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Tackling charged topics with humanity

Tackling charged topics with humanity

  Humans are riddled with unconscious biases and preconceived notions of what is right and wrong. It is why facts […]


Humans are riddled with unconscious biases and preconceived notions of what is right and wrong. It is why facts don’t change our mind. In particular, a charged, or pejorative concept such as poverty, tends to provoke strong reactions. When you read or hear the word poverty, it triggers an emotional response, because it unconsciously taps into nearly all of our moral foundations (in particular, fairness/proportionality). 

Depending on your particular cocktail of moral foundations, you will create narratives based on your biases; from ‘Compassion fade’ (The predisposition to behave more compassionately towards a small number of identifiable victims than to a large number of anonymous ones) to ‘Just-world hypothesis’ (The tendency for people to want to believe that the world is fundamentally just, causing them to rationalise an otherwise inexplicable injustice as deserved by the victim(s)). These are universal human biases, not unique to any one group or type of person.  

Yet it is vital we find a way to explore a concept such as poverty in a productive, meaningful way, to move beyond a fatalistic understanding to one where it is a solvable societal issue.

How do we tackle communications around poverty then if every human brain is wired to have pre-conceptions? One answer is to find the human experience bigger than the topic, and centre the story on that. The universal story of the people themselves, beyond labels.

This is the approach Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) took in creating the documentary film series ‘This is Poverty’ with Connected Pictures. JRF works to reframe the public’s understanding of poverty away from individual blame and towards the systemic and structural designs that hold people back. They also want to widen the lens of how people ‘see’ poverty. The picture of poverty is very diverse, and within it is a multitude of stories and scenarios that everyone can relate to. Luke Henrion, Strategic Communications Manager at JRF explains “we need a step change in the public’s understanding of poverty, to really build compassion and a sense of injustice towards what people go through. Finding the universal human experience is key to that understanding, compassion and call for justice.”

Prioritising authenticity

A classic pitfall of storytelling around such difficult topics, and those with people who are struggling, is the aforementioned ‘helpless victim-narrative’ (think 90’s charity fundraiser ads).  Fortunately we have come a long way in people understanding the importance of ‘victims’ or particular groups telling their own story, redefining their own narratives, rather than have it set-up or explained on their behalf. JRF refer to this as working with people with real life experience. Sarah Campbell, Head of Participation and Advocacy at JRF highlights “if we’re doing a film called ‘This is Poverty’, then it has to be the people themselves saying this is what poverty is, not someone else’s idea of it.” Melanie, a contributor who took part in the film, expands “I don’t think people believe in what they hear until they see it or experience it. I know I didn’t.”

Yet changing narratives is not as simple as involving relevant individuals, it is also in the space and energy created alongside those individuals to tell their own story. Tracey, another contributor laments traditional media misses this point: “People are blindsided by the way the media portrait poverty.” Alana Avery, Head of Operations at On The Road Media, a charity that, working with JRF, helps in changing the narrative on poverty, explains that “We need to shift blame away from the individual and look at the structural issues and the systemic issues.”

A key technique to ensure people can confidently tell their own story is ‘framing.’  JRF uses this approach to change narratives, guided by the Frameworks Institute. Framing refers to the subtle selection of certain aspects of an issue in order to cue a specific response; as many researchers have shown, the way an issue is framed explains who is responsible, and suggests potential solutions. Luke explains “our framing strategy is about what you say, how you say it and also what you choose to leave unsaid, to avoid triggering negative mental shortcuts….for example there’s a cultural model (a way people think), which is this idea that a certain group of people, based on the communities they live in are more likely to make certain choices or bad choices. That’s not the case, so we really try to avoid triggering that concept in our communications. Instead, we talk about options that are open to people rather than the choices people make.”

Building trust 

For the human story to transcend the baggage of a concept such as poverty and avoid triggering those unhelpful biases, a triangle of trust must be established between the filmmaker, the interviewees, and the audience.

Initially, a strong level of trust with the contributors must be created. Vulnerable individuals may not necessarily have had positive media experiences before or may have learned to avoid or divert during interviews due to low trust. Sarah tells us sourcing contributors who have a connection with the charity and a certain level of existing trust is critical. Fostering authentic passion for telling their own perspective is something all the contributors flagged as a reason to partake, Melanie explains:

“I participated in the film as I wanted to educate the wider public on how you can’t necessarily see poverty in the traditional format of people wearing rags, living on the streets. Poverty can affect anyone and everyone regardless of background and education.”

Sarah expands: “when we work directly with people, with experience, the biggest issue that comes out time and time again is stigma.” Being asked to participate in creating their own narratives, reliving negative experiences can double down on an already negative narrative identity. It reiterates the stigma, or can validate a sense of responsibility. Alana adds; “They feel almost, potentially retraumatized.” Gently approaching a subject such as poverty is critical. Ensuring the space is created to self-transcend a negative or traumatic experience, where people can confidently talk about their feelings.“Unless you create the space for that reflection to happen, ask someone on the street, you’ll just get a knee jerk reaction. And it won’t be as, in depth and reflective.” Sarah adds. Affording contributors this psychological safety is critical to unearthing the true emotional experience of living in poverty.

Extending trust

Then, we must create a sense of trust between the story and the audience. When we trust, we are open to new ideas. Only when we trust the story can our compassion be awakened. We know two specific brain regions were actively engaged in experiments on trust. Increased activity of the medial prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum. Crucially, the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with how we perceive another person’s mental state and monitoring what’s happening outside our current focus of attention. It plays a role in decision-making as well retrieving and consolidating memories. That sense of authenticity and belief between the storyteller and the audience is our gateway to awakening empathy.

Trust is an adaptive mechanism essential to building social relationships, yet we are more inclined to trust people who are similar to us in some dimension. It is why diversity is key – we need to empathise with someone like us. We can then find the common cause. Luke explains “the contributors are diverse but at the same time, the emotional experience of poverty has so much commonality that comes through in what people experienced, the effect that has on their wellbeing, their energy, their ability to get on and live their lives freely, prosper. We will have those shared aspirations.” Diversity and universality of experience have to weave together to allow the audience the space to connect with the topic and empathise with those telling their stories.

Contributor Ashley summarises this goal perfectly – “I hope that it helps deepens and broadens people’s understanding of poverty, so they have a more accurate picture.” 

Having an impact

Storytelling on a charged concept such as poverty deserves the delicacy of this approach. If we are to change perceptions we must know about and navigate the existing biases, we must change narratives, tackle internal identities and build trust. 

Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt summarises the problem well; “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”It is the story of humanity that will shine a light on good people with something important to say.