Understanding Public Narratives About Workforce and Higher Education
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Understanding Public Narratives About Workforce and Higher Education

Mainstream media and industry news shapes, reinforces, and redresses commonly held narratives—those underlying beliefs and attitudes that drive human behavior—about higher education and the workforce.  Dr. Rita Parhad and Emily Keane from Protagonist discuss the major narratives and counter-narratives that exist in America today, what drives them, and the implications these narratives have on individual and institutional behavior. 

Episode 38 features Dr. Rita Parhad and Emily Keane from Protagonist.

Read the landscape report:
Economic Opportunity and Social Mobility Landscape Report

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Episode 38

Understanding Public Narratives About Workforce and Higher Education

Show transcript

0:00:08.8 Dakota Pawlicki: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, the podcast about work and learning after high school, brought to you by Lumina Foundation. I’m your host, Dakota Pawlicki, and I am really looking forward to sharing today’s conversations with you. All of us are shaped by the news. What we think and believe is, in part, a product of the content that we consume. It’s hard not to hear stories about mis-information and fact-checking these days for a good reason. We’re all trying to get better at understanding how information and stories shape our opinions. Our belief about education, training and work are also shaped by the news that we consume and the stories are read and hear. The belief that education is the great equalizer, the belief that hard work alone is the path to prosperity, the belief that the system is rigged to benefit certain people over others. We believe all sorts of things, many of which conflict, and it is sometimes hard to know how we came to believe something is true.

0:01:03.2 Dakota Pawlicki: Today, we are talking about narratives. Narratives are the underlying beliefs and attitudes that drive human behavior. Narratives guide our decisions on what to buy, on what we value and what we think our country has to offer us. The stories and information we consume and believe shape our understanding of our context, our communities, and our world. So to better understand the national narratives that shape Americans belief about education, skills, and jobs, Lumina partner with Protagonist, a small woman-led organization that invented Narrative Analytics.

0:01:36.8 Dakota Pawlicki: Today, we’re going to hear from Dr. Rita Parhad and Emily Keane, who will tell us about their research, the implications it has in our daily lives, and offer advice on how to best use and understand narratives. Throughout the episode, we’ll be referring to a report that Protagonist has produced. Please be sure to download and read that report using a link in our show notes. I promise you it is well worth the read. But let’s start our conversation today by asking Rita to describe what exactly a narrative is and how she and her team go about the process of taking news headlines and content and distilling them into a narrative landscape. Let’s listen in.

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0:02:14.9 Dakota Pawlicki: Join me now is Dr. Rita Parhad and Emily Keane from Protagonist. Rita, Emily, thank you so much for being here with me today.

0:02:21.4 Rita Parhad: Thanks for having us.

0:02:22.9 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, yeah, I’m so excited to dig in, ’cause you all do some really, really interesting work, especially for us, like super nerdy people who love language and love how language intersects with education and work. So fellow nerds, prepare for a great, great time together. But Rita, I kind of want to start with you, learn a little bit more about Protagonist. As I was exploring your work and everything, you talked about on your website that you all kind of invented this thing called Narrative Analytics, and you’ve been working with Lumina for a number of years now to kind of complete this narrative landscape. Can you just give us a sense of what is Narrative Analytics and what this narrative landscape work is that you’ve been doing?

0:03:07.9 Rita Parhad: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ll start by saying what we mean by narratives, because narrative is one of those terms that is used a lot these days and is used maybe in different ways by different people. So when we say narratives, we’re talking about… We call them structured stories that animate a public conversation, and they, those stories, have sort of heroes and villains, they kind of reveal assumptions, they inform beliefs, and they shape, what we… How we see the world and what policies we prefer, and how we may vote or any number of behaviors. And so that’s why narratives are important, but there are a few features there that I think are really key to understanding how we understand narratives and how we go about identifying them and analyzing them. One of the things I said was that narratives are part of a public conversation. They’re not sort of things that just exist in my head or your head. They sort of by their very nature are social, they’re shared, and they are articulated and reinforced in media, in traditional media and social media.

0:04:16.2 Dakota Pawlicki: So our work is really about finding narratives in big media data sets, traditional media data sets, social media data sets, and sort of dissecting them, understanding them, measuring them, seeing how they change, and that’s sort of the root of the Narrative Analytics process. The other key feature of narratives that you really need to understand, and it goes to this idea of a narrative landscape that you mentioned, is that narratives don’t exist in isolation, there is not a narrative about climate change or a narrative about racial equity, there’s many narratives. And in our experience on any given topic, a narrative landscape is anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen narratives that are sort of in play at a given point in time. Some of those narratives are in conflict, sometimes there are narratives that are very much aligned, but they are different from each other. And our work is really about understanding those landscapes and understanding what those different narratives mean for the things our clients care about.

