Using Changes in Framing to Figure Out Where to Focus Attention

I have so much writing backlogged I need to get a few quick hits out to clear the logjam.

Here’s a good example of a statistical false frame that’s visual enough for a slide.

It says “Washington Post” on the bottom there, but of course the Washington Post version lacks the “presidential term” markers.

When you see a framing has been added like that, it’s wise to think it through what has been added and whether its accurate. And of course with a little thought you’ll hopefully ask why if it covers one year of the Trump presidency and eight years of Obama the boxes of their terms are nearly equal in size? (Weird, right?) If you’re particularly adept you might ask why Obama’s term begins in 2007, which I seem to remember as the Bush presidency, though honestly I was drinking more back then, so who knows.

It’s worth asking it our “T” move (Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context) works here, since the original graphic doesn’t settle the questions of what economy Obama inherited in 2009 or what economy he left us with. I think you could point to the context the article adds around the charts as useful (2017 figures are before Trump tax cuts and before his first budget). Still, it doesn’t give the answer to you outright, you’re going to have to think it through, and you *could* come to the same conclusions without going to the original context first.

But what the trace does in this case is it shows students where to look. By calling attention to what’s been added, removed, or altered, it focuses their thought in the right area. Show a student the initial graphic and say “Hey what’s the problem with this graph” and you’ll get a flood of answers — Is it inflation? How do we know they each caused this? It starts at $50k, it’s a bad axis! (students love this one). Going to the original context and looking at what has been altered solves the students biggest issue: where to focus their thinking first, given a bewildering array of options.


Since people asked, here’s the modified image with the real terms of office:

Note that even this is a bit unfair; most economists would say that the influence of the President on the economy (to the extent there is one) is felt through the mechanism of the budget and associated tax policy, and that does not get passed until the fall of the first year, with the tax policy going into effect for the following year. If you shift that, of course, then there is no part of this graph that is Trump budget, and the graph looks like this:

It’s also worth noting that if you go to the article there is plenty there to critique the Obama economy over — there’s pretty broad agreement that it’s surprising wages have not increased given the strength of the economy, and economists point out that the effects seen here are probably not pay raises at all but due to increased employment (e.g. if one spouse got cut to part time in the recession and can now get full-time work, household income increases, but rate of pay does not).

2 thoughts on “Using Changes in Framing to Figure Out Where to Focus Attention

  1. Fun exercise for students: Grab the Washington Post graph and drop it into PowerPoint. Add a tick mark for each year (easy-peasy: draw lines through the 2007 and 2017 points, then add nine more lines and use Distribute Horizontally to space them evenly). Then draw three eight-year-wide boxes and put them on the graph for the Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies, remembering that each started the year AFTER his election: 1993, 2001, and 2009. (Trump’s box would of course start right at 2017, so he’s irrelevant on this graph.) Hmmm…does the graph seem to tell a different story now? And then of course you can discuss all the OTHER factors this purely correlational analysis doesn’t deal with!

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