Media advocacy in the age of Trump

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After reading a recent Washington Post article titled, "Why Trump may be winning the war on 'political correctness,'" it struck me just how much our organization, Berkeley Media Studies Group — and countless other groups similarly dedicated to social change — is caught in the crossfire.

The Jan. 4 article reports that "in the 2016 Republican presidential primary season, 'political correctness' has become the all-purpose enemy. ... [I]t is the explanation for seemingly every threat that confronts the country: terrorism, illegal immigration, an economic recovery that is leaving many behind, to name just a few."

Others argue, and I would agree, that "growing antipathy to the notion of political correctness has become an all-purpose excuse of the inexcusable. ... [I]t has emboldened too many to express racism, sexism and intolerance, which endure even as the country grows more diverse."

Or, as the subheadline for author Alyson Cole's take on this issue for Slate reads: "Let's be honest: The war on p.c. is really a war on minorities and others who dare raise their voices in protest."

But has Trump's impact on the public discourse reached even some advocates? Has it changed their starting point?

As an organization that trains community and public health groups to practice media advocacy — the strategic use of mass media to advance policies that improve health — BMSG studies how framing affects how people understand what to do about community health problems. Framing helps people make sense of what they see and hear by triggering ideas and concepts that already exist in their minds.

A common or default frame is the idea that people's behavior is determined by personal motivation, not the situations they find themselves in. This frame fails to make the environment visible and show that what surrounds us shapes us. For example, residents, especially children, who live near trucking routes experience higher rates of asthma. And people who live in neighborhoods where there are few grocery stores that sell healthy food suffer higher rates of diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases.

The personal responsibility frame, on the other hand, says to decision-makers and voters: Why do we need a new law or regulation when people should simply make better choices?

We teach advocates the importance of reframing the conversation so that their target audiences see factors often outside of a person's control that undermine efforts to be healthy. This kind of reframing helps audiences look beyond the "portrait" so that they can see the landscape more clearly, and therefore, the benefits of policy change.

But in Trump's war, this type of reframing would surely be attacked. As the Republican candidate and his supporters would see it, we are teaching victimhood.

"In the 1990s, anti-victimism aimed to dismantle the welfare state, and to disparage multiculturalism, progressive politics in general, and feminism and racial politics in particular," Slate's Cole continues. "Once again, we are told that the problem we face as a nation is not growing inequality or intractable forms of injustice, but those churlish individuals and perpetually aggrieved groups who insist on complaining, draining our limited resources of compassion."

I'm reminded of a recent training in the San Joaquin Valley, where one of our participants, a Latina mom who volunteered with a local charity, challenged me as I explained the reframing process.

"I'm tired of our community being portrayed as victims" of their environment, she countered, saying she believed people are masters of their own destiny.

I explained to her that not everyone has the same choices — owning a car gave her the option to buy healthy food; working as a professional rather than as a farm laborer or service worker allowed more time and energy to prepare healthy meals; even speaking English gave her options her fellow monolingual workshop participants did not have.

While it was obvious she was there because she cared about her community and was willing to fight for it, I couldn't help but wonder whether she had been swayed by the enemy.

"One thing is clear," summed up the authors of the Washington Post article. "Trump is channeling a very mainstream frustration."

If that is the case, it's important now more than ever to reframe the conversation. As people continue to misdirect their anger and frustration, the work of bringing the larger context into view may be more challenging. But this work is essential to bringing about needed change.

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