0:05:17.1 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, it’s such interesting work. And I’ve had a chance to read a couple of your reports over the course of the years, and you just finished kind of… Well, I don’t know if it’s just finished at this point, but you finished an updated narrative report for Lumina, where you do a look at some of the dominant narratives that are both in public media as well as more industry media as well, particularly in the spaces of working, learning, higher education. Tell us a little bit about that work and how the landscape might have changed between the last two times that you’ve updated that report.

0:05:53.9 Rita Parhad: Yeah, I’ll tell you a little bit about how we started this work and maybe hand it to Emily to tell you about some of the more details. We started doing this work with Lumina back in 2017, so it’s been quite a few years. And actually end of 2016 is when I first started looking at some narrative landscapes. And initially we looked at the narrative landscape around higher ed specifically, so what are the narratives about higher education, and how do they sort of play out in the American discourse, in American media?

0:06:22.3 Rita Parhad: And then we sort of shifted to what we think of as an adjacent landscape, which is a landscape around economic opportunity and social mobility, and that’s the one I think we’re going to talk about a little bit more here, and the narratives about economic opportunity and social mobility and how they intersect with higher education. So what role does higher ed play necessary, not necessary, for economic opportunity and social mobility in the US. And that’s a conversation we first looked at in 2017 and looked sort of backward about 12 months at that point in time. And have been looking at sort of periodically since then, and it’s changed quite a lot in that time. And if you could all cast your mind back to 2016, it was a very different world in so many ways. And we’ve seen that in many landscapes. We’ve certainly seen that in this one. Maybe Emily wants to say a little bit about kind of where we started with this landscape, what we first saw, what we’ve seen since.

0:07:18.0 Emily Keane: Sure, yeah, I’m happy to. So when we first looked at this landscape in 2016-2017, the conversation was really focused on the existing system and how it relates to higher ed and economic mobility, so it was really sort of a patchwork of solutions that people were talking about, how to get ahead, what’s available, and sort of fixing the leaks in the system to make it work. The last update… Last two updates we did were basically in the front half of 2021… In the latter half of 2021. So the early 2021 work that we saw was so different that we actually had to re-imagine what the narratives were within this space because things had changed so much. So if you remember, contextually, we were still really in the thick of the pandemic and conversations around social and race relations in America were really at the forefront of people’s minds. And so the conversation around economic opportunity and social mobility was about making opportunity more equitable for all, particularly along race and gender lines. When we looked at this in the latter half of 2021, there had been a lot of more changes, so as more people were getting vaccinated, the economy was coming back, but there was so much supply chain disruptions, so that also included labor. And so companies were scrambling to hire workers, and everyone was trying to figure out if and when workers would be coming back.

0:08:54.9 Emily Keane: And so what we saw is that there was this emergence of a discussion around the re-negotiation of labor and worker identity and what makes it worth it to go back to your job. So the conversation about the opportunities available or lack thereof to workers really took center stage. So if you think about early 2021 being… The conversation was about race and gender. The conversation in the latter half of the year was really more interested in the relationship between workers, companies, and how those dynamics are shifting.

0:09:32.5 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, so you… Through this work on this report, you kind of find eight… I don’t know, I’ll call them eight major narratives and you give them some titles and you kind of complemented these three categories. One that is focused on race in society, another one’s focused on higher education and one about adaptation in particular. And I really appreciate what you’re saying, because you’re… One of the differences that you also noted in your report between the dates, between the two reports is that we went from a conversation that was diagnosing the role that race in particular plays in economic opportunity, shifting towards identifying ways that… To actually address the issue. And I thought that was just such a major finding in between those two times, especially as you just shared, you know, where this was updated in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of the… Of a lot of racial reckoning around the United States. How do… How should we interpret that finding? I know for me, when I read it, I jumped to like a, Oh, that’s progress, but I don’t know if that’s right. How do we interpret that shift from moving just identifying or diagnosing the problems to actually identifying and coming up with ways to approach that problem?

0:10:41.8 Emily Keane: Yeah. I would say that there’s a lot of things happening here. I think there’s a difference between diagnosing the problem and offering solutions. And in the latter half of 2021, there was a lot of sort of critique around the current system, not necessarily solutions, but identifying different parts of the systems that are currently in place that aren’t working. So one narrative that we saw really spike was this one called Myth of mobility, and this is a real critique of the American dream. It argues that college is no longer the great equalizer, middle class is no longer what it used to be, and merit no longer matters. And so it’s arguing for sweeping change. People who think about this narrative deeply, they want debt relief, they want free college, they want a strong social safety net and jobs that pay a livable wage. So an increase in this narrative, it’s calling out, not necessarily policy details, but here are the different things that we need… It signals a growing frustration with the economic opportunities available to people in this country, but also the investment that people are making to try to get ahead, particularly in the post-secondary education space. So there’s an implication here that it’s either these economic opportunity available and post-secondary opportunities are either not working or they’re simply not enough to help people get ahead, particularly in a meaningful way.

