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Matthew Sanders: Reframing the debate

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Visitors to to the historic Boston Commons often ask about the curious windows in the brownstone homes surrounding the park. You see, many of the windows have an odd mix of purple and clear glass panes. The lavender-hued glass mystery would be easily solved by consulting a local. The Bostonian would likely take some pride in explaining that the lavender-hue is an artifact of revolutionary-war era glassmaking quirks.

From the inside of one of the windows Occupants peering out the different glass panes would see the park and downtown Boston in dramatically different shades. A short walk away and a 60 story elevator ride would put the visitor in the observation deck of the John Hancock tower. Naturally, the Commons framed from almost 800 feet up looks dramatically different.

Across the Charles River from Boston at the Harvard Kennedy School students are taught that debates, issues, and perceptions can be likened to frames that people see them through. Political activists and operatives often speak of “owning the frame” or “framing the debate” or "shifting the frame" to mean altering the view of the audience to see the issues more in line with a particular agenda.

Over time, if a voice, organization or community can frame an issue, debate or public view through a particular lens, it shapes how individuals, institutions and societies think, believe, and act. In the political and public relations arena, there is a constant tug-of-war over the frame of a particular issue or story. So, where is a family to turn for information grounded in historically and data validated principles? Where can they turn to see clearly how agendas have shaped issues and debates? Here, we hope.

Who might be looking for the insight we hope to provide in this column? Let's imagine a husband and wife, forty-something parents of three children living in a comfortable neighborhood near a major U.S. city. Here are three scenarios they will wrestle with in the coming year:

Debate 1. On a drive to the grocery store the father is heartsick because one of their children viewed pornography on a library computer and has lost some light in his eyes. Where do they stand in battle between free speech and the need to protect children? What information and arguments will help convince their government representatives to think of their 11 year old son when forming policy?

Debate 2. The couple runs a small business servicing cooking equipment in restaurants and school cafeterias. Time spent complying with new FDA regulations and increased taxes will shrink their profits immediately. As they discuss their budget, they are forced to reduce college savings contributions for their children. How can they help their representative support policies that favor personal prosperity over government control?

Debate 3. The husband receives a call on a business trip from his concerned wife. Why? Because she's received a note from school outlining the sex education curriculum sent home with their teenage daughter that includes advocacy for behaviors, lifestyles and practices that conflict with their values. How do they understand the tensions between religious freedom and civil liberties? How can they advocate for their child in a debate gripped by adults?

In each case the couple encounter a debate cleverly framed via artful press relations and activism to favor the tenets of permissiveness, secularism and public control. But where are the arguments that match their belief in family, faith and free enterprise?

With a healthy dose of civility mixed with dashes of compelling data, time-honored principles, and lessons from history my hope is to help readers see clearly how issues have been fit into a purple, clear or birds' eye frame. And my hope is to give them the tools and arguments to reframe the debate as they see the need. I look forward to the endeavor and your feedback and suggestions, as there will undoubtedly be aplenty.

Matt studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is General Manager at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect contributor network and Deseret News Service syndication services.