Audience Learning about Economic Mobility

How can the media shift audience knowledge and attitudes about economic mobility?

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinNicole LaMarcaJohann ChackoElliott Bowen
Jun 12, 2023

In 2021, the PBS NewsHour launched a new reporting series on economic mobility. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the series' goal is to increase public awareness of the various barriers to economic mobility in the US. The series complements the NewsHour's Communities Initiative, a separate project launched in 2021 to expand the organization's scope and reach by elevating diverse reporting voices – in particular, those of journalists with lived experiences in and ties to cities often given little attention in national news coverage.

Between 2021 and 2022 we evaluated the NewsHours' economic mobility reporting. Our goal was to determine how this series impacted audience knowledge or perspectives about economic mobility. To do this, we surveyed 400 individuals before and after they watched one of several news stories from the series.

What Did We Learn?

NewsHour's economic mobility reporting produced considerable changes in viewer's attitudes. Among those we surveyed, 1 in 3 said the story they watched had changed their minds. In open-ended responses, survey participants reported consistent changes in attitude for each news story. In nearly all cases, participants who said their attitudes changed reported increased awareness of obstacles to economic mobility, increased support for programs that aim to remove those obstacles, or both. Their responses demonstrated that the shift was overwhelmingly in favor of more awareness about barriers to mobility.

How Did We Learn It?

To determine the extent to which these news stories influenced audience learning and attitudes about economic mobility, we surveyed approximately 400 Americans. The individuals who completed our survey generally reflected the diversity of the US population. Survey respondents were somewhat better educated, somewhat more aligned with the Democratic Party, and somewhat more likely to live in a rural area than the US as a whole. Roughly equal numbers of men and women submitted responses. 75% of our survey population identified as White or Caucasian, 13% as Black or African American, 8% as Hispanic or Latinx, 6% as Asian, and 3% identified as another category.

Each participant was assigned randomly to one of four pieces that aired between July 2021 and May 2022. The news stories used in the study included:

Respondents answered several questions twice, before and after viewing, and rated the story they saw according to various characteristics. Survey questions measured participants' knowledge and attitudes about economic mobility before and after reading or watching the news piece. Specifically, we assessed participants'perceptions of the possibility for relative individual economic mobility, as well as their assumptions regarding the meritocracy and fairness of society, using reliable and validated scales.

In addition to the measures used to study knowledge and attitudes, the survey also asked participants about their:

  • News habits
  • Familiarity with the topic
  • Credibility and value judgments of the news story itself
  • Self-reported learning and attitude changes
  • Demographics – specifically gender identity, level of education, community type, ethno-racial identity, and political affiliation.

Let's Put it to Work!

A recent report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2022) highlights three widely spread, harmful narratives about poverty and economic mobility (Individual Drive, Pathology of Black Urban Poverty, and Unfair System), as well as three possible counter-narratives that might lead to support for systemic change. The three counter-narratives highlighted in the report are:

  • The Systems Narrative, which moves beyond noting that problems are systemic by explaining why and how the system functions, and identifying systemic solutions
  • The Humanity Narrative, which offers "rounded and compassionate portraits" of people who currently experience poverty
  • The Solidarity Narrative, which links economic (in)justice to racial (in)justice and highlights the need for people to work together

The evaluation of this reporting suggests that linking these three narratives may be a promising approach towards creating broad changes in audience thinking. Specifically, combining compassionate reporting on the humanity of people experiencing poverty with reporting on systemic solutions seems to be effective. We encourage news outlets and others working on these issues to continue producing and sharing stories with this focus.

About this Article

This material is based upon work supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Photo by Jason Wong @ Unsplash

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