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Are personal stories too personal? How to influence more progressive criminal justice media coverage

Penelope Gibbs
20 Jul 2019

“Journalists are only interested in case studies”, “people who have lived experience are the most powerful communicators about social issues”, “real stories are what people remember”. As a former radio producer, I recognise that people are most easily engaged by individual stories but, as a campaigner for policy change, I am now much more wary about their effect.

Four years ago Transform Justice, in partnership with Clinks, the Criminal Justice Alliance and the Standing Committee on Youth Justice, embarked on a journey to discover how to make our messages about criminal justice reform more effective. We found that many of our usual approaches were not hitting home or, worse, were counterproductive. The hard lessons were delivered by the FrameWorks Institute, a pioneering NGO which applies a scientific, evidence informed approach to communicating social issues. One of their strongest messages was about individual stories – that they were powerful but could both harm the individual and the cause.

The challenge is that individual stories can become just that – too individual, and thus divert people from thinking about and understanding social context and policy solutions. This is shown by research published in 1991 by Shanto Iyengar, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. He compared the effects of television news reports which focused on specific individuals, events, or cases (“episodic” reports) with “thematic” news reports that placed political issues within a general context.

Professor Iyengar found that participants shown episodic news reports involving individualised depictions of social problems were less likely to consider society responsible and more likely to consider individuals responsible for the problem. People who were shown the episodic news reports were therefore less likely to support calls for policy change.  When we view content through the eyes of an individual, we’re more likely to connect personally and see the need for personal rather than policy change.  Whereas when stories were framed around a theme without a human angle, viewers were more likely to support policy change.  For example, in a study on poverty, Iyengar found that participants who viewed television stories featuring specific homeless individuals (episodic framing) were much more likely to blame poverty on individual failings such as poor motivation or inadequate skills, compared with those who watched stories about high national rates of unemployment or poverty (thematic framing; Iyengar,1987).

Media depiction of childhood obesity also illustrates the point. Pictures and stories of obese children are often used by newspapers, magazines and TV to get people’s attention and create impact. But unfortunately they seem to backfire. Academics found that the “individualised” depictions led to lower support for obesity prevention policies and more blame directed at the children and their parents.

In the case of those who commit crime, the public already has a strong “rational actor” belief – that people make an individual, rational decision to commit crime by weighing up the chance of being caught and the punishment they’d receive versus the benefits of doing the crime. The belief in individual responsibility also permeates many stories about rehabilitation – that people who “choose” the right path turn their lives around, while those who reject the support available fall by the wayside. This framing excludes the influences of society and systems, but the rational actor belief is strong. We need to navigate our audiences away from anything that might trigger that belief.  This is particularly challenging when we promote and use individual stories in print, on TV or in presentations.

FrameWorks recommend contextualising individual stories so viewers/readers of the stories understand the social, environmental and health factors that contributed to X or Y committing crime and the systemic policy changes that would help prevent crime, and support people to turn their lives around. FrameWorks suggest; “making context a character in the story… in work designed to increase support for public policies that more fully support [the USA’s] aging population, we found that stories with context as a character—where systems, resources and policies both cause and can help address problems—were significantly more effective than individual, close up, ‘episodic’ stories that were void of social and systemic context”.

Using personal stories is challenging, for advocates and for those with direct experience themselves, who are often pressured by the media to bare their soul. Research really helps us understand whether and how to use them in advocating for a more progressive criminal justice system.

If you have any examples you’d like to share with us of the use and misuse of personal stories, or to join the conversation about reframing, get in touch at @TransformJust1 or [email protected]

Read more about reframing crime and justice here.