Shifting the Media Narratives About Homelessness — A Review of the 60 Minutes Story

By Mary Lacey, Project Assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Editor’s Note: On the Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019 edition of 60 Minutes on CBS, correspondent Anderson Cooper reported on homelessness in Seattle in a piece called “’The Rent Is Obscene Here’: The Issues Forcing People in Seattle Onto the Street*.” It was the culmination of several months of reporting by 60 Minutes producers, capped off by a visit by the veteran journalist himself. But how did the show handle this sensitive topic? Our project assistant Mary completed this review in winter 2020 as one of her last projects before graduating. The pandemic delayed our posting it.

*The piece is viewable at the link above for those with a CBS All Access account. CBS, we wish you’d make it available to all.

Journalist Anderson Cooper visited Seattle for this 60 Minutes report on unsheltered homelessness. Photo Credit: 60 Minutes.

 

 

Cities like Seattle have a growing concern as they face increasing housing costs. As Seattle continues to fight homelessness by building affordable housing, providing emergency services, and setting up a regional authority, national audiences look to us to learn how we are dealing with housing insecurity.

A Dec. 1 60 Minutes segment, hosted by Anderson Cooper, looked at Seattle’s homeless population, focusing on those who are unsheltered – living outside in situations such as in a tent or in a car, rather than in a shelter. The 15-minute segment highlights three different stories of unsheltered homelessness in this city known for economic growth and tremendous wealth: Postal worker Emilee; the parents of a young child, Josiah and Tricia; and Jeff, an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At the beginning of the piece, I was impressed with Cooper’s ability to define sheltered versus unsheltered homelessness, which can be confusing. Despite this strong start, the segment’s weaknesses quickly became clear.

I began to feel uncomfortable about the portrayal of peoples’ drug use and the negative stereotypes associated with them which was shown throughout the piece. Unfortunately, our perceptions around those who use drugs can affect policy decisions that exclude those needing housing. This ideology perpetuates negative “undeserving poor” narratives of those experiencing homelessness. Judgmental media depictions of our homeless neighbors can further spread these negative images, especially toward those who use substances. Continue reading

Equitable Storytelling — Best Practices from the Dec. 3 Workshop

ComNetwork ES Erin photo
Erin Murphy said she comes from a storytelling heritage as an American with Irish and Mexican roots.

By Catherine Hinrichsen, project director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

 

Communications work that is strengths- and values-based — in which racial equity is prioritized — was the theme of the recent “Equitable Storytelling” workshop, Tuesday, Dec. 3 at Seattle University. Our project co-hosted the workshop with ComNetworkSEATTLE.

About 70 communications professionals, mostly from human services and social justice organizations, attended. It was the largest workshop of this type we’ve ever held, and perhaps the largest ComNetworkSEATTLE meeting ever — a testament not only to the importance of partnering, but to the deep interest in this topic.

Fortunately for all of us, the three speakers were incredibly generous in sharing their knowledge, some of which I will attempt to impart here as time allows.

First, an introduction to the three terrific speakers, all professionals whose commitment to equitable storytelling is baked into their organizational values:

 

  • Eric Bronson, Digital Advocacy & Engagement Manager, YWCA Seattle King Snohomish
  • Erin Murphy, Communications Specialist, King County Department of Public Health/Best Starts for Kids
  • Vy Tran, Prenatal to Five Workforce Development Lead, Best Starts for Kids Initiative, King County Developmental Disabilities and Early Childhood Supports Division

Erin, Eric and Vy shared strategies to:

  • Champion the power of the storyteller and accommodate their needs.
  • Adapt to the challenges of the review and approval processes.
  • Protect the privacy of storytellers, while presenting a compelling human connection.
  • Recognize the importance of equitable *visual* communications.

A recurring theme: the emphasis on strength-based communications, which you also may have heard described as “asset framing” or “aspirational communication” — more on that below, at the end. These are becoming crucial frameworks for communications professionals.

Values as “North Star”

At Best Starts for Kids, Erin Murphy explained, there is agency-wide agreement on their values: equity, transparency, relationships and community-oriented. These values, built in from the initiative’s beginnings, are the “North Star” for communications decisions.

She pointed out that it’s important to consider not only who you represent, but how. As part of King County government, she’s frequently taking photos of County Executive Dow Constantine in the community. The typical communications person impulse (or pressure) is to focus on the boss, but at Best Starts, the community relationships take priority.

As an example, Erin showed this photo of the County Executive meeting with community partners. She had shot the photo from over his shoulder because the partner relationship is the key element of this scene.

Equitable Storytelling Dow photo
This photo of the County Executive meeting with community partners demonstrates equitable visual storytelling. Photo by Erin Murphy.

 

 

Erin shared the Best Starts values and equity statements by asking for help reading them out loud. Here, filmmaker Jordan Iverson reads one of the statements.

ComNetwork ES Jordan

 

“The Story Belongs to the Storyteller”

Eric Bronson then shared principles of ethical storytelling, and said “there is no ethical storytelling without equitable storytelling.” Eric had written about this last year in “The Ethics of Storytelling: A How-To Guide.” Among his advice is tips for ensuring you are making accommodations that enable more people to be included in storytelling, such as providing help with transportation, childcare and scheduling, as well as an often overlooked element: food.

ComNetwork Eric Photo 2_by Kara
Eric Bronson shares tips to ensure wider representation from storytellers. Photo by Kara Palmer.

 

The 60 Minutes story on homelessness had aired only two days before, and Eric used that as a case study in how *not* to do equitable storytelling. He noted two major flaws: first, that the story ignored that people of color disproportionately experience homelessness, and second, that the producers only interviewed white people — among all the providers, officials, researchers and people experiencing homelessness they talked to.

Eric said that periodically YWCA does a Racial Equity Blog Audit to make sure they’re meeting their goals for who is being represented, and how.

“Positive, warm, relational…”

Vy Tran showed us how Best Starts incorporates the values of positive, warm, relational and genuine into its work, not only by exemplifying those qualities as a speaker but by walking us through some exercises. Vy had hidden some index cards around the room, with sample phrases that that are commonly used to describe people and situations in social services.

ComNetwork Vy Photo 2 by Kara
Vy Tran describes do’s and avoid’s of terminology in equitable storytelling. Photo by Kara Palmer.

Which of these would you use? Vy’s slides give insights on the impact of words we commonly use.

ComNetwork ES Vy exercise_by Kara
One of the cards from the exercise, with a phrase that should be avoided — do you know which? Photo by Kara Palmer.

 

Unfortunately it’s time to bring this post to an end, but before I go, here’s what you came here for: The speakers were kind enough to share their presentation slides.

In addition, here are the handouts you might have missed, and a couple bonus items.

Handouts

Bonus Materials:

  • Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2020, Aspirational Communication,” by Doug Hattaway of Hattaway Communications (and The Communications Network leader)
  • ComNet19 keynote on Asset Framing by Trabian Shorters, founder of BMe Community

Thank you to our fantastic speakers, to ComNetworkSEATTLE — especially Kara Palmer of Pyramid Communications — for partnering with us, and to all the people who came to our workshop!

 

ComNetwork ES reception_by Kara
As Eric pointed out, food is an important element of a community communication event.