In a recent blog post, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote, “I generally have the view that humanitarians are really bad at framing issues and marketing causes, because they believe so deeply in them.”
The comment was part of a dialogue he had with readers who were taking him to task for over-focusing on Westerners and Americans development workers when reporting on global health and development issues. Kristof argued that stories that had a relatable character, often a Westerner or American working in the region, resonated better with an American audience.
I wonder if the stories work not just because the ethnicity or nationality of the protagonist, but also the specificity in which the global issue was framed. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll on the U.S. role in global health found that while American generally don’t support foreign aid, they are more supportive of increased spending abroad for specific global health purposes. It matters if you ask are we “spending too much on foreign aid” or are we spending too much on “efforts to improve the health for people in developing countries.” People responded even more positively to U.S. spending for specific health outcomes, like preventing malaria, treating HIV or improving access to clean water.
Another recent poll found that 9 out of 10 American aren’t familiar with the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight time-bound development goals, that if achieved together will end extreme poverty by 2015. But after hearing more specific information about each goal, 87% believe the U.S. should be involved in accomplishing the MDGs.
Specificity matters. We can be better at marketing causes if we are mindful that people may not know a lot about an issue, particularly global issues that they haven’t experienced firsthand. But that doesn’t mean they won’t care. It’s our job as storytellers to explain the issue and make it relevant for all of our audiences.