How do foundation-funded media projects need to rethink their storytelling and distribution models in order to break through in today’s polarized environment? In this guest post, communications strategist and filmmaker Christine Arena of Generous Films shares key insights for funders from the novel approach behind Let Science Speak—a multi-media campaign designed to counter anti-science propaganda and rally more Americans around the critical work that scientists do. Let Science Speak is supported by the Hellman Foundation, S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, The Outrider Foundation, Margaret and Will Hearst, among others.

As the American public reels from the impacts of a global pandemic, a climate crisis, nationwide protests against injustice and the most politically contentious election of our lifetimes, all eyes are glued to the screen.

New data reveals that Americans are spending a whopping 215 percent more time consuming digital media compared to last year, with most adults hooked into their devices for more than 13 hours per day. By 2021, it is estimated that the average person will spend 100 minutes daily watching online videos and on demand films, a 19 percent increase from 2019.

Given these statistics, it seems an understatement to suggest that now more than ever, digital media wields tremendous social influence. But while the massive uptick in consumption spells gold for companies like Netflix, Facebook and YouTube, it raises serious considerations for media funders—particularly those with an eye toward making a positive impact.

A closer look at the nature of media that is most highly consumed reveals an unsettling trend. On Facebook, for example, hyper-polarized and divisive content is driving the most engagement. Hate speech still proliferates on the platform, while health-related misinformation far eclipses the reach of leading organizations trying to communicate the truth.

A recent report commissioned by Facebook acknowledges the issue: “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness…[If left unchecked, Facebook would] feed users more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform,” the company says.

The unfortunate reality is that today’s media landscape is morphing more rapidly and drastically than most organizations realize. The rapid surge in media consumption coupled with the explosive popularity of divisive content amounts to a complex stew for funders and producers aiming to advance public understanding of critical issues.

In this media environment, earnest efforts to educate and inspire people are often greatly outspent, outnumbered and outperformed. For every single media impact project, there are hundreds of widely circulated disinformation projects attempting to sow seeds of doubt, discord and confusion at the same time. Industry insiders predict this problem will grow worse. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there are ways to successfully navigate this media maze in order to elevate issues, change hearts and minds, and engage new audiences. But to do so, impact funders and media producers must approach the space with a more robust theory of change.

Thanks to generous support from donors including the Hellman Foundation, S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, The Outrider Foundation, Margaret and Will Hearst and others, the Let Science Speak campaign was able to road test new approaches to storytelling and content distribution that may help illuminate a path forward for other social impact projects eager to rise above the noise.

Launched in 2018, the Let Science Speak campaign amplifies the voices of environmental and public health scientists that are currently being sidelined, and convinces more Americans that science is on their side. Our campaign mission is critical as efforts to politicize science and silence scientists are an all-time high, and listening to scientists is now a matter of life or death for millions of people.

During the past two years, the Let Science Speak campaign has produced series of short documentary films, videos, social content, editorials and earned media placements designed to engage audiences that are currently bombarded with divisive, anti-science messages. To date we’ve successfully resonated with groups such as evangelical Christians and moderate voters, generating over 885 million media impressions in outlets ranging from Rolling Stone and Mother Jones to The Weather Channel and Fox News.

Though we’ve optimized our approach to storytelling, distribution and promotion over time, there are certain key takeaways that stand out as significant and potentially helpful to others in the media impact space.

Here are the most important lessons we’ve learned to date:

  1. Reach beyond the choir, but ignore the dismissives.

While many media impact projects rely on a built-in audience of hardcore supporters and fans to help amplify their message, it’s essential that more projects bring new people into the conversation. At the same time, however, it’s important to recognize that some people are so entrenched in ideologically-rooted social, environmental or political positions that no amount of data or storytelling will ever change their minds. Thankfully, according to Yale’s Six Americas survey, these ideologically-rooted “dismissives” only represent about seven percent of the population. That’s why at the onset of our project, we decided to ignore them and instead zone in on the majority of “middles,” the roughly 70% of Americans who are concerned about science-based issues, but who are not yet fully alarmed.

Thanks to an early planning and development grant from S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, we were able to conduct research with our target audience to better understand their emerging attitudes. We found that “middles” tend to identify as politically moderate and increasingly, they feel politicization fatigue. They are growing more resistant to culture war tactics used to suppress science and more receptive to an evolution in public discourse about science, as well as to a moral versus purely factual framing of science-based issues. These insights drove our project strategy—influencing everything from casting decisions to narrative structure and media outreach.

