By Nicole Wong
With great power comes great responsibility. It’s not just an idiom for superheroes anymore, it applies to what storytelling can achieve when messaging teams up with high quality narrative.
You only have to look as far as the recent upsurge in popularity of “true crime” shows, and the mirrored rise in conversation of our broken criminal justice system, to know that media has immense power in shifting conversations and raising awareness.
For decades, if not centuries, the American criminal justice system has privileged and disadvantaged communities of people based on out-of-date, unequal and arbitrary laws. In particular, with the rise of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, record-breaking mass incarceration rates have created a broken system that arguably mimics Jim Crow laws, where nonviolent offenders are sent to prison for decades due to mandatory minimum sentencing.
In recent years, fiction and non-fiction shows, such as Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB) and Making a Murderer, HBO’s The Wire and The Jinx, the podcast Serial, even Lockup on MSNBC, have illustrated the power that compelling, character-driven narrative storytelling can have to gain mainstream attention. Populations of people that had never been represented with as much detail and nuance became characters we cheered for, and saw ourselves in.
Through serialized content, be it television episodes or audio podcasts, audiences have the opportunity to empathize with situations they may not consider or have access to otherwise. The time investment allows for complex nuance to bubble up, a slow burn of injustice to be truly felt. Classic show not tell.
Through OINTB’s Taystee, we better understand the complications, both psychological and systemic, related to being released on parole, instead of scoffing at recidivism rates of the previously incarcerated. Through The Wire, we see how opportunity and a chance to succeed in business (perhaps illegally) can take different forms based on the situation you are born into.
It isn’t that the general public wouldn’t seek out this information in other ways, but for these topics to penetrate mass entertainment, signals a new level of awareness and integration of messaging with storytelling. A far cry from white papers or non-fiction novels on a subject, the bite-sized, melodramatic version of injustice is just more palatable, accessible, and perhaps less guilt-inducing – it allows for empathy, for conversation, and shared experience.
There is also precedent for this. Just as ER impacted the medical field, conversation and opinions have long been shifted by the stories we watch.
Narratives bring us in. The next question is what we do after we’ve learned. In the case of Serial and The Jinx, cases were re-opened and re-examined as new interest was brought to light.
In the wake of these shows, Reddit feeds and Twitter alike bristled with the injustice of the true-crime stories, and became hungry for answers. There was even the opportunity for branded content marketing, such as the New York Times feature on women’s prisons to promote OINTB, an unexpected but more than worthy opportunity to further the conversation.
However, awareness is just that, awareness. The question remains on converting attention to action – awareness to advocacy.
Serialized content has the power to change the conversation; the ability to create a vocabulary or shared space to discuss complex issues using one specific story. Serialization also allows viewers to sit with the complexities, giving us the opportunity to change or shift our views over time, to go there and back again, to go deep. It builds empathy, emotional attachment, deepens understanding, and even has the potential to galvanize new advocates.
Nicole Wong is a senior editor at Group SJR. Her work focuses on women’s health, sustainability and social responsibility.
Top image shot by Chris New, Director of Multimedia, art direction by Joelle McKenna, Visual Designer.