Tag Archives: media

How we see what we ‘know’

Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a linguist, because I’m so fascinated with framing and the power of language to shape our understanding of our world.

Of course, I’m interested not objectively or academically, but from my perspective as one who hopes to use language to influence how people see, think about, and, subsequently, work to change reality.

So, I guess, in retrospect, I’m in the right line of work after all.

I recently reviewed Diana Kendall’s Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America for use in my advanced advocacy practice course (we’ll be reading a selection this semester, although I may use it more extensively in the future, with our revised course syllabus), and I am struck by how much of our ‘knowledge’ is mediated through the lenses through which we get our information: primarily social relationships/networks and mass media.

And, of course, information shapes not just what we ‘know’ (despite the title of this post), but also what we feel, which, for the purposes of prompting action, is probably even more significant.

We know that frames matter. They make sense of the world around us. They draw our attention to certain elements of a situation at the expense of others. They change how what’s inside the frame appears.

And, as the book illustrates with tons of examples (known to many readers, probably, but, because I am a notoriously non-consumer of popular media, were not familiar to me), the way we see poverty–and, just as importantly–wealth, is definitely ‘framed’.

When it comes to rich people, Kendall identifies six frames:

  • Consensus (wealthy people are just like us, which serves to diminish the role of class demarcations)
  • Admiration (they are generous and caring people)
  • Emulation (the wealthy (as a monolithic class, no less!) personify the American dream
  • Price-tag (the wealthy believe in the ‘gospel of materialism’ (p. 29))
  • Sour-grapes (they are unhappy and dysfunctional)
  • Bad-apple (some wealthy people are scoundrels–which, significantly, frames the system that produces wealthy ‘bad apples’ as working, if not for these rogue actors, instead of correctly situating the problems primarily within the structures that incentivize greed)

We absorb these frames and, importantly, we reproduce them, too. The news reports on the stock market even though very few Americans own stock, instead of reporting on how to obtain unemployment benefits, far more useful to most during the past several years. And we take that as normal, even as a ‘given’. In nonprofits, we exalt the philanthropy of our wealthy donors instead of questioning a system that produces some with so much. We fawn over ‘rags to riches’ stories because they seem to give credence to our stubborn belief in an American dream that has largely vanished. We console ourselves that we ‘know’ wealth, and what it means, through our supposed identification with fictional or far-off wealthy people, and so we are less cognizant of the corrosive effects of extreme concentrations of wealth on our very national existence.

And, of course, we frame poverty, too.

We focus on individuals, leading many casual news consumers to believe that, inexplicably, people are repeatedly making the bad choice to live in dangerous neighborhoods, go without health care, and send their children to inferior schools. We shake our heads but may not connect the dots. Conversely, when we zoom out to focus on statistics, hunger and poverty can seem like numbers games, instead of cruelties with very real consequences. Sometimes, because poverty doesn’t fit any one reporter’s ‘beat’, and because it doesn’t lead nicely to conclusion at the end of the column inches, we just ignore it. We especially fall into patterns of frames when writing and talking about mothers receiving welfare. Almost without exception, they are lazy, hyperfertile, childlike, or bad parents…or all of the above. We overemphasize incidences of poverty among people of color, because that’s what–and who–Americans think of when they think ‘poor’. We link poverty and deviance, often ignoring the ways in which following the rules can lead to the same tragic outcomes.

We frame the working class, even when we’re not at all certain what that is or who belongs there. Those who work for a living but fail to get ahead are shady–as is often the case with portrayals of organized labor–one-dimensionally heroic, caricatures, or on a downhill slide in the new economy, outwitted by technological change. Their human failings are treated differently than the wealthy’s, because they don’t have money to fall back on to cushion the consequences of their bad decisions. And, notably, media representations of working-class and working-poor individuals tend to be about them, rather than with them–notably missing is any real effort to include their own voices, hopes, fears, or opinions in the coverage.

