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Intersecting frames in communicating environmental risk and uncertainty


Risk scholars have long examined how public opinion about environmental issues is shaped by message framing devices, for example, as when climate change is portrayed as a ‘public health’ vs. ‘environmental health’ issue, or when the phenomenon itself is labeled as ‘global warming’ vs. ‘climate change.’ Yet, seldom do these framing devices occur in isolation; instead, they often co-occur – or intersect – in messaging about emerging environmental risks, which may hold underappreciated implications for theory and practice. This paper introduces the concept of intersecting frames, which we define as occurring whenever communicators emphasize a subset of the available aspects of an issue (i.e. emphasis framing) that itself is referred to using one of a larger set of alternative labels used to represent the issue in discourse. As an initial exploration of the concept, we report on a web experiment featuring 602 US respondents in which Vibrio bacteria in oysters was framed primarily as a risk either to public or environmental health that was attributed either to ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change.’ Whereas prior research suggested that public health framing and climate change labeling should reduce climate skepticism, we observed increased skepticism among political conservatives when these framing devices were employed simultaneously. We discuss possible cognitive mechanisms that may underlie effects of intersecting frames and consider implications for risk communication more broadly.

Keywords: Framing, environmental risk, climate change, global warming


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