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.
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.
We identified 4 main value-based audiences that became the foundation for this work. Key audience-based findings include:
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
We identified 8 dominant narratives for poverty and economic mobility through this approach. Some other key narrative findings include:
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.
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:
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.