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#Narratives

Exploring the terrain of deeply held narratives about how the world works, what matters, and what’s possible.

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Media systems have become outrage machines. They sort people into partisan echo chambers. They reproduce and reify divisions and differences, in ways that threaten the conduct of civic life and make advocacy work — even around immediate, life-or-death issues, like pandemic response or climate — virtually impossible. Advocates, organizers, and storytellers need new approaches to reach the right people in a way that interrupts the escalation in othering, alienation, and violence, and makes it possible to envision and work together to realize a positive pluralistic future.

The new Narrative Observatory @Harmony Labs aims to inform these much needed new approaches, solving some of the technical, definitional, and practical challenges bedeviling narrative and cultural strategy. Made possible with generous initial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this first-of-its-kind data tool is already being used by dozens of organizations to navigate today’s media minefield and reach the public on issues that matter.

At the heart of the Narrative Observatory are opt-in audience panel data, donated by companies like Comscore and Nielsen, giving us a window into how 300,000+ people in the U.S. interact with media, across platforms and devices. Which means that, unlike existing media monitoring tools, we’re able to focus on analyzing the actual media actual people engage with rather than on total tweets or all articles or bot traffic. Using these audiences as a foundation, thanks to media content data donated by partners like TVEyes and PeakMetrics, we analyzed over 500,000 online news stories, 1,000,000 tweets, and 600,000 TV airings, between January 2020 and May 2021, to understand audiences relative to their place in culture and to identify, measure, and track narratives within audiences over long time scales. For the first iteration of the tool, we’ve focused on the narratives of poverty & economic mobility in the U.S.

A Values-based Approach

The Narrative Observatory’s data infrastructure connects insights and analysis about values-based audiences to the story patterns or narratives that affect how audiences understand and engage with social issues and the future.

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We identified 4 main value-based audiences that became the foundation for this work. Key audience-based findings include:

  • Because each audience has fundamentally different values, even if they share the same beliefs about the causes of poverty, they are likely to have different attitudes about it, and different perspectives on possible solutions.
  • Using the universal human values framework of Shalom Schwartz means there are intrinsic relationships between values that allow us to see “neighborhoods,” or opportunity zones to bridge differences — and hopefully over time — heal some of these real and perceived divides.

Narratives of Poverty in Media and Culture

To our audience panel data, we join terabytes of content data: TV transcripts, online news articles, song lyrics, YouTube video transcripts, etc. This allows us to look across media types for patterns in the actual content people are choosing to consume, and identify and measure narratives that inform their understanding of issues

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We identified 8 dominant narratives for poverty and economic mobility through this approach. Some other key narrative findings include:

  • Most of the media content people interact with daily does not concern poverty or economic mobility.
  • News is the place where people most often engage with the issue of poverty and economic mobility in media.
  • Most content about poverty and economic mobility doesn’t feature people as protagonists, and people experiencing poverty almost never feature. Ultimately, there is no “north star,” or healthy narrative that exists in the current narrative landscape.

The Stories People Watch and Share

We subjected relevant media artifacts to an additional layer of qualitative analysis to surface important story opportunities, threats, and strategically important features. Drilling down to the specific stories, we attach both the audiences who have interacted with them and any narratives the stories trigger. HlabsNarObsrv4.gif

These individual story examples can be leveraged as inspiration at the beginning of the creative process to better understand the cultural worlds our audiences already inhabit so that media can be more effectively designed to reach into these places. Key story findings include:

  • Different audiences go to the same places to consume the same stories. In some cases, these can be opportunities to bridge divides between people with different core values and in other cases, they can be seen as threats to audiences vulnerable to mis- or dis-information or other forms of persuasion.
  • By observing the content audiences are already choosing to engage with, media makers can build hypotheses about the kind of content that’s likely to resonate and start testing everything from world building, to character development, to story sequence, tone, and aesthetics, before full content production begins.

Built for the Public

The Narrative Observatory is a first-of-its-kind public interest data resource for anyone using narrative or cultural strategy. It’s already providing storytellers, strategists, advocates, and funders deep insight into audiences as they relate to narratives and story threats and opportunities.

We invite you to explore the tool and share your feedback. We’re aiming for monthly updates, and we are in the process of expanding it to additional issues beyond poverty and economic mobility. Follow this space or get in touch for future updates.

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