Brooke Gladstone recently wrote a blog post called “Combatting ‘Compassion Fatigue’ and Other Reporting Challenges.” In the post, Gladstone takes on the old problem that, in journalism, “one death is a tragedy,” and “a million deaths a statistic.” This is one of the oldest framing problems that there is — the choice between an episodic and a thematic framing of a story.
Episodic stories are simple, emotion-laden stories about individuals. These stories are very attractive because they are easy to think. As Standford University Political Science Professor Shanto Iyengar puts it, “Episodic frames focus attention on individuals; it is easier to see cause and treatment in the person depicted than in the context.”
Thematic stories, by contrast, concentrate precisely on that larger context. They zoom out and examine the complex environments and networks of people and influences that lead to a particular outcome.
The civil rights movement provides a clarifying example. In the common episodic telling of the story, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march to equal rights for African Americans. This story is simple and memorable. We can picture the face of a great man and, in our minds, move seamlessly from before to after; from problem to solution. It’s a fine story, but it’s not the whole story.
The same story told thematically tells a number of interrelated stories that involve multiple spokespeople, groups, and tactics. It is a story of concerted collective action between civil rights groups, churches, students, and everyday people working together to end political, social, and economic inequality. This movement led to a crowning piece of legislation in 1964, which set the stage for a the next phase of the struggle which continues today. This story requires a bit more work to write and a bit more thought to understand, but in many ways it is a better, and in a sense, truer, story. (Critics of thematic storytelling’s accessibility should note the success of television shows like The Wire).
Episodic stories may be easier for journalists and media producers to tell, and easier for audiences to think. But the problem is what people take away from these stories. Episodic stories put the burden of cause and solution for a problem on an individual — oftentimes an individual that we see as having nothing to do with our own lives.
Iyengar found in his study that, “People exposed to episodic coverage of various issues – crime, terrorism, poverty, racial inequality – tended to attribute responsibility for these issues to individuals rather than institutions or broad societal forces.” Poverty, for instance, “was viewed as a consequence of human laziness or lack of initiative; crime as a manifestation of anti-social personality traits.” In the broader public discourse, the easy story can be a dangerous one.
Iyengar found, however, that when these same people were exposed to thematic frames, responsibility shifted from individuals to political and social institutions. This is a key shift for communicators. While effective legislation and programs can be created to deal with the problems of communities and societies, they tend not to be created for the problems of individuals. It’s essential that advocates who want to impact real social change start learning how to tell compelling thematic stories.