a practical perspective, I want to focus on four that should be in the litigator's tool box. In each, I’ll be drawing from the example of the San Bernadino shooting, and also using an employment law example involving a case that, depending on your frame, is either about an employee fired because he failed at his job, or is about a company punishing a whistle-blower.


All stories have characters: protagonists and antagonists. The same goes for the San Bernadino story. When we’re framing something as another random shooting event, the individual shooter or shooters matter less: Any crazed loner with access to weapons will do. But when framed as terrorism though, the shooters, their motives, and any larger group moves to center stage. In the employment lawsuit example, the main character will differ depending on the frame. The defense will want to put the employee and his failures in the center of the frame, while the plaintiff will want to make the company and its motives into the central character.


How you describe the events and the specific language you use forms the frame. As I’ve written recently, specific keywords reinforce different values, with terms working together to create a rhetorical universe. In the case of the events in San Bernadino, is it a “crime” or an “attack”? Are its perpetrators “assailants” or “terrorists”? Among the various ways to frame the employment case, the plaintiff will choose words like “grudge,” “payback,” and “retaliation,” while the defense will favor words like “performance,” “service,” and “customers.”


It is not just the events, but also the canvas that they are placed on. The context emphasizes meaning, playing up some aspects of the situation and playing down others. In interpreting the San Bernadino shootings, the media had the choice to either place the attack in the context of the shootings at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic earlier the same week, or to place it in the context of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris the previous month. In the employment case, we could see a similar battle for context. The plaintiff will fight for the admissibility of as much information as possible about the company, its motivations, and its patterns involving other employees, while the defense will want to keep that frame of relevance centered on just the employee at issue.  


The most direct way to suggest a frame to an audience is to explicitly reference the frame they should apply. A theme does that by telling us what the story is about. In legal cases, the theme is a recurring motif that is built during voir dire or opening statement. In the days after San Bernadino, we heard the same themes emerging from a variety of sources, with the message being either that “This is another in America’s unending list of gun attacks…” or “This is America under attack from an outside agent." The two sides in the employment case might similarly battle over the right message. To the plaintiff, we might have a company who "chose to punish an employee for doing the right thing," while to the defendant, we would have an employee who "was given chance after chance to improve his performance but who ultimately said 'no' to the company's help." 

The idea of a frame is just one of the contributions of narrative theory to persuasion, but it is a very important one. "Frame" reminds us that story is more than just sequence.