Which leaves, then, really, the middle class, largely defined in terms of its position relative to other classes: aspiring to spend as much as the upper classes, disdainful of those in poverty, alternately aligned with or competing against working-class Americans who may be their neighbors or even their family members.

I read the book, as usual, through my lens of motherhood, in addition to my social policy perspective, thinking about how my children will come to understand who they are and where they fit and how distorted those pictures are in our highly unequal economy. I hope that, for my students and my own kids, raising questions about why we think we know what we’re seeing, and how the filters at work affect us, at least raises the right questions.

And, maybe, moves us to write our own stories.

Crowdsourcing Week: Infographics

This is what I’m talking about–The United Nations Foundation’s International Women’s Day Infographic, used with permission

Today is my last post for crowdsourcing week.

Next week, I promise I’ll be back to trying to add some actual value, instead of just asking (nicely, I hope) for help from you generous souls.

But I saved the most fun for last, I think.

Because who doesn’t love some totally awesome infographics?

I know that I do, but I also find their creation a bit daunting.

I love my text, and parting with copious amounts of words, when trying to convince others of some really important truth, has always been difficult for me. I have learned, over years of advocacy, that more doesn’t equal better, when it comes to advocacy and word counts, but the visual angle has always been more of a challenge.

But there are so many tremendously effective infographics in the advocacy world today, and they are a (maybe rare) example of a fad in communications that seems to also be a true improvement over previous methods.

A good infographic can say just as much as a fact sheet (unlike those photos with a catchy saying on them), but in a way that is more visually appealing and increases the likelihood that people stay with you long enough to really get what you are saying.

So what I’m crowdsourcing today is your infographic love. What are your favorite examples of infographics for social change? What makes an infographic compelling, to you, and what turns you off? How do your nonprofit organizations use infographics as part of your communications strategy, particularly around your advocacy goals? Do you craft infographics differently for internal audiences (your Board, your volunteers, your clients) than for your external targets for change?

How do you produce infographics? Do you have internal capacity to produce them, or do you rely on hired graphics help? If the latter, how do you organize your information so that the graphics communicate it effectively? Beth Kanter has terrific resources for producing infographics easily yourself. If you go this route, what has worked well (and not) for your organization? What lessons would you share? Who, specifically, within your organization is charged with this type of communications work–do your policy advocates create the infographics with which they want to communicate with allies and targets? Or do advocates get in-house communications folks the data they need? Or do you work collaboratively?

I would love to see your own examples of infographics that you have created for advocacy, and I would be forever indebted if you’d be willing to actually share some of the back story, too, since that’s what’s missing from the examples I can find online. What prompted the creation of a particular piece? What was the compelling advocacy need that motivated it? How was it received? Did it undergo various revisions before you found the version that really worked?

Thank you, crowd, for all of the assistance this week.

I owe you. A lot.

Thank you gifts: Wonderful Stuff to Share

This week is my blog-a-versary, or whatever you’d call that, so today’s post is just great stuff that I want to share.

I am grateful for you, and for what you’ve allowed me to do over these past four years, and, well, I like to share cool things.


