How Strategic Framing Killed NJ Stem Cell Funding
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
The latest issue of Nature Reports Stem Cell Research runs a lengthy news analysis by Meredith Wadman on the political communication effort that ultimately killed the New Jersey stem cell bond initiative. As the analysis details, a number of framing strategies on the part of opponents helped cement defeat last November.
Below I connect details from the news analysis to generalizable themes and principles that shape the communication dynamics of the stem cell debate. I also link to the relevant published studies that I have conducted.
--> Faced with a tight state budget, anti-tax conservatives were able to unite their public accountability frame with the moral framing of conservative Catholic opponents, bridging these two latent meanings with one perfect frame device for the bond initiative: "Loan to Clone." (For more on frames and frame devices specific to science, see this special section of my blog.)
-->As we detail in our cover article at The Scientist, proponents of stem cell research have been able to unite support around the shared frames of social progress and economic development, while opponents have traditionally hewed to the moral frame. But following Proposition 71 in California, then in Missouri, and now in New Jersey, we see a new public accountability frame emerging, in this case focusing on whether or not stem cell research is science in the public interest or the private interest. As opponents powerfully suggest, are such bills simply benefiting "big biotech" at the expense of taxpayers?
-->As was the case in California following passage of Proposition 71, the public accountability frame in New Jersey appealed in part to the orientations of journalists and editorial boards with state newspapers writing editorials focusing in on the cost and potential risk to taxpayers of the bond initiative.
-->Churches remain a very important political communication context (for their role generally, see this study.) Religion also serves as a powerful perceptual screen on any messaging from stem cell proponents (see this study.) As the article reports:
Opponents of the measure had both money and messengers. On 7 October, New Jersey's priests read from their pulpits a written plea from all five of the state's Roman Catholic bishops, asking parishioners to pray that New Jerseyans vote against ballot question two. In a state where 40% of residents are Catholic, that had a large impact. By blanketing every parish, the church, for a "_de minimus_" cost, grabbed the secular media, says Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference.
--> As we find in this study, relative to issue specific activism in the stem cell debate, opinion intensity drives voter turn out. Unfortunately, for proponents of stem cell funding, the voices that speak loudest on this issue are usually intensely motivated by either fiscal or moral conservatism. In New Jersey, during an off year election with an absence of other mobilizing races to shape participation, you can see this differential effect in turn out across counties. From the article:
...turnout in counties that voted against ballot question two was around 32%. Six of those counties opposed the measure by nearly two to one. By contrast, in the five counties that decisively approved the measure -- essentially the Philadelphia and New York suburbs -- turnout averaged 22% and dipped as low as 10%. Young calculated that if turnout in four of the five pro-stem cell counties had matched the 34% turnout recorded in the 2003 state elections, the measure would have passed easily. The fallout from the loss was immediate.
-->In sum, New Jersey is a textbook example of the role of framing in mobilizing specific publics. Frames were crafted that made the stem cell bond initiative--an otherwise technical and lengthy ballot question about science--personally meaningful to anti-tax and religious conservatives. These frames were communicated and made highly salient in paid advertising but importantly in the powerful political communication context of churches, historically perhaps the perfect place for political organizing. The public accountability frame even played advantageously on the routines and orientations of journalists and news organizations, activating their instincts as watchdogs on perceived abuses of power or on undue influence in politics. As a result of connecting frames to values and picking the right communication channels, in an off year election, opinion intensity among fiscal and moral conservatives drove differential levels of participation and turn out, defeating the initiative.
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