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Building Bridges: How (not) to talk about Human Rights

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Each framing defines the problem in its own way, and hence constrains the solutions needed to address that problem. George Lakoff

Do you remember the last time you read about human rights in a British newspaper? What was the angle? Was it about national security? Or the power of the European courts? Or protecting universal rights?

Here are a few headlines from different newspapers over the past couple of years:

Put UK back in charge of Human Rights Laws
Human rights are a charter for criminals, say 75% of Britons
Tory Wreckers out to destroy their own human rights

Each of these headlines connects human rights with a different area of concern, implying a different problem and solution – what authority should dictate our laws (the UK or Europe); who uses or abuses the law (citizens or criminals), and who it is actually designed to protect (everyone or the few).

How we talk about human rights can and does make a huge difference to how they are perceived. While the vast majority of us are either supportive or undecided about human rights, the media tells a different story. In a review of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, political blogs and parliamentary speeches from 2013, ‘human rights’ was rarely used in a positive context. In fact, only 30% of articles were supportive of human rights in the UK (in England it was less than 20%).

This won’t surprise anyone that has paid attention to media coverage of human rights, but it gets more interesting when you look at the different ‘frames’ used. A frame is a story, composed of ideas, memories, emotions and values attached to and associated with a given concept. Framing is a communication tool, that we use (consciously or unconsciously) to provoke a particular kind of reaction to that concept. Most ideas (like human rights) can be talked about in vastly different ways. Last year, working with Counterpoint and Equally Ours, we analysed UK media coverage of human rights; identified the main frames, and then tested how these frames affected people’s values and attitudes.

Not only did we find clear links between different human rights frames and values; we also found that even one reading of a human rights frame could measurably alter how people thought about democracy and national security. We asked over 1,500 people to read different human rights frames and then fill out a questionnaire about their social attitudes, including their response to these statements:

“The work of human rights organisations is worth supporting without qualification.”

“It’s important for democracy in general that the rights of minority groups are protected.”

In this analysis (available on request) we found and tested 15 key frames. Below we discuss just two: the most commonly-used frame, and the most helpful frame for human rights advocates.

Human rights & national security

We found the most common frame was also the frame that encouraged the least support for human rights groups and minority rights: human rights undermine national security, the claim that legal rights jeopardise our safety by protecting and aiding criminals and terrorists.

In this frame, ‘we’ the British public are threatened, and criminal ‘others’ take advantage of us. It is an emotive frame,  frequently inviting readers to feel disgust, anger and outrage at injustice. It draws a clear line between  ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, and relies on the idea of a natural moral hierarchy in which some people are superior to others – the same belief that underlies many discriminatory attitudes. We found that Security and Power values permeated instances of this frame most strongly, though they sometimes evoked Benevolence values in the concern they expressed for people’s safety. Security and Power values are both associated with higher levels of prejudice and less desire to have contact with other groups.

Below we present an example of the way we approached this analysis, starting with a passage of newspaper text, breaking it down into smaller parts, then analysing the values it promotes:

3. Worked Example

Telling a better story…

By contrast, we found that some of the less commonly-used frames told a very positive story and encouraged the most support for human rights. The frame everyone has human rights, for instance, places huge emphasis on the inclusiveness and universality of human rights.  Here ‘we’ refers to everyone, and there is no distinction between those that deserve and don’t deserve human rights: they belong to us all because we are human. In our coding and workshops, we found this frame carried an explicit focus on the universalism of human rights (Universalism values), personal freedoms (Self-direction values), and the law’s protective nature (Benevolence). All of these values predict greater concern for social and environmental justice.

But we found the everyone has human rights frame in only 1% of the newspaper articles we analysed.

What else did we find?

Power, Achievement and Security values were unhelpful for human rights concern, whatever the angle on human rights. A pro-human rights argument based on national security, in other words, was no different from a national security argument that was anti-human rights.

This finding echoes George Lakoff’s conclusion in Don’t Think of an Elephant that negating a frame is as bad as repeating it. For advocates of human rights, this means sticking to strong intrinsic messages, even in response to stories framed otherwise. The more active and effective we are in promoting these values across social and environmental causes, the more we cultivate concern for human rights.

Messaging alone is not enough, of course, and words mean very little without substantive action. We must also encourage these values when we interact with people. One finding that emerged from our research is that the very act of deliberation – giving people a space to consider and discuss their views on human rights, for instance – tends to encourage intrinsic values. As advocates, this means working to offer time and space for people to participate in debates about human rights.

So, what to do?

Intrinsic values promote concern about human rights. To encourage them, our research suggests, we should remember the following:

  1. How we frame human rights will affect how they are perceived.
  2. Frames that activate intrinsic values – such as everybody has human rights promote greater concern for human rights and social justice more generally.
  3. Appealing to intrinsic values is a more effective response to negative frames than trying to argue back on their own terms.
  4. Repeating positive frames over the long term is vital in cultivating support for human rights.
  5. Deliberation and framing can help promote values that foster more concern for human rights.

We may not always be able to influence media coverage of human rights, but, like all social and environmental causes, the issue will benefit if more people and groups promote frames and adopt practices that strengthen intrinsic values. We can also use framing research to understand how best to react to unhelpful media coverage of human rights: the Equally Ours network, for instance, share a regular digest of positive, everyday stories about human rights.

Read more…

In our full report, we deconstruct the 15 frames, with examples of newspaper copy that uses them. We also provide practical examples of how to break down and reframe real campaign messages – such as home care visits to the elderly and disabled – to appeal to different values.

For a copy of the report, please get in touch!

Bec SandersonBuilding Bridges: How (not) to talk about Human Rights