Framing poverty in television news. An analysis of the paper “Framing Responsibility For Political Issues: The Case of Poverty” by Shanto Iyengar (1990)


A main point of interest in behavioral development economics deals with the question how to fight poverty in developed as well as in developing countries. A first step to do so is to have a clear definition for poverty in mind. If a definition on this is found the problem of poverty can be fought by governments and NGOs to reduce the negative influence for the affected poor people. In my blog post and paper I want to have a look on how poverty is attached to the broad society and in which way the framing of news about poverty induces a different way of thinking who is responsible for poverty. Generally speaking there might be a difference whether a person herself is liable for causing her poverty due to bad luck, illness or a divorce or whether it is the obligation of government due to bad policies, corruption or inability. Hence most people collect their information due the news reports of TV stations and newspapers there might be a bias in the way they report about poverty. Shanto Iyengar tests whether different frames of poverty in news media presentations lead to a different public opinion in the US (Iyengar, 1990).


To do so it is important to understand what the word framing means. The concept of framing was introduced by Kahneman and Tversky (1982, 1984). They find individuals are willing to pay an amount of money to avoid risk when an economic choice is described as a potential gain.

Otherwise is an economic choice represented as a potential loss the individuals seem to pay for the risk. A rational actor in economic ways of thinking is considered to act equally in both situations, not change her attitude from risk averse to risk loving concerning to losses or gains. Kahneman and Tversky argue that this happens because of different frames used by the individuals due to this different decision making situations. Frames account for possible actions taken into consideration in a decision making procedure, so they can limit the number of all potential outcomes. This can happen unconsciously (perception related frame) or consciously shaped by mental models (perspective associated frame).


To test the impact of different frames Iyengar uses US television data from 1981 to 1986, concerning to keywords like poverty, hunger, the homeless, welfare, food stamps and other keywords reported in news story broadcast. The frames belong to two main groups one depicts poverty as a collective or social outcome (this is called thematic frame) the other one reports poverty as an individual thing in terms of particular victims (this is called episodic frame). First of all Iyengar shows participants a tape with four different stories using one of the two possible frames.

Three topics are threaten with a thematic frame: increasing unemployment in the manufacturing sector, increase in the amount of Americans belonging to the government’s definition of poverty, and a story about households requiring emergency food aid.

A story dealing with economic difficulties of an unemployed male, an unmarried adult mother, an elderly widow, a young child, or a teen mother are represented with the episodic frame. Furthermore Iyengar divides his measurement into causal responsibility and treatment responsibility of poverty. The meaning of causal responsibility is that an individual is seen to be responsible for an outcome while treatment responsibility is the ability of the individual to control the outcome.


Iyengar’s experiment shows that participants’ thinking that society is responsible when poverty is framed in a thematic way, while in an episodic frame significant differences between the different stories occur. In the single-mother frame a high level of individual causal responsibility is found, therefore the individual and societal causes to poverty are nearly on the same level for single-mothers, in contrast to poor children and unemployed worker, where the ratio of societal and individual causes of poverty is nearly 2:1 (Iyengar, 1990, p. 27). In the treatment responsibility nearly the same results occur as in the frame of causal responsibility. So the participants where as likely to attach society the responsibility for treating poverty as if they believe society to cause poverty.

Using the thematic frame induces that individuals are not responsible in causing poverty nor are they treating the dilemma. Brickman et al. call this „medical“ model of responsibility (Brickman et al., 1982). Furthermore Iyengar concludes that in the individual frame poor children and unemployed men are likewise neither causing nor treating the responsibility for the poverty they live in, while single-mothers are more likely to cause and treat the poverty they are facing. Last but not least elderly widows show a relatively high level of individual causal for responsibility and a high societal treatment responsibility. Iyengar addresses this fact to Brickman’s scheme where individuals are seen as causal but not treatment responsible agents.

Answer to research question

My research question is whether different frames of poverty used in news media presentations engage different obligations and therefore induce other political actions. To answer this question I will divide it into two parts. The first part consists of whether different frames of poverty used in news media presentations engage different obligations. From the above presented paper we can deduce that the answer is yes. Iyengar shows that it matters how media coverage of poverty is framed to influence society’s opinion on who is responsible for poverty. The thematic frame induces an opinion that society is responsible for poverty while the episodic frame leads to the attitude that the poor themselves are more likely to account for poverty. How liable someone is seen to be for poverty depends on the person reported in the television news concerning an episodic frame.

The second aspect of my research question is, whether different opinions of who is responsible for causing poverty induce other political actions. This needs some more research to give a clear cut answer to the question. In this blog post I can just deduce that other political policies might be regarded by society concerning whether a person is seen to be liable to poverty. One way of testing this is to ask the participants of Iyengar’s experiment questions due to further political implementations.


Brickman, Philip, Karuza Jr., James, Coates, Dan, Cohn, Ellen, and Kidder, Louise (1982): “Models of helping and coping.” American Psychologist 37: 368-384.

Iyengar, Shanto (1990): “Framing Responsibility for Political Issues: The Case of Poverty.” Political Behavior, 12(1), 19-40.

Kahneman, Daniel, and Tversky, Amos (1982): “The psychology of preferences.” Science 246: 136-142.

Kahneman, Daniel, and Tversky, Amos (1984): “Choices, values, and frames.” American Psychologist 39: 341-350.

2 thoughts on “Framing poverty in television news. An analysis of the paper “Framing Responsibility For Political Issues: The Case of Poverty” by Shanto Iyengar (1990)

  1. Gosh. This topic aroused my interest so much so that I had to search for the reference paper.

    I think this blog post set the research background real clear and also clarified the concepts in a concise and readable manner. However, due to limited space, the analysis of the experiment seemed a little bit short. And the answer to research question after the conclusion seemed a little bit strange to me. Shouldn’t the conclusion be the last part?

    I think the analysis of the experiment would be the most “juicy”, intriguing part. Many questions could be asked about the design and the results of the experiment. Think you must have had fun doing that~ LOL


    1. Thanks for your commets Ivy=)

      You are true conclusion should be the last part of a paper. In the paper I wrote the last part is called conclusion. Becaus of the struture of the post I just inserted some keywords to structure the text a little bit. That’s why the last part isn’t called conclusion in the post.

      Yeah, it was really funny to read the experiment and the design of it.


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