Pandemic Response: Part 5 Virus as beast or crime 3 Why episodic and thematic framing matters

There’s a 2011 study in which researchers tested the effects of framing crime using the metaphors of either crime-as-virus or crime-as-beast. Participants in the study read one version of the story below:

“Crime is a {wild beast preying on/virus infecting} the city of Addison. The crime rate in the once peaceful city has steadily increased over the past three years. In fact, these days it seems that crime is {lurking in/plaguing} every neighborhood. In 2004, 46,177 crimes were reported compared to more than 55,000 reported in 2007. The rise in violent crime is particularly alarming. In 2004, there were 330 murders in the city, in 2007, there were over 500.”

It reflects the distinction between episodic and thematic framing: encouraging us to either see crime as a single event (beast) or as a wider issue (virus)1.

It is now 2020, and the very model of a thematic frame—the virus—is itself an episodic frame. 

Why does it matter?

Episodic framing is a single story, not a trend. It is often sensational and senseless: it obscures causes. It is a useful way of framing for maximum impact (at least in Western societies)2 and narrows our focus to reactive responses. Beast framing of crime, which individualises and isolates the concept, encouraged participants to suggest more punitive responses: capturing, enforcing, punishing.3

Episodic framing leads us to

describe chronic problems such as poverty and crime not in terms of deep-seated social or economic conditions, but as mere idiosyncratic outcomes.4

Thematic framing asks us to zoom out from the single story. Instead we are encouraged to see the system and the trends. Virus framing of crime encouraged participants to look for root causes, diagnose, and treat or ‘inoculate’: find solutions such as better education and healthcare. Thematic framing is ill-suited to our current media models: long-term trends and analysis are viewed as less arresting. This framing is, however, better suited to progressive, long-term, and systemic responses.

What does this mean for now?

In an earlier analysis, we at PIRC noted the frequency of war and crime metaphors being used to describe the current pandemic: we could just as easily think of the language of invasion and threat as relating to a beast:

As coronavirus has invaded the world …”

…’defend the city’ against coronavirus.”

Classic episodic framing.

When crime is described as a beast, we are more likely to want increased police forces.5 Can we similarly connect thinking of the pandemic as a beast or our situation as wartime with our current acceptance of increased police presence?

Episodic framing asks us to see this current pandemic as an isolated, senseless event, obscuring the fact it’s something we should have been prepared for. It shifts the blame from government to individuals: (so-called) panic buyers, people in parks, the implicit responsibility in the constant emphasis on handwashing. It means we are less likely to want to seek out the root causes for the severity of the impacts of the virus (such as austerity, structural inequality or our own eating habits).

Thematic framing, on the other hand, gives us the space to highlight the role of a critically-underfunded healthcare system, a hostile environment to migrants that deprives our workforce and causes divisions in our communities, and an economic system that incentivises just-in-time stocking of both supermarkets and hospitals.

What should we do?

Avoid individualising

Episodic framing relies on us thinking of individuals and isolated events, so try to:

  • Avoid talking about individuals–whether handwashing or heroic healthcare workers–where possible: instead try talking about community responses,  communities of healthcare workers, unions. “We have pulled together before, we are doing amazing work now; we can do so again.”
  • Avoid talking about the pandemic in isolation: instead, talk about epidemics and pandemics as trends, recurring events over time, that we can prepare for.

Avoid mythbusting

George Lakoff tells us that repeating a frame, even to negate it, strengthens that frame. So we should avoid trying to dispel myths of panic-buyers: it encourages panic-buying and keeps us in an episodic frame.

Emphasise causes

The very frame we have around a virus lends itself to thematic framing: we broadly understand that viruses spread depending on the conditions, we can develop immunity to many viruses, and that they are complex and society-wide. Many communicators have already been highlighting these factors, but we should try to:

  • Emphasise causes. As far as is sensitive and appropriate, remaining supportive of our healthcare workers and communities, we must continue to make the case that the causes of the current response to the virus are based on a failed economic system and an underfunded healthcare system in particular.
  • Build the case for immunity (later). We are still in the middle of the pandemic, and it is not yet time to talk about the world that follows. But as we emerge—damaged, grieving for those we have lost in this time, and profoundly changed as a society—we must also build the case that we could build some immunity for the future by having a better prepared, better funded, more proactively functioning healthcare and wider social system.

Uplift missing voices

There are many voices and stories missing from the current pandemic narratives such as the particular impact on prisoners or the lack of fanfare for medics of colour. We must build a thematic narrative that allows for the true complexity of the issue. This is a moment in which to highlight the multitudes of our system.

Show don’t tell

We need to think creatively about how to talk about systems: they’re hard to grasp, and it’s much easier to focus on individual stories. But we are in an unprecedented moment in which our interdependence is so incredibly visible. Can we step up to it?



  1. Thibodeau, P.H. and Boroditsky, L., 2011. Metaphors we think with: The role of metaphor in reasoning. PloS one, 6(2).
  2. Hook, S. W., & Pu, X. (2006). Framing Sino-American relations under stress: A reexamination of news coverage of the 2001 spy plane crisis. Asian Affairs: American Review, 33(3), 167-183.
  3. Thibodeau, P.H. and Boroditsky, L., 2011. Op. cit.
  4. Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Thibodeau, P.H. and Boroditsky, L., 2011. Op. cit.


  1. Lilit Poghosyan

    Hello dear colleagues at PIRC. Thank you for this useful guide. I was struck to see reference to ‘our eating habits’ described as root cause of pandemics in line with ‘structural inequalities’. It does sound like blaming individual choices rather than governments and other power structures and contradicts the key message of that paragraph. Wouldn’t it be better and more accurate to say ‘industrial farming’ instead?

    • Elena Blackmore

      What a great catch, Lilit! You are so right – this framing falls into exactly that trap 🙂 Thanks for pointing this out.

  2. Mary Zuckerman

    This is an extremely interesting article


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