0:12:21.8 Dakota Pawlicki: I so appreciate that because one of the things that’s very clear is exactly what you’ve talked about, that many workers are reassessing their kind of relationship to society and relationship to high education and the workforce, and also reassessing what it means to work at all. And there’s been some really great stuff coming out about Gen Zs quiet quitting, and really looking at the different kind of approach towards work-life balance. It’s very different from generations in the past, that essentially means how higher ed has been structured. And I guess I’m curious about… You mentioned in the report that there’s going to be these ripple effects that as workers are reassessing writ large, the kinds of things that they need, the kind of training and skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow, that there is a potential… Pretty big ripple effect in high education. I was wondering if you can describe a little bit from your perspective, what that ripple effect could look like, and are there other fields that are also going to be experiencing that kind of ripple effect as more and more Americans are reassessing their relationship with work?

0:13:32.7 Emily Keane: Yeah, absolutely. Just to comment on the quiet quitting, we also saw a lot of stories on that, others titled The Great resignation. It aligns nicely with the way in which workers are finding the sense of agency. So both blue collar and white-collar workers are basically changing their perspective to say, maybe work isn’t a centerpiece of our identity anymore. So when we think about ripple effects, perhaps more than ever, and certainly, [laughter] much more than when we started looking at this in 2016, 2017, people are viewing college and other post-secondary training opportunities as a means to an end.

0:14:15.4 Emily Keane: If they’re schooling and their training isn’t worth their time and financial investment, they’re going to pursue other avenues. So of course, this has implications for higher ed providers. We’ve seen some liberal arts colleges drop history and philosophy majors and replace them and pivot towards more business and science-oriented programs to attract more students. And we’re also seeing large corporations jump in and offer, either current or incoming employees, ways to train and upskill for their qualifications. So there really is, when we think about ripple effects, this push and pull between students and higher ed and companies and laborers, and so everyone has a piece of that pie. I can’t think of a good metaphor right now, but maybe it’s not a ripple. [laughter] They get something like the power dynamic shift a little bit, and it’s sort of like going around, but there’s really sort of this multi-dimensional dynamic at work.

0:15:24.5 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that we’ve talked a lot of on the show, about how systems that have been set up and policies and practices that have been set up decades ago, how those need to be adjusted and reconciled as the needs and perceptions of Americans continue to change. And Rita, I want to come back to you too, because you talked… When you’re introducing the concept of just the narrative landscape and narrative analysis, you talk also about the counter-narratives that go along here, and as we look at the narratives, the three narratives that kind of make up the race and society focus category, you have one that’s about the to Americas, which you describe as, we cannot possibly have equal opportunity and upward mobility in this country until we address the systemic racism embedded in our society. But then you also point out there’s another narrative here called The Plot to Divide America, and you describe it as “In their misguided attempts to portray America as systemically racist and inherently unequal, liberals are proposing solutions that will expand inequality and destroy the economy.” And again, we’re talking about push and pull, we’re talking about counter-narratives. What do… What is the role that these counter-narratives play in shaping public perception?

0:16:43.0 Rita Parhad: Yeah, great question. Plot to Divide America was one narrative, when it popped up, we were really struck by how different it was from things we had already seen in the landscape and how much sort of… How ambitious it was and what it was describing, and it really changed the character of the landscape in a really meaningful way. So, to answer your question, counter-narratives, we think of them as narratives that arise in response to narratives that already exist in the landscapes, and they typically arise because someone is pushing them – someone or many someones are pushing them – and usually those organizations or individuals who are pushing those counter narratives, if they’re showing up on our radar, they are probably pretty media savvy, they may have media outlets that work directly with them, and they are often very coordinated, because narratives are… They don’t generally sort of get invented out of whole cloth. They usually have to sort of rise up to get a level of critical mass to show up on the radar. So when something shows up that wasn’t there when we looked at the landscape three months prior, it’s usually because there has been an effort to push it forward. And in this case, Plot to Divide America was very much responding to some of these narratives that were focusing on equity and the role of higher ed in sort of balancing or rebalancing the playing field.

0:18:08.2 Rita Parhad: So it’s a very kind of specific effort behind it, in this case, and what we saw with that is that it really is very concentrated in certain parts of the media landscape, but it’s loud and it’s very engaging, it has a lot of resonance with audiences. And it ends up sort of changing the character of the landscape as a whole. It’s become much more politicized, polarized, and as I sort of referenced earlier, a lot of the landscapes we look at have become more politicized and polarized over the last several years, and this is no different. It went from a fairly consensus-based landscape with a lot of different flavors and narratives, as Emily described, to one that is now, there’s some stark differences, and it’s more of a pitched battle. And the way in which that would shape public opinion really depends on who it is that’s pushing that narrative and which media outlets it’s showing up in and what the media diet is of the part of the public you’re interested in understanding. I know Emily can speak a little bit more to the particulars of that particular narrative, which I think is really fascinating, and has really sort of changed the way we think about where this conversation is going.

