Journalists are bravely standing up to Trump’s attacks on the free press, as they should. Yet one way in which they’re expressing their solidarity and resistance shows how little most journalists know about political framing and messaging.

Case in point: Trump has labeled journalists as “enemies.” So, journalists have responded by labeling themselves “#NotTheEnemy.” This hashtag is currently trending on Twitter, which is unfortunate. Adopting this slogan is a big mistake that helps Trump.

Anyone who has read my books or taken my classes at Berkeley will immediately understand why. For those new to political framing and messaging, I’ll explain briefly here.

Quick: Don’t think of an elephant!

Now, what do you see? The bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant. You can’t block the picture – the frame – from being accessed by your unconscious mind. As a professor in the cognitive and brain sciences, this is the first lesson in framing I have given my students for decades. It’s also the title of my book on the science of framing political debates.

The key lesson: when we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.

When President Richard Nixon addressed the country during Watergate and used the phrase “I am not a crook,” he coupled his image with that of a crook.

He established what he was denying by repeating his opponents’ message.

This illustrates a key principle of framing: avoid the language of the attacker because it evokes their frame and helps make their case.

Why? Because, in order to negate a frame, you have to activate it. Frames, like all other ideas, are constituted by neural circuitry in the brain. Every time a circuit is activated, its synapses get stronger. When you negate a frame, you help the other side.

Avoid repeating the charges! Instead, use your own words and values to reframe the conversation. When journalists protest that they are “Not The Enemy,” they should remember how well “I am not a crook” worked for Nixon.

The important frame here is Truth. Donald Trump despises journalists because the duty of a good journalist is to tell the truth and inform the public. Trump doesn’t like the truth – or an informed public – because the success of his anti-democratic agenda depends on lies and distractions.

This is why he has labeled journalists as “enemies.” Because Trump is an enemy of truth, and you can’t have democracy without truth.

Journalists are the courageous people we trust to #ProtectTheTruth.

18 responses

  1. Professor Lakoff is one of the few people in our society who speaks to the logic flaws and purposeful mind manipulation used through language choices. (I personally wish journalists would have used #heroes to represent themselves!)
    I also wish that there would be collaboration by professors of logic who can accurately identify specific “fallacies of logic” and Dr. Lakoff and colleagues in the field of linguistics along with talented animators and screenwriters. A team like that would be able to create a meaningful, entertaining representation of these concepts that would open the eyes of the general public as to how they are being deceived by clever linguistic manipulation. It’s essential in a democracy for people to understand the basic concepts of honest communication over Madison Ave. manipulation.

  2. Great article! Does it make sense for the press to frame it as a Constitutional issue? The Press if for the Constitution Trump, against it. The Press believes in the sacred Constitutional guarantee of Freedom of the Press while Trump’s press degradation is really his attempt to weaken this Constitutional Freedom?

  3. I completely agree! With my own small children we’ve started to switch from saying what action we want (“let’s make a different choice” ) instead of the action we don’t want (“don’t hit your brother”). Visualization is the first step towards changed behavior.

  4. This blog was so worth it. I think we are what media makes us. We see news on the television and we derive conclusions from it. So I guess the media holds the biggest responsibility and they have to act very responsibly. Thank you for the amazing post !

  5. This fits with my thoughts after reading Bret Stephens’ address at the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture (reprinted in Time). Journalists are often heroes and defenders of democracy, and we need to publicly and visibly recognize them as such. Thank you, Dr. Lakoff, for making us more aware of how we frame these messages.

  6. I’ve been quoting “Don’t Think of an Elephant” and buying copies for my friends for years. And every year your words become more and more valuable. That’s why in the midst of all the same old commentary, I was thrilled to see you on MSNBC. And now I’m quoting your new advice. The media must stop using the term fake news. Just as you said, we’re now going down that endless road and not focusing on the impact of his executive orders.

    How can get the point across to the media? They are currently playing right into his hands. For my part, I’m going to spread your advice and hope others catch on. #Don’t Think of an Elephant!

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