Game of Frames

by Steve Moore


Last week VolteFace hosted ten UK based drug reform organisations to consider the reframing work on UK criminal justice reform recently undertaken by the FrameWorks Institute.

In the aftermath of UNGASS, the long-term focus of most drug policy civil society organisations, VolteFace took this opportunity to re-examine the sector’s communications strategy.

Social scientists and mass communication experts are increasingly recognising the importance of framing — how the manner in which an idea or issue is presented to an audience influences their thinking about said idea or issue.

Last week’s event focused on how reframing ideas nurtured in the field of criminal justice could translate to drug policy reform. The event was chaired by Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice, who presented the Reframing Crime and Justice Project. This project was undertaken when Transform Justice, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and the Criminal Justice Alliance grouped together to commission the FrameWorks Institute.

As a result of the fascinating insights from the Reframing Crime and Justice Project, VolteFace sought Nat Kendall-Taylor’s (FrameWorks CEO) initial thoughts on some existing drug policy framing strategies. The FrameWorks Institute take a research-based approach to strategic communications, measuring how people understand complex socio-political issues and testing ways to reframe them to drive social change.

Here are his fascinating first thoughts:

‘Currently, despite sharing certain commonalities, there are a variety of framing approaches that, taken as a whole, indicate that the field has not yet adopted a unified, coherent narrative about drug reform — one that offers a consistent, top-level explanation across issues of why it matters, how it would work, and in what ways the liberalisation of drug policies offers a better solution to drug use than existing enforcement laws.’ Nat Kendall-Taylor

Furthermore, much of the sector’s campaign materials and websites share a ‘common crisis’ frame:

Virtually all of the campaigns use crisis-invoking language to one degree or another. Phrases like ‘broken system’, ‘failed ideology’, ‘ruined lives’, and ‘wasting billions’ all point towards massive, entrenched social problems…priming people to feel a sense of crisis about a problem can depress their support for its solutions.

This phenomenon is commonly attributed to ‘compassion fatigue,’ or the limits of people’s ability to sustain the heightened emotional state required to address imminent emergencies. Crisis-oriented language is common currency in advocacy campaigns around the world, yet it has the effect of overwhelming people and causing them to disengage.

How can we persuasively communicate the proven idea that the current approach to drugs is failing to fight addiction, prevent crime and protect people’s health and rights?

One of the obstacles standing in the way of our campaigns is a lack of public will to enact necessary and effective changes. This lack of public support and demand for new solutions can be traced back to deeply rooted cultural understandings about drugs, human behaviour, society and the criminal justice system. Many of these deep-seated ways of thinking can lead to views which are ineffective or counter-productive in improving public safety relating to drugs.

One of the most surprising lessons for the group at the event was how easy it was to engage the widely held “rational actor” belief when communicating about criminal justice. People believe that crime is the result of rational actors who have carefully calculated the risks and benefits before choosing whether to commit a crime. As a result, members of the public believe strongly in the deterrence effects of harsh prison sentences — this belief has been fed by decades of exposure to the punitive philosophy of the war on drugs.

The drug reform movement makes a lot of use of personal stories but as Kendall-Taylor points out:

Stories about individuals risk cementing this misperception by ‘re-minding’ people of their dominant understanding that drug use, like any other illicit activity or crime, is simply a matter of individual willpower and personal choice

The initial assessment on current framing of drug reform also found that roughly half our campaigns do not appeal to explicit values to help prime people’s understanding of the issues. Nor do we know which values help elicit support for drug policy reform. Revealingly, previous work undertaken by the FrameWorks Institute has found that appeals to empathy depressed public support for people with substance use problems.

The initial research also identified a potential missed opportunity in the lack of causal stories being told about the roots of, and solutions to, the world’s current drug problems:

Though most of the campaigns begin their communications with declarations that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, the majority move quickly to presenting their own solutions without fitting them into a common, shared story locating the specific campaign within a broader field working on a number of fronts towards a common vision.

An explanatory story about how existing policies led to current conditions and how creating different conditions could lead to better outcomes is necessary context for a public that cannot be assumed to have expert knowledge about drug policy reform.

Much discussion has been had about communications in drug reform circles, but as yet the drug reform sector has no large-scale empirical data on what actually works.

Can a wide-ranging review of the efficacy of our communications lead to better practice, where people’s values are engaged in a reasonable tone and a complete story is told from problem to solution, unifying disparate reform efforts with a shared narrative?

Steve Moore – Editor-in-Chief. Tweets @steve4good

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