The Paradox of Framing Issues

February 3, 2014

By Yi Ying Teh

This spring our Bass Connections project team — Exploring The Intersection Of Energy And Peace-Building Through Film — is creating films that help communicate the role of energy resource management in peace-building. I and my teammates have been combing through hours of footage from UNEP’s assessment of oil damage in Nigeria, looking for footage that will help us to visually communicate the complex intersections of human safety and economic stability, environmental protection, and responsible management of energy resources. As I do this work, I am reminded of lessons I learned from a talk last fall by John Prendergast.

On November 11, 2013, human rights activist John Prendergast (co-founder of the Enough! Project) spoke at the Franklin Humanities Institute about ten ways to make a difference globally and locally. A vivid storyteller, Prendergast traced the trajectory of his career to present-day and used anecdotes to illustrate the lessons he learned on the way:

  1. Build a team
  2. Recognize the extraordinary power of social movements
  3. Value and prioritize innovation
  4. Invest in the next generation
  5. Harness the power of celebrities
  6. Build hope
  7. Find a human face
  8. Recognize the role of faith
  9. Invest in the family
  10. Embrace your ‘Don Quixote’

The point that was most pertinent to our Bass Connections Project was the point of finding a human face for causes. Also known as the strategy of framing, Prendergast drew on psychology studies to prove his point. In the psychology study he mentioned, people were given money to donate to a cause. When presented with two situations — feeding a girl in a refugee camp or feeding an entire refugee camp — most people gave to the girl, even when feeding the entire refugee camp was more economically sensible. Connecting a human face to a cause and promoting a single action were two proposed strategies Prendergast suggested for helping people take baby steps in a cause.

However, framing inevitably simplifies complex problems, a paradox Prendergast explored in the Q&A. He discussed this inherent trade-off between depth and width. This trade-off has been brought into sharp clarity by the proliferation of social networks, which flatten information and prioritize targeting a wide range of people over presenting in-depth information. Take for example Kony 2012. Kony 2012 was a media campaign produced by Invisible Children to raise awareness about indicted war criminal Joseph Kony and have him arrested. It also advocated for intervention by the Ugandan army. Kony 2012 brought public attention to the situation in Uganda. However, it also contained some factual errors such as failing to acknowledge that Kony was not in Uganda, but in the Central African Republic (Keating 2012). Kony 2012 was also accused of promoting ‘slacktivism’: pursuing a small action thinking that doing so would solve a larger complex problem (Bailyn 2012). Kony 2012 brought up an interesting paradox: framing issues, while simplistic, galvanizes more people to act; acknowledging the complexity of a situation, while a more accurate representation of reality, is less effective in gaining support for resolving a problem.

Our Bass Connections group is grappling with these complexities now as we create our storyboards and craft messages for the films we are creating. While we seek to elucidate the links between the energy and conflict clearly through the “human faces” that the footage provides us, we have to be careful about over-simplifying the issues that the footage depicts. I have been working mostly on assessment footage from Nigeria, which portrays the environmental impacts of oil spills and dissatisfaction of Nigerian people towards Shell Oil, the primary operator in the Niger delta. While Shell may be culpable to some extent for negligence, we will have to be careful to avoid the hero-victim storyline as other actors are responsible for oil spills too. For example, artisanal refining (the practice of illegally obtaining crude oil from oil industry operations and refining it in primitive stills) results in leaks and spills as well.

Prendergast acknowledged the complex realities of activism and grappled with inherent trade-offs. However, most importantly, he showed that these complexities should not cause paralysis, but rather promote further action. He inspired those present, challenging us to take the next step, “Now that you know, what more would you choose to do?”