How not to tell a social change story: Make it personal!

Today on the front page of the NYTimes is the embodiment of how NOT to tell a social change story* about class:  Two classes: Divided by ‘I Do’.  The thesis? Unmarried households are increasingly the norm and may affect the future of children. Readers are told a compelling story of the personal histories and daily lives of two women, one married and doing well, one single and struggling to keep herself and her children out of poverty. For those framing social problems with the hopes of improving support for public policy, this kind of storytelling is not only ineffective, it is likely to hurt your efforts.

Why? Because we are far more likely to think about personal causes when making sense of others’  problems or behaviors.  In other words, we are more likely to blame individuals for their fates than we are to generate situational explanations for their actions or problems.  As Skitka et al. explain,

“personal attributions are the default or automatic inference people make for the causes of others’ behavior, and these inferences are only corrected when people have sufficient cognitive resources and motivation to do so…” p. 485.

So, when the only view into a problem we have is someone’s life story, it reinforces this tendency toward personal explanations.

And you want to know something else? There seem to be partisan differences in the tendency to make personal attributions about political issues, with conservatives tending to blame poverty on self-indulgence, and liberals tending to blame poverty on unjust social practices and structures (see Skitka et al., above; but also Haidt, J. 2012). This particular story aligns perfectly with values of individual responsibility and self-reliance, which are strongly endorsed by conservatives. There is virtually nothing explicit in the story to suggest anything structural is a cause – liberals might connect those structural dots in their heads given their tendency to consider social justice, but from a framing perspective, those dots are implicit, most people won’t see them.

What might issue experts who communicate about complex social problems learn from this?  You need to give your audience a reason to reconsider the default tendency toward personal explanations, and to think about situational explanations.

In the Times story, the author does not provide us with any motivation to consider situational explanations for the life course of this single mother. In fact, she is quoted as saying she blames herself for the “choices” she’s made. In addition,  the author makes little more than passing reference to the father of her three children, and notes that, “She has had little contact with the children’s father and receives no child support.” If this were a draft of a piece written by a low-income advocacy organization and I were asked to provide feedback, I would recommend giving readers more information about that state of affairs. Is it because he has no obligation for child support? And, if so, for what reasons? Might there be a problem with collecting his child support obligation? And, if so, why?  That is just one piece of the story that could be reframed to make clear some structural or situational drivers of the child support problem.

Much of the work I do with advocates is to help them make explicit in their communications the situational explanations they know too well about social problems. The framing in the Times piece is not an anomaly and is instructive – situational stories will not be relied on to reason about social problems unless we tell them, explicitly.

(*Note: I realize the journalist was not necessarily intending to tell a social change story – my comments are to illustrate, for those who do intend to tell such stories, the problems with this kind of framing.)

How do communications campaigns impact public opinion?

That’s a real question. I’m curious to know what policy advocates and experts think and know about campaigns:  Why do we engage in them? What do we hold campaigns accountable to? An electoral win? A change in public opinion? A riling up of the base? Because just about everywhere I turn I find research that confirms that news consumption ain’t what it used to be, and the present information age should require a rethinking of traditional communications campaigns.

In sum, the academic literature is clear that media audiences consist of smaller, politically or ideologically affiliated subgroups who choose their media sources, and so can also choose to avoid news sources that don’t reinforce their opinions. So, as news engaged folks exercise greater choice over both the content of messages they want to hear and the source of their information, media effects on public opinion become increasingly difficult to produce or even measure (see Bennett and Iyengar, 2008, for a great review of and interpretation of existing research on media effects).

This may be why volumes of research have produced very little evidence of large effects on public opinion from electoral communication campaigns – findings quite out of sync with the amount of time, effort, and money spent producing and disseminating campaigns.  And, as Bennett and Iyengar note,  “the small effects that can be teased out of massive electoral communication campaigns are not so large as to persuade many conventional political scientists that advertising accomplishes little beyond catching up inattentive citizens on otherwise available information” (2008, p. 14).  Yet small effects are sometimes all a campaign needs to win.  My question is whether we should at least question our belief in the necessity of packaged campaigns to changes in public opinion. Perhaps we should spend more time thinking about other methods of public engagement with our issues that may be more cost effective and produce similar, or even more productive, results.

Relatedly, what some scholars such as Bennett and Iyengar want to know is, given the marginal effects of electoral communication campaigns on public opinion, can the constant barrage of tedious messages have deleterious effects on politics writ large? Can the content, process, and professionalization of political communication campaigns actually contribute to disengagement, mistrust in politicians and elected leaders, and other unfortunate opinions that undermine an engaged citizenry?  That’s a really important question we should grapple with.

There is good news in the political communications literature, however. Other researchers (see Althaus and Kim) have underscored the importance of cumulative exposure to particular news content, not just of short-lived exposure to news content (such as you would find in an electoral campaign). In other words, they have found larger effects on public opinion from stories that are consistently in the news and reach a variety of news and information sources.

The lesson here? The more you engage the public with your issue, the more opportunities they have to consider the story you’re telling, recognize it in public discourse, and, perhaps, understand it as part of the cultural story that is being told about your issue. While short-term campaigns can produce marginal effects on public opinion, a long haul, long-term strategy may produce greater effects. The difference is between winning the fight (marginal effects that can tip an election) and winning the war (true changes in public understanding of your issue).

*Note: Davey Strategies is off the grid for a couple weeks, but will be back in swing mid-September.