0:19:25.1 Emily Keane: Yeah, I mean, thanks Rita, that’s such a great introduction. I mean, Plot to Divide America is such a classic counter-narrative in the sense that it’s really a catch-all for all these conservative grievances. And just to reiterate, you know, this narrative talks about how liberals are misguided. They’re trying to portray America as systemically racist, and their policies are going to actually cause more inequality and destroy the economy. So one thing to note here too is that sometimes when people hear these narratives, they start to bristle. And a lot of the feedback we get sometimes is around, but that’s not true. And in a narrative landscape, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. The fact that it exists means that there’s power and influence in this narrative. So it’s not the best idea to ignore it.

0:20:20.7 Emily Keane: You have to know sort of what feeds it, how it works, and that way, it’s better understood if you really sort of examine it. So Plot to Divide America, it really rejects this emphasis of acknowledging systemic racism and instead really politicizes the discussion around race by claiming it’s disingenuous. For this most recent update that we did, the narrative focus on really two main issues. One was the Build Back Better Act, saying that, you know, again, sort of classic, conservative, talking points that if, you know, you want people to get out of poverty, then those benefits should be earned. Let’s put these people to work rather than giving them handouts. And it argues that that government overspending, particularly around COVID-19 employment benefits, are exacerbating inflation and the labor shortage.

0:21:17.5 Emily Keane: The reason people aren’t going back to work is because they’re getting enough money from the government. The other major sort of storyline that this narrative covered in this time period was around the disintegrating value of college degrees. And it talks about traditional colleges, students, and their post-degree outcomes. So it laments that this idea that social justice and diversity over merit is really doing students and future workers a disservice. Many of the content that we read talked about this eroding American work ethic, where students are becoming under-prepared and lack vital experience to be functional, contributing members of society. And so it was really kind of saying, why are we putting so much clout and pushing kids towards college when really it’s not doing anything for them and our communities and local economies.

0:22:23.4 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, I mean, one of the things I find really interesting too about some of… About your work around this particular narrative was, you know, where it kind of comes from. And what I mean by that is you kind of disaggregate between, hey, here are, you know, partner kind of created content, those that are, you know, in Lumina’s sphere, but also, you know, in high education workforce, etcetera, and then also looking at like public media sources and the general kind of news, if you will. And you found that very few, if any, industry kind of content producers even talk about, or bring… That narrative doesn’t come up in their content, where it’s primarily driven a lot by public media. And to me, that’s just an aha moment because I think there’s a lot of folks that… We work with a lot of folks, institutions that are trying to remind communities about the value of higher education.

0:23:15.2 Dakota Pawlicki: And yet, you know, are we using the same kind of tactics? I do… There’s so much more to dig into. And I do want to keep us moving. You know, one of the other things you talk about going into the higher ed category. So we’ve talked about the, you know, race and society category. You also kind of, you know, call attention to another cluster of narratives, kind of labeled in just higher education. And you know, one of them is the narrative around skills, not diplomas. And again, we’ve talked about comms-based education, we’ve talked with employers and chambers on the show. You know, I guess, I’m really curious about what this narrative is about and how it might be tied towards, you know, kind of a higher ed reckoning kind of narrative that’s out there. I know we’ve touched on already as worker preferences change, but you know, in particular, what have you been finding around the skills not diplomas narrative?

0:24:05.6 Emily Keane: Yeah, so the Plot to Divide America narrative really disparages traditional college and universities. Skills not diplomas, is not sort of trying to take college down, but really is more of an advocacy narrative. And it argues that there’s so many cost-effective proven ways of getting students into job, and… Jobs, excuse me. And there’s such a labor shortage that there’s so many jobs out there that you don’t need traditional four-year degree programs. And so what it’s really trying to do is evangelize alternative degree paths. So community college, vocational training, apprenticeships, to fill jobs that are in demand now. We’ve seen so much coverage on the dearth of trade-based jobs, everything from electricians, to construction workers, to drivers. And part of what this narrative argues is that these are good paying jobs. And so you’re not going to be working in a low wage place of employment, and you’re not going to be in this massive amount of debt that so many students have coming out of college or universities.

0:25:23.2 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, and it’s interesting too, ’cause you also talk about how, you know, upskilling, and how there’s been a bigger conversation around upskilling, particularly related to adaptation and adapting towards the future of work. You know, we know certain industries and sectors are being transformed through AI, through cobotics and other things like that. And we know it’s coming, you know, even more so. To me, there’s a clear through line between a greater focus on skills, as well as upskilling. But I guess I was also curious, you know, in terms of content producers, you know, are you… Have you seen more producers coming into the world, particularly around upskilling? And I know, employers for example, employer groups, industry groups have really stepped in to a lot of the talent development conversation. Are you seeing some of that reflected in the narrative landscape?