  1. Share common values, not just facts or outrage.

Traditionally, science communicators have rooted their narratives in reason, hard evidence and cold facts, leaving key audiences uninspired. More recently, as described above, divisiveness has become the rage, shifting many science narratives toward apocalyptic scenarios designed to provoke reaction. But a growing body of evidence suggests that most Americans are hungry for something deeper. There is a real thirst for conversations that are positive rather than polarizing, nuanced rather than simplistic, and inclusive rather than alienating. In the process of pitching numerous editorials and media placements, we found that producers and audiences responded best to human stories that cut across boundaries of culture, religion and politics, and that tapped into social values that many people hold dear, such as: health, safety, security, family, patriotism and courage. All of our films reflect this insight, as each one expresses a distinct ethical theme. For example:

Dr. Alan Townsend’s story centers on health and family values:

Dr. Dawn Wright’s film evokes a sense of patriotism and courage:

  1. Explore alternatives to the theatrical release.

In a post-COVID environment, it’s critical for filmmakers to explore alternative distribution methods that can either complement or replace physical screening venues. That requires factoring in the media trends noted above, as well as determining where your audience naturally congregates. As we found with Let Science Speak, it also involves some creative thinking and strategic risk-taking.

We pursued some of the usual distribution methods you’d expect, premiering at the Tribeca TV Festival and appearing on channels like Amazon Prime, but by far the biggest traction we gained was through earned media placements.

Producers at The Weather Channel were enthusiastic about our project, and thus announced an official media partnership, broadcast our films and interviewed our scientists on air and via their vast social media network over a six-week span. As The Weather Channel reaches over 80 million households across the United States, this was a huge win for our campaign. This segment featuring Dr. Katharine Hayhoe illustrates the in-depth coverage we received on “Weekend Recharge,” the network’s highest rated show:

As mentioned above, we also wanted to reach skeptical yet persuadable audiences traditionally resistant to stories about climate change. Though Fox News seemed like both a stretch and a risk, given their historically cynical coverage of climate change, we were determined to find an entry point via a values-based angle. We found exactly that on the daytime program “Spirited Debate,” and consider this placement featuring Dr. Katharine Hayhoe to be the most impactful of our campaign, as it generated over 200 million media impressions and continues to play on the Fox website. It is one of the few positive climate change stories the network has ever aired:

  1. Invest in desired outcomes, not narrow frameworks.

Most philanthropic organizations that support impact media take great care to establish a clear set of strategic objectives and investment criteria from which to base funding decisions. Unfortunately, it is also often the case that five-year strategic plans simply do not keep pace with the demands of today’s rapidly changing media and social issues landscapes. In the course of fundraising for Let Science Speak, we found that most major foundations still do not invest in media projects, while the ones that do often impose counterproductive restrictions. For instance, they may only fund feature-length documentary films, which are decreasing in popularity compared to the explosion of short format and on-demand videos. Or, they might steer clear of politically charged content, at a time when every issue under the sun seems to have been politicized. Or, they may exclude topics like climate change, which are becoming far more relevant and urgent as time goes on. While the goals of narrow strategic frameworks are undoubtedly well-intentioned, the end result is often underfunded yet worthy projects and underleveraged storytellers. From a strategic philanthropy perspective, a better approach might be to identify desired outcomes and a corresponding theory of change, and invest from there.

At a time when the biggest media companies are focused on chasing advertising dollars and clicks, and when most content is deeply polarizing, impact-oriented media projects play a vital role. Given the extraordinary challenges that we as a society face, and the tremendous influence that media has on our culture, economy and lives, we need a flood of more thoughtful storytelling that elevates public discourse rather than sinking us lower into the abyss. In an ideal world, that would be the utmost goal of every philanthropist, funder and producer in the media impact space.

About the Author

Christine Arena

President, Generous Films
Christine is founder at GENEROUS and the architect behind Let Science Speak. She executive produced the Let Science Speak short film series and leads the campaign’s vision, strategy and execution plan. Christine is a 20-year communications industry veteran, with a career-long focus on leveraging multimedia to help move the needle on critical environmental and social issues. She recently served as Executive Vice President at Edelman, where she developed award-winning campaigns for corporate and nonprofit clients. Read more about Christine.