  • The awesome women at MomsRising created the coolest online advocacy tool I’ve ever seen this year for Valentine’s Day. You could create a Valentine to send to your members of Congress, asking for stronger gun control laws. And, as you’ll see, you can ‘decorate’ it electronically, making it the perfect advocacy project for, say, a 30-something mom and her 4.5-year-old daughter who loves hearts and sparkles. THIS is how you do advocacy with parents, people–asking them to take 3 minutes to do something fun with their children that teaches critical messages about social change. They’re going to the top of the end-of-the-year donation list again.
  • This American Life really outdid itself with the two-part series on Harper High School in Chicago. I am, actually, a TAL fanatic, guilty of using up almost all my data minutes just for streaming TAL on my phone, but this feature on the impact of gun violence on teenagers in Chicago, and on a school in particular, was extraordinarily gripping. It provoked an extra 3 miles on the treadmill because I couldn’t stop listening. Yes, that good.
  • I get posts from epolitics delivered to my email inbox and, while I don’t often share them here, because it’s a bit beyond the niche of this blog, I’m really fascinated by the research analyzing the role of social media and online engagement in shaping how Americans do politics, today, and what that means for all of us, tomorrow. Plus, it helps me understand what wonky tech people are talking about.
  • IREHR, always good for a buzz kill. On Kansas Day this year (yes, there’s a day, people; we celebrate it in school), my good friend Lenny was asked to speak about racism and anti-Semitism in Kansas history. And that’s what makes him, and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which he heads, so important. They remind us of the parts of ourselves we’d rather forget, so that, in remembering, we have a chance to overcome. More than a few times, he’s pointed out how a given politician I’m trying to build an alliance with is a radical with ties to white nationalism. On a road trip once, he pointed out a Christian Identity trucking company. It’s a big burden to carry, this immersion in the nasty sides of everything, but he does it for our own good. And I’m grateful.
  • The award for best email subject line ever goes to Communities Creating Opportunities’ 2013 Covenant for Families initiative, which sent me an action alert this spring titled, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” That is an awesome use of the prophet Isaiah. Even better is what they’re doing to engage people of faith in social justice work, now across the state of Kansas, where we can use some woe-bringing.
  • Having a great state representative is pretty terrific, really. I am so glad to call Representative Barbara Bollier my elected official. She’s smart, hard-working, and not afraid to take stands on controversial issues. She’s also extremely accessible and quite selfless. Yes, there are still really good people willing to run for office. And I’m glad.

Is there anything you’d like to share, in the cause of well-wishing? The only thing better than my list of wonderful stuff is that list with yours added to it.

“I Am Kansas.” When the Advocacy Goal is just: Change the Conversation

I would be delighted to be wrong on this one, but I think we’re going to lose, quite a bit, in 2013.

On the immigrant rights front, from which I cannot extricate myself even if I try–I know the stories too well to be a dispassionate observer to the injustices on those front lines–it could be a very, very ugly year.

But that doesn’t mean that our only option is to bang our heads against the wall, or–heaven forbid–just to sit down and take it.

If we think about the entire framework of advocacy, and all of the different avenues that are available to us, then new arenas for change open up.

Maybe the Kansas Legislature won’t be a very fruitful venue for progressive change in 2013 (THAT was as nice a way of saying that as I can possibly muster!), but we can still think about engagement with the public, media advocacy, research and policy design, and community mobilization, among others, as paths we might take.

It may even be that, sometimes, direct policy change isn’t even the ‘end’ towards which our means are directed, at least not in the short-term.

It may be that what we need to do, and the ends towards which we are aimed, is to change the conversation, to begin to bring a fuller complement of ‘our’ issues into the dialogue, and to include a better representation of the voices that matter to us.

That’s essentially the thinking behind the “I Am Kansas” campaign, launched by an organization with which I’ve worked over the years, as part of a ‘welcoming’ initiative.

It’s about highlighting the contributions of immigrants, normalizing their experiences, and counteracting some of the negative and misleading information that is pumped into the debate, in order to artificially set the parameters of acceptable policy approaches.

This isn’t just ‘loosey-goosey’ touchy-feely stuff about helping people get to know each other better.

I tend not to get too into that.

It’s intentional, and it’s linked to a theory of change and a whole psychology of policymaking decisions, that holds that people are more inclined to be comfortable harming, through policy, those who they consider to be the ‘other’.

If immigrants are ‘us’, though, then our policy options are a bit more limited.

If we can change the conversation, and change the tone, then we change the context in which policies are enacted, and stopped.

And, then,

we can start winning again.

Truth and the cult of objectivity

This is going to be one of those not-quite-fully-developed posts, where there are just too many ideas in my head to say something terrifically cogent. As usual, that’s where you all come in.

