Prediction: Implicit bias will hijack this well intentioned documentary

I recently had the chance to view the documentary, Resilience: The biology of stress and the science of hopeby Jamie Redford and Karen Pritzker.  The film aims to explain research findings on how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can produce toxic stress that can have long term effects on health and well being.

It is understandable that early childhood experts and advocates (who have been working for years to get public policies to keep pace with developmental science) would be excited about this film. In fact, many of my clients have spoken to me about their plans to host screenings of this film in their communities. I’m telling them not to. Here’s why.

In short, my concern is that the film provides endless opportunity for implicit biases about race and poverty to be reinforced, and offers no specific, actionable policy-based solutions (of which there are many). I actually don’t fault the filmmakers for this – I attribute it to the widespread misuse of traditional storytelling techniques in communications about social problems. What are traditional storytelling techniques? Those that focus on characters, both victims and heroes, to the exclusion of contexts. In the case of Resilience, the victims of toxic stress are almost entirely poor children and families of color, and the heroes (with a few notable exceptions) are white teachers, principals, therapists and scientists.

If I had a dime for every time a client said to me, “But we have to tell the story of the people we serve – to make their voices heard!” And if they had a dime for every time I responded with, “But you must understand the entrenched racism in our culture, as well as the default tendencies toward personal attribution of responsibility, and what challenges that creates for your communications!”

The biggest mistake the film made was in not connecting the dots between historic, systemic, institutional, policy-driven inequities and the current circumstances of those portrayed. Instead, the film started the conversation with the question, “Why are children in THESE neighborhoods doing ok, but children in THESE OTHER neighborhoods, not?”  Sorry – but unless you truly tell the story of how those neighborhoods got to be, then you leave audiences to believe the problems were created by the people who live there. And we know that’s not the case. Policies and institutions have contributed to and promoted disparity. If we want to solve these serious problems, we need to focus the lens on those policies and institutional practices, not on their victims. We need better stories about us, about what we have done and failed to do, culturally and politically.

So, instead of community screenings of this documentary, I would recommend community book groups that discuss Richard Rothstein’s, The Color of Law. And sharing far and wide the terrific Fresh Air episode with Rothstein.



“The Hell of American Day Care” – What’s wrong with this frame?

The cover article of the April 29 issue of the New Republic, authored by Jonathan Cohn, is titled, “The Hell of American Day Care: The Shady Business of Looking After Our Kids,” and has been finding its way, repeatedly, into my social media feed. The investigative piece examines how we have come to a child care “system” with wide state-by-state variation, to put it mildly, in regulations and safety procedures. It offers a historical perspective, as well, on political efforts and social changes that have impacted the development of child care in America. There is a lot to admire in and learn from this piece.

It is also instructive from a framing perspective; its narrative structure presents some challenges in terms of how non-experts are likely to reason about the causes of and solutions to this “hell of American day care.”  If you ever took Journalism 101, you would be familiar with “5 W’s…and sometimes an H,” the concept that stories are complete when they explain the Who, What, When, Where, Why…and How of an event or incident. This piece follows that structure:

Who is this about? Kenya Mire

What happened? A tragic fire at the day-care she’d chosen for her 20-month old daughter, Kendyll, that also killed three of the seven other children there that day

When? February, 2011

Where? Texas

Why? The center director had left the children alone and unsupervised, and the fire started in her absence

How? Directly: Sub-standard regulations and inspections of day care. Indirectly: Lack of public will for the prioritization of quality day care for American children.

This structure also reflects what political scientist, Shanto Iyengar, refers to as an episodic story – one that focuses on an individual case or event. His (and others’) research tells us that when social problems are portrayed with episodic stories, non-experts are far more likely to attribute responsibility for solving the problem to the individuals portrayed – not to policy or public action.

Fortunately, Cohn includes “…and sometimes an H.” He tackles the How with highly contextualized explanations. He presents readers with a historical lens on the issue of child care, so that we have a much better understanding of how we’ve arrived at the child care we have today. He also shows how the system we’ve got was not built in ways that reflect what the science of child development tells us promotes optimal development.

The problem is that all of this great context comes after the organizing frame – the personal tragedy of Kenya Mire – has been vividly set-up; lay publics are likely to think the problem so dire, so widespread (it is titled, after all, the “Hell of American Day Care”), that the best we can hope for is that parents become more informed consumers in the child care market.

We have a presumption, from journalism and from traditional PR, that personalizing news stories about social problems will arouse public support on behalf of those portrayed. But political and framing science shows us that the opposite is true.

That’s why, in my own work, I encourage experts and advocates to work within a different narrative structure, one that answers different questions for their audience, and which makes the public or civic dimensions of issues more visible. I’ll call it, “2 W’s and always an H.” Why does this matter? What‘s the problem or challenge and How can it be solved? When you start with an explanation of Why instead of Who, you give your audience a wider lens on the issue and a stake in its resolution. This template also requires communicators to connect the dots between the problem (the What) and the solution (the How).  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give real life examples of the consequences of the problem  – it just allows you to set in motion a different interpretive storyline, to paraphrase Matthew Nisbet, one that is constructed as shared, not personal, from the get-go.



On framing for emotional connection: portraits v landscapes

I came across a delightful video of local musicians from Portland, Maine that was made in honor of Playing for Change Day, a global initiative promoting music education. In it, local artists and music students are filmed (by local filmmakers!) in different locations around the city, singing a beautiful and, if I do say so myself, terribly catchy tune. [the video is embedded at the end of the post]

Why am I writing about a music video on an advocacy communications blog?

Because it made me think about the power of emotions in forming impressions, something I spend a lot of time helping advocates sort out how to do effectively in their communications materials and campaigns.

A typical strategy in social issue communications is to “hook” people or get them to “emotionally connect” with an issue by telling a personal story of someone affected by, e.g.,  poverty, lack of health insurance, etc . As I’ve written before, this strategy tends to backfire because drawing a portrait obscures the landscape of situational and structural factors at play.

It struck me that this video has no problem with making an emotional connection, but it doesn’t depend on the portrait strategy. It certainly could have – it was crafted to honor a day of social action to bring music into the lives of children. One can imagine the creators opting for a personal story of a child who benefited from a particular music education program.

But the creators opted instead to characterize a landscape. The video emotionally connects by evoking values of creativity, collaboration, of mentoring young people. Further, by connecting these values quite explicitly to place, not just Portland writ large but its specific neighborhoods, parks, schools and local businesses, it communicates that these are the values we share, this is who we are. This is the landscape here.

Advocates often tell me they worry that widening the lens to show context will sacrifice emotional appeal. But landscapes aren’t impersonal, they can reflect culture. And culture is deeply felt.

I hope this video helps advocates think about other creative ways to frame the landscape – who we are as citizens and how we want to envision ourselves. Because that is really at the heart of effective issue communications.

Oh, and get this – this video was posted just a few days ago and has received over 11,000 views!

Shout out to the Maine Academy of Modern Music and its partners for this terrific work.