0:26:15.8 Emily Keane: Yeah, absolutely. So the way in which… Most common way I think we find it is that, particularly large companies will make an announcement that they are… If you work here for x number of years, we’re going to pay for your college. So a lot of free college or reduced college notifications. And that sort of gets picked up in broader media. So, you know, some familiar companies we’ve heard of is Walmart, Starbucks, Chipotle. And so that kind of has a ripple effect through national and local media. But the reason that these employers are really getting into this training and upskilling game is that they’ve found that it’s very beneficial for them so their workers don’t leave. We’ve already talked about how there’s such a tight labor market and a worker shortage, and so if the companies can incentivize their workers to stay and offer them another set of tools or trainings, that’s beneficial to both the employee and the company because they won’t lose a worker, and have to spend time and effort to replace their workers as well. So, you know, certainly there’s some industries that are more integrated in this as well. Obviously, the tech industry is sort of at the front and center of that. But we are seeing more and more large companies make these announcements as a way to sort of attract new talent or keep existing talent.

0:27:44.6 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah. Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground already and have gotten deep in the report. But, you know, let’s pause and take a quick break, and when we come back, I’m looking forward to talking with both of you a little bit more about the implications and, you know, make some meaning around a lot of this work. So, stay tuned, stay with us, we’ll be right back with Rita and Emily.

0:28:08.6 Dakota Pawlicki: Hey everyone, welcome back. We’re continuing our conversation with Rita and Emily from Protagonist. We just spent the first half digging deep into the report. And Rita, I want to bring you back in to talk a little bit more about some of the implications and the way we can make meaning. I mean, for me, you know, I don’t know, like I’m an average person, like I’m… I try to consume news from a lot of different sources. I have like 10 news apps on my phone, way too many push alerts and read some industry news. And I always get worried because it’s like, how much of it, am I being a victim of algorithms and big data science and, you know, the rabbit holing and the funneling things that we know can happen now? Am I focusing too much on too few resources? All those kinds of things.

0:28:47.8 Dakota Pawlicki: But you know, I guess, again, we talked about it a little bit, but you know, when you’ve compared the content that’s being developed by industry news sources as a compared to public media, you know, you really did find some key differences. You know, industry sources tend to produce content that were focused on to Americas, for example, much more than the public media did. However, public media tended to, you know, produce more content around counter-narratives, around upskilling, the mode of mobility. You know, what do we as a consumer of news and information need to take away from that kind of comparison? You know, what advice do you have to me as someone who’s trying to just stay up on the news and be well-informed?

0:29:33.4 Rita Parhad: Yeah, it’s a great question. I should say, before we get any further, that when we say public media, I think, just to clarify for your listeners, that we don’t mean like NPR or we don’t only mean public media in that sense, we just meaning mainstream media. So that includes, public medias, but other corporate media entities as well. And I think the thing to keep in mind when you compare what we’re seeing in that environment versus what we see from what you’re describing as industry or people who are sort of in the higher ed field, is that the incentive structures are different, right? I mean, so in corporate mainstream media or broader mainstream media, there is a need to tell a newsy story. And, you know, frankly, they… It thrives on conflict. So one of the reasons I think Plots to Divide America has shown some resilience in that, in that broader media landscape is that it sort of feeds conflict.

0:30:22.7 Rita Parhad: And I think there is a… I would say a preoccupation these days in mainstream media to portray both sides and maybe to a fault, you know, there’s a lot of media criticism of this at this point. But there is a need to, in the interest of being objective, to frame things as two sides to a story. And then the way to do justice to that is to cover both. And so if you kind of keep that in mind when you’re consuming media in those environments, I think it’s… It can help, just sort of strip away some of the things that we see. So in other landscapes we look at we see a lot of… The narratives that get the most attention are ones that sort of use the language of conflict, use the language of battle and sort of tensions.

0:31:09.4 Rita Parhad: And you see this with political reporting, focusing on the electoral horse race rather than the issues. Whereas, the industry or the higher ed specialty organizations, they’re focused on the issues they focus on and the solutions to them. So I think knowing that as a consumer and sort of having a little bit of that lens on when you’re reading from these different sources and what… Understanding what those incentive structures are, doesn’t mean you can’t get good news from all these different sources, but it kind of puts a filter on how you’re getting it. I think it’s also the case that the folks who work in industry have to be aware of what’s going on in that broader conversation if they want to be relevant beyond their existing audience, right? So I think it’s actually important to be able to understand what those narratives are, what the language is that’s resonating in order to kind of maybe ride some of those waves and get into that conversation so that you can talk about your solutions or you can talk about your issues.

