Washington Monthly’s T.A. Frank has written a provocative commentary
on how hard it is to write about “our stuff” in a way that generates
readers, interest, and policy progress. He’s writing about one
columnist in particular, but the point applies to a broad set of
writers – especially DC think tank professionals writing for
policymakers and print media. The article’s title is pointed: “Why Is Bob Herbert Boring? The perils of punditry for the powerless”.
Frank makes note of the fact that Herbert is often right – and he’s
on our “team”. Yet, being right is clearly not enough. Using Frank’s
measures, no one pays much attention to what Herbert writes, even
though he is on the New York Times op-ed page and there’s hardly a
better platform anywhere. Why not more readers and impact? Frank
concludes, in part, that Herbert adds too many stats to his stories
about real people. Because Frank notes, it is hard, though not
impossible, to interest readers in “the lives of those less fortunate”.
Sadly, history and science make a compelling case that most of us are, indeed, hard-pressed to give a damn.
In the 1960s, the economist Thomas Schelling performed research
demonstrating that people are more likely to be moved by single victims
than by statistics. In 2005, the psychologists Deborah A. Small, George
Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic found the limits of human compassion to be
even more irrational and constrained. In their study, students at a
university in Pennsylvania were paid five dollars to complete
questionnaires on technology. Enclosed with the questionnaire was a
seemingly unrelated letter soliciting donations to a hunger relief
organization in Africa.
The study’s first conclusion was what the researchers had expected:
people are more compassionate when they are told about a specific
victim. When respondents were asked to donate money to help feed a
seven-year-old African girl named Rokia, they contributed more than
twice what they did when just confronted with general statistics on
But then things got surprising. When Rokia was presented with the
statistics, the donations fell by nearly half. Worse still, when the
authors asked one set of subjects to perform mathematical calculations
and the other set of subjects to describe their feelings when they
heard the word “baby,” the subjects who’d done math gave only about
half as much to Rokia as the ones who’d thought about babies.
Apparently, just thinking analytically makes us stingier. The authors
of the study concluded that “calculative thought lessens the appeal of
an identifiable victim.”
That’s bad news for Herbert, who’s fond of specific tales paired
with statistics. Penetrating the sympathy barrier of readers is
possible, but it generally requires a lot of words and time, and a
columnist is restricted to 700 words twice a week. Even worse, op-ed
pages are by nature tilted toward argument. Surrounded by analysis, a
column that seeks our compassion is already in unfriendly soil.
Frank doesn’t quite make it to my next point – one that complicates
Herbert’s (and our) dilemma still further: Sympathy isn’t what policy
entrepreneurs should aim for anyway. (For much more on this point – see
our recent report by Matt Nisbet and Meg Bostrom’s research.)
So, if you cannot use data easily, and using real people’s stories
inelegantly leaves writers stuck in the ineffective sympathy zone –
what should we do?
This is the question we try to answer daily at The Mobility Agenda.
Every time we talk to media, write a report, give a speech, talk to
an advocate or community organizer or academic (basically whenever we
communicate!), we’re thinking about our audience and how to share
information in a style that changes the outcome. Because we’re tired of
spending time writing stuff that’s published and then ignored.
We know how to write in ways that reach an audience that already
agrees with us. Frank gives well-deserved plugs to Jason DeParle and
Katherine Boo. Reading these two has always inspired me to write more
and try harder. Yet, it’s not clear that even the very best writing
about real people moves readers to support progressive policy change –
especially when it’s about poverty (or welfare!). It apparently does
serve to energize the already persuaded (like me) to do better and
more. But, in fact, it’s increasingly apparent that focusing media
stories on the poor hasn’t resulted in enough support for the policy
we, or Herbert, or presumably Frank, think would work to address
Part of our answer: talk about ALL OF US, not just some of us. A
fundamental problem for so many advocates for the powerless is their
focus on the powerless as a distinct, and somehow different demographic.
This approach isn’t working. Taking one of Frank’s specific examples
- it shouldn’t be that hard to write (or talk) about a federally
supported initiative to expand access to health care. It should be
obvious to everyone after the recent health care debate: describing
programs as “for” the poor leads to arguments about who is poor enough. That’s not the debate we want and it doesn’t lead to the policy result we believe in (affordable, reliable, quality health care for everyone) anyway!
It’s definitely time for pundits (and the rest of us) to try
something new. Instead of using our precious energy, time, funding, and
media real estate to talk to the already persuaded, let’s get the
persuadable to join us. Now we just have to figure out how to talk