Fact Frames

Robert Gardner

July 2003

Defining Fact Frames

Facts do not speak for themselves. The same information from different sources, or received by different people, can lead to very different conclusions.

People approach conflicts in very different ways depending on their perceptions of relevant technical and social facts. For example, people who believe that air pollution is killing them can be expected to act differently from people who think that it is merely an unpleasant inconvenience. This section, which links closely with the fact-finding section, will examine the psychological role of facts and factual interpretation.

Why We Use Frames

A frame is an interpretive tool that all people use when making sense of the world around them. Because the task of processing information about our social world is difficult, complex, and often cumbersome, especially when addressing policy conflicts that are characterized by technical or scientific information, we must use tools that help us make better sense of relevant facts and information.

All individuals use frames to aid in deciding where and how they fit into a conflict and what, if anything, they can do as a response. Using the metaphor of a picture frame, the concept of "frame" acts as a device to draw borders around what is and is not important. Just as a picture frame defines what is and what is not included in a picture, fact frames define what is and what is not important to consider when evaluating information, data, or facts about a particular dispute or policy alternative.

For example, in a dispute about the construction of a new water treatment plant, a wide variety of factual issues come into play. How much additional water will be needed over the coming years? Where will that water come from? How much will it cost? What alternative sources of water are available if the additional treatment facility is not built? If it has to be built is this the best place to put it? What are the environmental impacts of the plant? The recreational impacts? And so on. Some people will view the cost of the new plant as very important; others will not. Some will be very concerned about the environmental impacts, while others will not. These determinations about which facts are important and which are not are decided by one's "fact frames."

Additional insights into fact frames are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

The Importance of Fact Frames

Because nearly every important social conflict contains expert evaluation and opinion, the framing of these facts deserves closer analysis. For a number of reasons, facts do not speak for themselves. Without proper presentation and interpretation, facts can leave one uncertain as to the meaning and significance of the information. In many cases, preconceived notions of what is correct and incorrect, factual or biased, objective or subjective can cloud accurate processing of relevant information. In addition, the identity of the person who is presenting the information can drastically influence how the information is perceived, regardless of content.

Framing for Information Producers and Users

Fact frames can be divided into the perspective of the information producers (scientists, data analysts, technicians, engineers, professors, environmental risk assessment experts, etc.) and the information users (lay public, politicians, conflict resolution practitioners, educators, activists, policy makers, etc.). Because of their different societal and institutional roles, each party will frame factual information in different ways.

Framing Problems

For information producers: Because of their relationship to the data-collection process itself, information producers tend to frame the facts in specific ways. For example, since many experts are very involved and entrenched in the information production process, they often assume that all of the parties are aware of the practices and procedures associated with that process. In these cases, information producers may adopt an "expert only" frame that makes it difficult to transmit the larger meaning or significance to a broader audience. Since they know the minute details of the information production, they assume everyone else knows (or should know) as well. Therefore, in their communication to others, they frame facts in ways that assume everyone knows what they know.

An additional problem is associated with trust and credibility. If experts frame the information in ways that assume everyone is knowledgeable about their work, they may not reveal essential information that would build the trust of the public. Presenting the research process in terms that are simple and transparent allows the public to more carefully assess the information's validity and truthfulness.

Finally, experts may frame their research in ways that go against the norms of non-biased, independent research. In these cases, they frame the research in terms of the goals and desired outcomes of their sponsoring advocacy group or perhaps their own personal values and biases. These "value judgment" frames ultimately work to confirm preconceived notions of the desired policy alternative.

For information users: Those using and processing information from experts face a related, but somewhat different set of framing issues. In many instances, users of information come into a fact-finding or risk assessment process with a frame that implies they already know all of the relevant facts. In these cases, such a "known facts" frame prevents the user from seeing the merit or validity of competing perspectives. If someone already has a clear picture of what valid and reliable facts "should" look like, they will be likely to find fault with information that does not correspond to this preconceived image. In this way, the previous information constitutes a frame through which additional information is viewed and evaluated.

People adopting a "known facts" frame also have a picture of what credible and trustworthy information sources should be. In many environmental disputes, stakeholders have come to rely upon particular information providers and respond to alternative sources with skepticism and mistrust. For example, information from well-known environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club or Greenpeace may be believed, while facts from other, less well-known sources may not be.

This phenomenon illustrates another type of framing which hinges on individuals' relative trust of science. Those adopting a trustful frame of scientific fact-finding tend to suspend judgment until the relevant facts have been collected and presented by independent or unbiased experts. They wait until scientific studies have been conducted, peer reviewed, and presented to the public before they decide how and why they will choose a particular course of action.

Other, more skeptical parties enter disputes with more rigid views of science and scientific facts. Regardless of the "facts" presented by assumed credible and independent experts, those who are skeptical of science will only believe those facts that support their foregone conclusions. In this case, they already have their minds made up. These skeptics are distrustful of scientists and feel that their underlying values and interests in the dispute will necessarily skew their findings. In sum, individuals or groups evaluating scientific or technical information who already have in their minds a picture of not only what the facts should look like, but also how the fact-finders should behave, end up evaluating new and potentially contradictory evidence with a skeptical mind.

Use the following to cite this article:
Gardner, Robert. "Fact Frames." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/fact-frames>.

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