0:32:06.7 Rita Parhad: But I think as a consumer, it’s just that I think for me, what I find most instructive is to kind of keep that understanding of what those incentives are and how that might shape the headline you see, or the choice of news stories you see and the narratives that are kind of revealed there rather than just relying on that as, you know, sort of the beginning and the end of the story. I think, you know, other good etiquette that I’m sure you already practice is getting news from multiple sources, you know, having sort of well-rounded, sources, that kind of thing, following… Particularly, if you follow people on Twitter, if you follow journals on Twitter, following ones who are more, you know, encompassing with their viewpoints and things like that.

0:32:51.7 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, I mean, I so appreciate that, you know, and the… I’m going to ask a selfish question. You know, I… In my day job when I’m not here recording a podcast, you know, I help run an institute and part of my job is to run our communications strategy and output. And I guess, you know, as I was, you know, talking with you and listening to what you’re saying, I guess I’m wondering as someone, as a producer of industry news, is it even worthwhile for me to try to engage stories, or narratives that are in the public discourse through corporate and public media, etcetera, through big media? I don’t know what the right word here is, ’cause it seems like media groups are bigger and bigger and different this year or nowadays, or you know, is it better for us to just kind of stick to, hey, this is our focus, this is what we do? I mean, you know, it’s a hard choice to make. What’s your advice for organizations that are producing content and news specifically to the industry?

0:33:55.7 Rita Parhad: I think if you’re interested in expanding your audience, which is a specific goal, right? I mean, if that’s part of the interest, I think you have to be willing to engage in that broader media discourse. But I think I wouldn’t lose sight of what makes you an expert, right? I mean, what you bring to that discourse. So, I think the understanding what the landscape is that you are trying to navigate, that broader landscape that is, you know… That broader media landscape beyond just the industry one, I think can make you a more skilled navigator of that space. So, I mean, part of the reason we do this work for the kinds of clients like Lumina is so that they understand what that broader context is. It gives you sort of a bird’s eye view of it is, so you can say like, Oh, I’m… There’s a really sort of loud narrative here that is really counter to what we’re trying to accomplish. But what we know is that it’s… It really is very concentrated in a handful of loud but narrow news sources, and therefore we don’t need to worry about it too much.

0:35:00.0 Rita Parhad: Whereas, here’s this other one that has shown some real legs since the racial justice protests of late 2020. And so that’s one where we want to actually engage directly. And so it kind of gives you a map so that you can, you know, be a better… You can actually, you can still go where you want to go, but you have a better picture of what you’re working around or where you might try to engage directly.

0:35:23.9 Dakota Pawlicki: And just continuing down that thread, you know, one of the other, you know, piece that we talked about this right before the break too. You know, you saw a shift between your most recent report and the 2017 report, where in 2017, a lot of the conversation was around identifying and diagnosing problems and challenges, and now we’re moving towards a more solution space where more and more, particularly industry news, is focused on, you know, solutions and talking about what is working, what might not be working, ideas, those kinds of things. You know, what is… What do you think drives that change? You know, Emily, I know you mentioned already that there was, you know, increased conversation around some major federal work that was being proposed. There’s a lot of state level work that was being proposed. We’re obviously in the middle of the pandemic, so there’s these big tectonic movements. You know, how are we… What do you attribute to driving the change toward solutions?

0:36:20.5 Emily Keane: Yeah, I think the short answer is everything that’s happened in the last couple of years. But certainly, you know, when we look at a national conversation, a lot of the sort of top headlines that we see are focused around policy initiatives. So I think, again, sort of in the last year and a half, two years, we’ve seen a number of innovative and new policy initiatives in the higher ed space, in the economic space. So inevitably when that gets announced, there’s a million different takes on them. So you can have one, you know, policy pronouncement, and then it gets interpreted a million different ways or through these eight, you know, narrative lenses. So I think those are really big drivers. We’ve also, I think, seen more people sort of challenge the existing system and different parts of it in a way that’s really resonating with a lot more people.

0:37:24.8 Emily Keane: So some of the op-eds that sometimes, you know, have headlines that are just sort of outrageous, they’re getting a lot of play because there’s a lot of sort of unexpressed, frustration or emotion surrounding some of these issues. So certainly, you know, it’s been a quite the shift from 2017 to now. But we’re always interested to see, you know, what’s going to happen next. And I think Rita already mentioned that, you know, we’re going to be looking at this in early 2023 and already starting to hypothesize, you know, okay, what are we going to see then? What, how are the midterms going to affect how this conversation evolves? You know, what about, college enrollment numbers in the fall? How is that going to affect this conversation? So there’s a lot of factors that go into it. But certainly I think federal and state policy take a big source of the conversation and inspire it.