But my core message (in case it doesn’t come through clearly!) is this:

We can’t let our obsession with objectivity, and our equation of it with “fairness” or “even-handed treatment”, obscure our search for truth.

I thought about this the other day when I was internally railing against coverage of our nation’s ongoing immigration debate. I was reading yet another article that quoted some immigrant students’ stories of their own lives and hopes for meaningful reform in the coming year, followed by a few quotes from a restrictionist group about how the “pro-illegal immigrant” groups were hoping to blackmail members of Congress with electoral threats related to the 2012 elections and the rising prominence of Latino voters. Or some nonsense like that–I kind of stopped reading.

And it reminded me of part of The Race Beat, where some of the reporters charged with covering the civil rights movement found it increasingly difficult to do so to their editors’ satisfaction, because the issue had crystallized to such an extent that, truly, there wasn’t a legitimate “other side.” In their quest to provide the balance that their newsrooms demanded, they were giving voice to actors who truly didn’t have a real place in the debate, morally or politically. I mean, people of color were being killed for trying to register to vote, and we’re somehow supposed to give credence to an alternative explanation–something other than the evil of racism? Really?

I’m not arguing that we’re in exactly the same place with immigrants’ rights. I don’t get into the “whose injustice is worse?” game. Ever.

But I do think that we’re beginning to find ourselves facing some of the same quandries, at least with elements of this debate. Who do you find who is a legitimate voice arguing that amazingly bright and hard-working immigrant youth should be rounded up and sent “back” to a foreign country? Who represents the “other side” in a question about how we should handle the deportation proceedings of mothers with young U.S. citizen children? Where do you put a shrill nativist voice clamoring for sealed borders and harsh detention conditions? And why can’t we have this national conversation without including them?

Truth obviously means being open to inquiry, curious about alternative views, and willing to engage in an earnest dialogue, including with people who disagree with us. But, in order to fuel the knowledge on which we rely for those conversations, I just don’t think there’s any rule that we should have to try to give equal time to those whose views masquerade as opinion, when they are really dangerous attempts to dress hatred up as dissent.

Objectivity is just not necessarily a virtue.

Our values are a valid lens through which to view our world.

And giving more attention to those voices our values compel us to heed does not mean that we’re so hopelessly biased that we cannot think.

That might make me a terrible newspaper editor.

But I think it serves me fairly well as a seeker of truth.

Building a Better Frame

*I’m still on maternity leave, and, so, reposting some of my favorite posts from the last two years of Classroom to Capitol. I’ve tried to pick out a mix of those that attracted a lot of attention at the time and those that are just personally meaningful to me (and, I hope, to some of you!), and I’ve also updated them, in some cases, with some new questions and information. Thank you for your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

Speaking two languages has been very helpful to me in many aspects of my life, and my social work practice. Certainly I could have never been an organizer and advocate within the Latino immigrant community without being fluent in Spanish. And now, even removed from that community on a daily basis, I find abundant opportunities to use my Spanish, not just to interpret while waiting in line at the pharmacy to pick up medicine for a sick kid (although that happens quite regularly), but also because there are so many things that can be said more eloquently or emphatically in one language than another. My husband, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, has fully accepted these idioms in our family life.

But speaking another language has also been helpful for me in my thinking about language itself, how we communicate, and how messages gain resonance and power. It helps me to think about how people are excluded from power by virtue of what their history or social place hasn’t provided them in terms of context. And it helps me to think about how we can use language to accomplish the kinds of shifts in public opinion and understanding that we need in order to push forward a social agenda more consistent with social work values.

