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Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor

How something is said may be as important as what is said

Teenie Matlock

Millions of dollars are spent on campaign ads and other political messages in an election year, but surprisingly little is known about how language affects voter attitude and influences election outcomes. This article discusses two seemingly subtle but powerful ways that language influences how people think about political candidates and elections. One is grammar. The other is metaphor.

2012-11MatlockF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn an election year, voters are inundated with political messages from various sources, including television ads, campaign websites, blogs and social network forums, such as Facebook. Some of these messages focus on candidates’ positions on various issues, including the economy, same-sex marriage, education and war. Some focus on candidates’ personal characteristics. Is the candidate warm and accessible, or cold and distant? An autocrat or a team player? Family oriented? Not family oriented? Some messages focus on candidates’ past actions, and others focus on their apparent abilities to tackle problems ranging from immigration to unemployment. Some messages are factual and objective, and others are exaggerated and sensationalized.

Political scientists, such as James Druckman of Northwestern University and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University, study how political messages affect voting. Their work tells us that voters’ attitudes can be influenced by a number of factors, including which information the media chooses to emphasize and how it is slanted. Framing, how a message is worded to encourage particular interpretations and inferences, can influence the perception of political candidates. Negative framing is often used to make opposing candidates seem weak, immoral and incompetent. It is persuasive because it captures attention and creates anxiety about future consequences. When negative information becomes excessive, however, it can backfire and lead to deleterious outcomes, including low voter turnout. Negative framing can be effective even when subtle or indirect. For instance, people tend to align more closely with their parties when opposition is emphasized, and people may not want to vote for incumbent candidates when there are frequent reports about how bad times are.

It is no surprise that language in political messages affect people’s attitudes about political candidates and more generally, elections. Just about anybody would form a low opinion of a politician who is described as a cocaine addict with a track record of accepting bribes, cheating coworkers and evading taxes by illegal means. What’s interesting is how language has this influence, especially when it comes to framing effects. Particlarly interesting is how the more subtle dimensions of language, including grammar and metaphor, can modify attitudes about political candidates.

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