0:38:23.0 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, and one of the things I love about your all work at Protagonist is that you go beyond just identifying what the narratives are, and that really robust methodology that you use to kind of analyze the narrative landscape. But you go a step even further and say, “Okay, here’s the impact that they’re having.” And I know you have a lot of proprietary ways that you measure impact, everything from reach to engagement of certain headlines and those kinds of things, but there seems to be a constant conversation, particularly in the industry, but probably larger, about whether or not we should be talking about problems or solutions. Even if I was to sit down and write a piece of content, a blog post or a case study, you have to make this choice at some point in time, do I want to highlight and try to raise awareness of a problem that we’re seeing in the world and maybe a new way to look at that problem, or do I want to focus on a solution, “Hey, here’s what someone is doing. Here’s an idea that is about to be put in place to address the particular problem”? Of the two, which do you see having a greater impact by the ways that you measure it in terms of engagement and reach and those other metrics that you kind of use to gauge impact?

0:39:35.5 Emily Keane: Yeah, so certainly, the more problem-focused headlines and content drives engagement and readership across both public media and then also some industry reporting as well. I think that’s, as Rita mentioned, the nature of the political… Not political. Excuse me. The media machine, maybe some political implications there as well. But certainly, it doesn’t mean that solution-focused headlines and content are not effective. So it is a balance, and it’s something as those who are communication professionals take into consideration, how can you frame something rather than problem, solution? Is there a way that you can turn that on your head? On the head, so it’s… I think that’s something that’s going to be really hard to shift, but there… I think there are subtle ways in framing an issue or a potential set of solutions that can really surprise your readership in a way that sort of hooks them in the beginning.

0:40:49.7 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, I think the other thing that… I love looking at this data again. I knew this was going to be a very nerd hour with me, so thanks for hanging with me, too, ’cause I think it’s just really interesting, but I… It got me really curious about how easy or not easy it is to swing and shift narratives. And there is a growing attention around where people get their news from, around fact-checking, I know social media platforms have put in some steps around flagging misinformation or potentially not fact-checked information. A 2021 Pew Research Center study backs this notion up. They did some survey work between 2016 and 2021, the percent of US adults that have a lot or some trust in national news organizations fell from 76% to 58% over that time period. From your expert perspective here, is there anything that we should be concerned about? Are these easy narratives to shift and sway and through ethical or unethical means? Should we be worried about how easy it is to shift narratives, or do you feel pretty confident that they’re unshiftable and that truly organic in some of those ways?

0:42:11.5 Rita Parhad: Yeah. So they don’t shift on a dime, I would say that. And part of the reasons we love studying narratives is they are kind of… They tend to be sort of deep, they don’t… It’s not like a… It’s not as simple as a viral tweet, and suddenly, you have a new narrative. It’s… Narratives themselves, they run a little deeper. They have to have sort of deeper roots. And we talked earlier about counter-narratives and effective counter-narratives that do get injected into a landscape where they weren’t there three months before. That’s relatively rare and can only be done with a massive media apparatus and a lot of focus. And that’s what we saw with Plot To Divide America, but that’s relatively unusual. And typically what we see in a narrative landscape is that from year to year, they’re the same narratives, give or take.

0:42:56.8 Rita Parhad: There might be a new one introduced, there might be another one that faded away. It’s usually the same set, maybe with some adjustments made. And even if you think of the last several years, which have been quite tumultuous in many ways, there have been changes, and some significant ones, but mostly what we see are changes in how we quantify them, what we see in those measures. So we might see a particular narrative is peaking or in it’s… There’s more volume of it or there’s more engagement with it. There’s maybe a new storyline of this one particular narrative, but the narratives… Narratives themselves are fairly enduring, and they are fairly… They’re definitely not static, they move, but they are…

0:43:42.8 Rita Parhad: They don’t just disappear overnight or appear overnight. So that’s both comforting because they… There’s some sort of longer term enduring reality there, and they are hard to shift, but I do think we live in interesting times. So we’ve been tracking narratives now for roughly a decade in this particular kind of way, looking at big data analytics, and I would say that in lot of the spaces we look at, on a lot of the issues we look at, they do seem to be moving… There’s more movement than there used to be, and that’s partly just because of the nature of the media environment, but also I think politically in this country, things are more combustible than they used to be. So I think there is more room for that and there is more… There’s certainly more worry that comes with that, but there’s also opportunity. So you asked, should we be worried? Yes, I think so. But the fact that people are… There are influential voices, and some of those voices are not responsible is not really that new. I think what we have now is a much more…

0:44:52.4 Rita Parhad: There are many, many more voices in the conversation, and that is, in many ways, a good thing. Power is a little more dispersed, a lot of previously marginalized voices are… Do actually have some space now. But with that, we have a lot of irresponsible voices, a lot of misinformation, disinformation, accountability mechanisms are not probably up to the task as they currently exist. There’s a lot of work to do on that, but the upside of that sort of democratization of information is that there is just room for things beyond the traditional power structure to actually have space in the conversation. I think that puts responsibility on all of us as consumers of news and as participants in that conversation to be aware of those limitations and to have our own ways of evaluating and holding accountable those different kinds of news sources. But I think on balance, it’s probably a mark of progress, but it does change a little bit how we think of… Where we get our news and how we participate in a news environment.