A few months ago, I participated in an advocacy training session on media and messaging. While they are connected for the sake of calendar simplicity, they’re of course quite separate exercises (or should be!). In order to succeed in messaging, we must learn to see media coverage as just what it is–the media through which our established frames can seek dominance in the realm of ideas. Those health care advocates, and, indeed, many of us, are sometimes baffled by the ways in which our accepted frames fail to gain real traction in the common discourse about a certain issue. Often, it’s because we haven’t paid enough attention to how people are already talking about something, or because our messages aren’t framed in such a way as to resonate beyond our own circles. I strongly believe that we have to get better at this. Those of us who are committed to redressing such ills as growing income inequality, rising child poverty, sustained pockets of economic desperation, entrenched injustices for women, people of color, and other groups in society are still not winning the critically important battle for ideas, and this is where we need to focus our energy, in the same way that those opposed to our interests have invested decades and millions of dollars in shaping the way that we think, and talk, about the social problems we face.

An example to convince you of the importance, and then some lessons on framing.

If I would have mentioned ‘the death tax’ 20 years ago, you would have had no idea what I was talking about. “Taxing death?” “Who would do that, and why?” “What on earth do you mean?” Here again, if you were not familiar with English, you would be similarly confused–trying to translate ‘the death tax’ into Spanish is an unsatisfactory exercise. But, indeed, ‘the death tax’ is precisely how the conversation was shaped about the tax on the largest U.S. inheritances, giving this very rational, and modestly progressive, public policy a taint that suggests that the long arm of the U.S. government is reaching into the pocketbooks of the dead and grabbing their last dimes in a final insult. A truly successful adventure in framing, and one that should serve as a challenge for us–how can we ensure that social work values similarly pervade public discourse on a host of issues, from tax policy to economic support for low-income families to child welfare to health care to HIV/AIDS to immigration?

Some of my thoughts, some of which have been sparked by my reading of expert framers like George Lakoff:

1. Don’t use the ‘other side’s’ language—it picks a frame
2. Framing=using language that fits your worldview (so you have to know what this worldview is)
3. Framing has to be about ideas, not just words (if not, you’re just coming up with soundbites, and that’s always going to come up short–our challenge is to use words to shape how people think, not just how they talk–although changing how they talk is a good place to start)
4. People think in frames, not facts—if your facts don’t fit your frame, they won’t believe your facts, but once your frame is accepted, everything you say within that is ‘just common sense’—the battle is won!
5. With framing, your goal is to activate your model/frame among those in the middle (you’ll never convince your extreme opponent, and with your nearest allies, all you need is media to carry your message to them–they’re already predisposed to believe it!)
6. When we lack a clear frame (especially progressives), we overcompensate with extra words—this is a sign of weakness and partially explains why we lose; social workers are particularly notorious for this, because we can always ‘see all sides of an issue’–that’s nice, but framing is not the time or the place for nuances; we need to pick a frame and stick with it!
7. We win when we talk about values and connect with others’ core values without having to sacrifice our own frame in pursuit of common ground. If they get you to abandon your frame, they will have won even if you win the tangible victory (b/c frames shift thinking and attitudes, which is what wins over the long term)
8. Start with values, not facts or issues–we have to find a place to connect (family, liberty, justice…and then how does your particular frame on this issue fit those values?)
9. Repetition, repetition, repetition—people won’t remember where they heard it, but they’ll remember it! (Think of the Doublemint Gum commercials or any parallel from your youth–in framing as in marketing, you get no bonus points for innovation, only for dominance)
10. When interacting with media, always reframe to your perspective before answering—if you answer in their frame, you won’t even have a chance to communicate your real message. Midwesterners have a particularly hard time with this, so you may need to practice this so that it doesn’t feel rude or unduly awkward. Remember, they have to print/quote/use something, so if you only say things that are consistent with your frame, then that will come through by default!
11. Build stocks of effective stories with your frame built in, and work them into every opportunity to talk about the issue–every example you give and every picture you paint with your words needs to be pulling people towards the same, common frame.

I want to hear–what, in your opinion, are the most important frames in public discourse about the social problem(s) that are your particular focus? Who is responsible for driving them? How might you reframe where needed? Do you have a social problem with which you’re especially struggling with a frame? Leave it in the comments and we’ll think together about how you might frame it!

