What’s in a Frame? Framing King v. Burwell

Health

A few weeks ago, I blogged about framing, using the public debate over vaccination protests to illustrate the role of framing in advocacy communications. News coverage of last week’s U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in the Affordable Care Act King v. Burwell case provide an opportunity to explore a related issue: how, in practice, to reinforce a frame.

As my previous post mentioned, frames often prevail in a debate not because of their merit, but because of the tenacity and effectiveness with which their advocates deliver consistent messages. King v. Burwell coverage offers an example of good message discipline on both sides. These quotes are drawn from national news stories about the debate:

From ACA opponents

  • The statutory text is straightforward; the arguments offered by the Administration and its defenders are less about statutory construction than they are about statutory correction. (Washington Post, March 3rd)
  • The IRS rule raises a basic issue that goes far beyond Obamacare: Do agencies have to follow the laws enacted by Congress, or can they rewrite them? The IRS claims that it’s merely following congressional intent, but what it’s really doing is torturing statutory language. (USA Today, March 1st)
  • The IRS regulation being challenged in King is of a piece with the overall Obama Administration strategy of unilaterally extending executive power. (Washington Post, February 27th)

From ACA Defenders

  • … the plaintiffs in this case are saying that Congress intended to take state citizens hostage and threaten to destroy state insurance markets … (McClatchy DC, February 27th)
  • I just don’t think they understand the impact that this has on people’s lives. (Christian Science Monitor, March 3rd)
  • Millions of people would lose their health insurance subsidies and therefore would no longer be able to afford health insurance. (New York Times, February 24th)

The contrast is pretty clear. The law’s challengers come back time and again to a similar message: King v. Burwell is about governmental overreach – that’s their frame. The law’s defenders focus on the human consequences of a ruling against the government: King v. Burwell is about whether to make people uninsured – that’s their frame.

I’m not arguing that message consistency is an effective courtroom tactic. But, as this debate illustrates, organizing messages in support of an underlying frame and maintaining discipline in delivering them is an important part of any persuasive communications strategy.