0:46:05.2 Dakota Pawlicki: Yeah, before I let you all go, I guess to wrap up that point, obviously, we’ve talked a lot about what we can do as consumers of news and information. I think this is just really effective information, to understand what it is that you’re consuming, so I’ve personally benefited from that conversation. But there are a lot of organizations out there, there are colleges and universities, there’s institutes, there’s centers that are producing this kind of information, there’s philanthropy that invest pretty heavily in strategic communications work and raising awareness of both problems and solutions. How do you hope that organizations of all kinds use this information that you’re providing? What should they do as information and news producers or supporters?

0:46:56.7 Rita Parhad: Yeah, I think philanthropy is really uniquely situated in the narrative battles that we’re in. At its best, philanthropy is an idea’s business. Business is probably not the right word, but it’s in the game of ideas or in the world of ideas. And it’s in a position because it’s not worried about a bottom line, the way a lot of other organizations need to be, to invest in better, more equitable, more democratic ideas and to amplify those kinds of narratives and to try to shape conversations in productive ways. Because philanthropy foundations can be wedded to, in a really meaningful way, to a vision and a set of principles. I think they are uniquely situated to actually shape those environments. Now, with that comes a lot of responsibility, and what our work does is actually provide… Or what we try to do is provide, as I referred to earlier, sort of a mapping of that space, so they can be more strategic about that.

0:47:56.4 Rita Parhad: If you have all that money to invest and you want to put it in places, and part of that is to change the conversation or build narrative power in communities that haven’t had it historically, this gives you a way of seeing what the lay of the land is. But also, “Are you making progress on that?” So over time, when we look at landscapes, over time we can see if those investments are paying off. If you’ve been trying to support and amplify voices in a particular part of a landscape.

0:48:29.9 Rita Parhad: If we look at this six months from now or a year from now, will we see a difference in how that narrative is showing up or how those voices are showing up? So one of things really useful about this kind of work is that it actually allows you, if you’re in philanthropy, to see the progress of your work and to see it on a meaningful timeline rather than having to wait five years, 10 years, and the sort of length of time that it usually takes for it to be really apparent that narratives have changed. This gives you a way of seeing that progress in real time or close to real time, and to see if there are things you can do differently or invest in different grantees and different kinds of ways to help advance that broader vision.

0:49:15.7 Dakota Pawlicki: Well, we’ll have to leave it there for now. I feel like I could talk to you both for days about this. There’s just so much depth. It’s super interesting work, and there’s so much meaning to make of it. Dr. Rita Parhad, Emily Keane, thank you so much for spending some time with us. I hope people go check out Protagonist and all the great work that you all do. And when you update that report, I’m looking forward to having you come back on and tell us how the third round or whatever iteration you’re on is looking, ’cause this is something that we are definitely very interested in. But thank you so much for your time and insight and all your work today. I really appreciate it.

0:49:55.0 Rita Parhad: Thank you, Dakota.

0:49:55.6 Emily Keane: Thank you, Dakota.

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0:50:00.2 Dakota Pawlicki: Welcome back, everybody. This is a good opportunity for us to examine what we believe and try to trace back our beliefs to the information that shaped us. As a consumer of information, we might find that our beliefs are mainly a product of one or two personal stories from friends and family members, or perhaps we tend to read, listen, or watch the news from the same few sources. Ask yourself, how much of my world view is created by these few sources? And for those in the field of education, training, and work, it’s time for us to reflect on the broader narratives that we’re using to communicate with the people that we intend to serve. Narratives, without a doubt, drive our behavior. And if we want to make sure people access the kinds of education and training they need to prosper, then we need to be sure to communicate effectively. If you haven’t yet, check out the report in our show notes. It’s full of data and insights that are interesting and useful to really any reader, and be sure to check out Protagonist website, where you can find all sorts of examples of how they’ve used narrative research to understand our world, even beyond education and training.

0:51:07.7 Dakota Pawlicki: Thank you for joining us today, and be sure to tune in next month for our conversation with state policy and philanthropic leaders, who talk about the innovative approaches they’re taking to improve workforce and high education systems. Our show is produced by Jacob Mann and me, Dakota Pawlicki with the support from Matthew Jenkins, Amy Bartner, and the team at Site Strategics. Well Done Marketing supports the promotion of our show, Debra Humphreys and Kevin Corcoran provide leadership for Lumina’s Strategic Engagement efforts. Please be sure to subscribe and rate our show wherever you get your podcast. And as always, if you have a comment or an idea for a show or an episode, reach us at luminafoundation.org, or reach me on Twitter @dakotapawlicki. Thank you again for being with us and we’ll be sure to see next month.