Are we there yet? Evaluating Media Advocacy

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to get through this fairly short document–there are times when hundreds of interruptions to pull apart stubborn Lego pieces are really not that conducive to efficient processing of information!

But I’m glad that I found it, and read it, because it is a pretty simple way of framing something that we should always do but rarely get done (kind of appropriate, then, hunh?):

Craft a clear, measurable, strategic plan for how we intend to communicate about our desired social change, and then (drum roll, please…)

Actually see if it’s working!

When I work with students or advocates about their social change goals, “influence public opinion” or “educate the community” often feature prominently among their objectives. And I always cringe a bit, honestly, because those are so vague and loose and ‘squishy’, the kind of goal that sometimes never gets done.

This guide, produced by the Communications Network, which is, itself, supported by a group of high-powered foundations, has some really commonsense stuff in it. So, you know, the stuff that we should know but never take the time to think about?

Here are some of the highlights, with some examples that really resonated with me. It’s a quick read, though, if you don’t have to fast-forward through the ‘scary’ parts of Curious George videos, so check it out.

  • You need a communications plan. Yes, I know, “duh”, but you DO. Start there; the end of this guide has some good resources if you need help.
  • We need to be constantly monitoring the environment regarding our issues–both because that’s how we figure out where to set our benchmarks and how we should begin to respond, and also because we need a baseline. This means looking at public opinion surveys, reading letters to the editor, looking at our web traffic, tracking phone calls and other organizational contacts in some kind of systematic way.

    STOP. If you’re not already using Google Alerts to monitor mentions of your organization and/or your core social change issues, please start RIGHT NOW. It’s another one of Google’s totally awesome services that you can’t afford not to use (because it’s free).

  • It’s not enough just to say that we want more people to be ‘aware’. We have to ask ourselves why we care that people are aware, and what we want them to do with this awareness–change their behavior, seek policy change, become champions? We need to layer qualitative messages over quantitative ones here, so that we know not just how many people recognize, for example, our organization, but also what they understand about what we stand for. We have to remember that the easiest analytics are usually the least meaningful.
  • If policy change is what we seek (and it is, right? right?), then we need to pay attention to shifting the discourse. This is where communications connect to advocacy and the need to create our own windows of political opportunity. They used the example of an organization measuring the use of the term ‘undocumented workers’ rather than ‘illegal immigrants’ as a way to know when they were succeeding in changing the conversation about a particular topic, and, therefore, potentially opening some space for policy change.
  • Figuring out if what we’re doing with communications is likely to get us to our ultimate goals around policy change requires connecting our messaging to our theory of change–essentially, we’re measuring proxies for our real success, but these kinds of interim measures are how we can assess midstream in order to make changes where needed.
  • If we’re researching which messages connect with which audiences, then we’re MUCH more likely to actually speak the way people will be able to hear. Message matters, and figuring out the right one can put your reform over the finish line (“death tax”, anyone?).

    It reminds me a lot of my work on immigration policy. Those of us closest to the issue thought that our “best” argument was around immigrants’ economic contributions. So we’d trot out these figures about how much more immigrants pay in taxes than they receive in benefits, and right around the time we got to quoting the National Academy of Sciences, people’s eyes glazed over.

    They don’t care. Not much, at least. Those are numbers they’ll never meet and never trust.

    When we, as a coalition, conducted extensive research on the messages that did move people around immigration, it wasn’t about economics. It was about values. When we talked about how immigrants love this country so much that they sought it out, that they care about their families and their faith and want the American Dream that has motivated immigration to this country for generations, that’s when people started to nod. They know those people. And they just might like them.

    We need to count those nods, whether they’re online or on TV or in a town hall or on the editorial page; figure out how to get more of them; and adjust our communications strategy (because we have one now, right?) accordingly. There is a war over words, and it’s one we need to win.

    Are We There Yet?

    Media Evaluation Project