When words let us down

Habitat loss vs. habitat destruction

A Government official once said to a friend of mine, who is a professional conservation communicator, “It’s so sad that we lost the Christmas Island pipistrelle* [a type of bat]. If only we had acted earlier.” My friend couldn’t help replying with a touch of sarcasm, “You lost it! Where was it last time you saw it? Maybe I can come and help you look.”  Then with a more sombre tone he then said, “Seriously mate, don’t you mean you and the Government allowed it to become extinct?” This simple reframe took the conversation on a very different trajectory to one of personal and governmental accountability, versus simple regret about an awful situation.

In a similar vein, I’ve recently began asking publishers to avoid using the term ‘habitat loss’ in any text associated with my images. ‘Habitat destruction’ is fine, but not ‘habitat loss.’


It has to do with a concept called ‘framing.’ Not the type we generally associate with printing photographs, but communication framing. Put simply, language matters, and often subtle word choices (or frames) can make a big difference to how a message is perceived by the reader, and the mental map they apply to understand information and make decisions.

Let’s look more closely at ‘loss’ versus ‘destruction’ frame through the simple example of my friend’s car keys.

I ‘lost’ a friend’s car keys once. I didn’t mean to – it was an unforeseen accident. Sure, it was inconvenient and annoying, but I don’t think anyone would suggest there was some type of moral culpability; I’m not a ‘bad’ person because I lost them. It was a simple accident, and who knows, I might actually find them again, and so the loss could be reversed (although not the irritation my friend felt at the time).

What if I’d deliberately destroyed the keys, or allowed someone else to? It would have resulted in the same outcome – no car keys – but I’d suggest my friend would have viewed the situation very differently.

Similarly, the danger with using the frame ‘habitat loss’ is that it infers it’s just an accident; that no one could foresee it, and so no one is really to blame or morally accountable. But we know that’s not the case.

Using the term ‘habitat destruction’ however reframes the situation more as foreseeable or more deliberate, and so starts to hold the people who caused it, or those who allowed it to happen, morally accountable. It also reframes the situation more towards being preventable.

Think about these two phrases for example:

‘Australia is losing its native forests’

‘Australia is destroying its native forests’

Same outcome (i.e. no forests) but very different frames and ways to think about the issue and what is going on.

What is framing

So what actually is ‘framing?’

As we all know, the world is cluttered with complex issues. To help make sense of it all, people build a series of mental filters called ‘frames.’ These ‘frames’ effectively help people simplify complex issues, by placing a greater weight on some considerations and arguments, rather than others. They can also lead people to respond very differently to identical data. Importantly, these frames are not consciously manufactured, rather unconsciously adopted in the course of any communication processes.

Applied deliberately and carefully, ‘framing’ can be used as a powerful influencing tool to focus perspective, to influence opinions and attitudes, to motivate or persuade people, and to shape the lenses through which communication passes. In short, framing can help or hurt our efforts to address conservation problems.

The broad concept of framing can be traced back over 30 years to work in psychology, sociology, cognitive linguistics and communication. The psychological origins lie in the experimental research by Kahneman and Tversky, for which Kahneman won the 2002 Noble Prize in economics. Together they developed ‘prospect theory’ and using heuristics and biases established a cognitive basis for common human errors.

The most popular use of framing however is generally in political circles, and was made famous by renowned University of California linguistics professor Dr. George Lakoff, for his study of framing national issues with language. A classic example he highlights in his work is how the U.S. Republican party reframed ‘tax cuts’ as ‘tax relief’. The ‘relief’ frame reinforces the Republican worldview that taxes are an affliction that everyone would want relief from, and that the Republicans were the party to eliminate these. A clear case of how frames emphasise what a person will focus on when developing their opinion.

There are several different types of frames. One type can be called a ‘Concept’ or ‘Issue’ frame. These frames can define a problem or expectation, attribute blame for the problem, make a moral appeal to fix the problem, and propose a solution. Another type of framing that is similarly powerful and worth considering is ‘equivalence’ framing. In these cases the same information is presented but in a different way, to elicit a different understanding, belief or response.

Interestingly, even reframing time has been shown to influence behaviour.

A study about superannuation showed that people were more likely to add to their savings if time to retirement was framed in days versus years – the idea being the concept of a day connects you more with your future self than that of a year. e.g. “You only have 20 years until you retire” is less powerful than “You only have 5,300 days until you retire.”

Coincidentally, I was speaking to Tim Flannery (author of ‘The Weather Makers’) recently and I asked him, “How bad is it regarding climate change?” He replied, “Some aspects of climate change are already irreversible without the use of yet to be developed carbon negative technologies. We’ll never have another ice age. With current output, within 12 years we’ll be committed to 2° C warming.”

Thinking 12 years was alarming enough, when I reframed it to “…in under 4,000 days unless we do something…”it just seemed more powerful (and well, depressing if I was to be honest).

A case study

In 2003, when SmartPower, a non-profit based organisation in Hartford, Connecticut, wanted to determine how best to promote its ‘environmentally friendly energy’, it completed its own naming-and-framing research via nationwide polls and focus groups. Interestingly the research showed there were not only too many names for ‘environmentally friendly’ energy in the marketplace (clean, green, renewable, alternative), but that the consumer perceptions of what was essentially the same product varied greatly, purely because of the way the product was framed.

‘Renewable’ was considered a technical term for industry experts with an unclear meaning. ‘Alternative’ implied that you had to make a lifestyle change that people weren’t comfortable with, while ‘Green’ connected the concept to the Green Party and associated the product with broader political implications.

‘Clean’ was found to have the best perception, and now more than a quarter of the state has joined SmartPower’s Clean Energy Communities program, pledging to receive 20% of their power from clean sources by the end of the decade (2010).

And when you think about it, that probably makes sense. Most people who care probably want clean energy first and foremost.

Final thoughts

Research shows that framing is an incredibly powerful influencing tool that impacts much of what any of us do as soon as we even start thinking about an issue, let alone communicating it outside our own mind. All information exists within a frame of some kind, and there is no way to present information that is devoid of a frame.

As people passionate about conservation, it’s important to always consider how information is framed and can influence the impact of our communication. Whether we choose to try and strategically ensure the best frames are applied to our images (and indeed all our communication), or to simply ignore the idea, how the issues are framed will nevertheless influence their impact. If we choose to recognise the power of framing and use it purposely, there’s a better chance our conservation stories and messages will have a far greater impact on our audiences.


I have attached a spread sheet that I update frequently on potential reframes. It is available here as a pdf. 

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