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.