According to cognitive scientist George Lakoff and others, a frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking. For example, the word elephant is a 'frame' that evokes the image of an elephant and what one already knows about elephants. As Lakoff says in Don't Think of an Elephant, the elephant frame includes a very large animal, large floppy ears, a trunk etc., and any of those words or phrases may also evoke the elephant frame.
Framing is the way issues are packaged--using words, phrases and visual cues carefully selected to trigger proven responses in their hearers. The reputation of the communicator is also an important cue in this process.
Gregory Bateson first introduced the concept of framing in the 1950's; it was then picked up by Milton Erikson and others interested in psychology, as well as by the sociologist Erving Goffman. The discoverers of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), Richard Bandler and John Grindler, made use of it in the 1970's also. It has since influenced theory in communications, linguistics, and cognitive science, among many other fields.
The Center for Communications and Community at U.C.L.A. (http://uclaccc.ucla.edu ) makes a valuable distinction between two types of framing in the mass media: episodic (a story about an incident happening to one or more individuals) and thematic (reporting that places public issues in the broader context of general conditions or outcomes).
Another way to describe thematic reporting is that it shows that the misfortune of one or more individuals represents the exploitation of a whole group of people (tenants, workers, would be voters, or at risk youth, for example). It makes plain that their reactions are caused by unfair or unjust (or illegal) conditions, set in motion by the behavior of powerful others. This kind of new thematic framing is also a vital way to counter the all too pervasive American 'blame the victim' frame, especially when it comes to news about poor or oppressed people.
Re a bit more on frames, Lakoff's favorite political example of neocon framing, the sound bite 'tax relief,' combines two frames, 'tax' and 'relief,' to create a new frame. The new frame is also a metaphor, since it describes one thing, 'tax,' in terms of another, 'relief, ' and suggests a little story-- that is, taxes are an unfair pain from which you deserve relief! (This one is also a 'tweak' of a slogan familiar to Americans-where have you heard 'Get relief fast' before?)
This framing metaphor works because no one actually likes to pay taxes; it really is painful. However, thoughtful people recognize that it is necessary for the common good. But that is a secondary response. The first reaction is 'ouch.' And if 'tax relief' gets repeated often enough, it starts taking up important space in our minds.