Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift

The prevalence of sexual assault in the United States, defined broadly to include not only acts of violence, but also sexual harassment and intimidation, has been the subject of media coverage and on the public policy agenda in fits and starts for more than forty years. In the past, scandals have erupted in the military, on campuses, within the priesthood, or involving a very public figure and generated media attention. Sometimes prosecutions or incremental policy reforms follow, and then the problem drops from public view until the next flare-up occurs. In late 2017, the #MeToo Movement suddenly burst onto the national stage and dominated the news cycle for weeks on end. Millions of survivors of sexual violence, not only in the United States but around the globe, took to social media and spoke out, disclosing the harms and trauma they had experienced, and within a short time, hundreds of abusers, most of them men, were toppled from positions of power. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

Today, a new movement under the leadership of survivor advocates and activists is growing in size and influence. This increased awareness and activism suggests that this time, the issue may not simply recede into the hidden corners of society where it has traditionally lurked, out of sight and out of mind for people without a direct reference point or experience. This time, a shift in the overarching narrative about sexual violence in America, driven by the survivors themselves, has the potential to bring about real institutional and behavioral change. This case study explores how the #MeToo Movement is shifting long-dominant narratives that have contributed to the societal acceptance of high levels of sexual violence in this country.

METHODOLOGY

INTERVIEWEES
  • Denise Beek, Chief Communications Officer, “me too”
  • Moira O’Neil, PhD, Vice President of Research and Interpretation, FrameWorks Institute
  • Kenyora Parham, Executive Director, End Rape on Campus Nancy Parrish, Founder and CEO, Protect Our Defenders
  • Juhu Thukral, Founder + Principal, Apsara Projects LLC
  • Brooke Foucault Welles, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Northeastern University
  • Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center
OTHER SOURCES CONSULTED
  • Maria Bevacqua, Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault. Northeastern University Press, 2000
  • Ryan J. Gallagher, Elizabeth Stowell, Andrea G. Parker, and Brooke F. Welles. Reclaiming Stigmatized Narratives: The Networked Disclosure Landscape of #metoo. SocArXiv. May 24, 2019
  • Carly Gieseler, The Voices of #MeToo: From Grassroots Activism to a Viral Roar. Bowman & Littlefield, 2019
  • Kate Harding, Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It. Perseus Books Group, 2015
  • Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles, #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. The MIT Press, 2020
  • Moira O’Neil and Pamela Morgan, American Perceptions of Sexual Violence. FrameWorks Institute, 2010
  • Katie Thomson, “Social Media Activism and the #MeToo Movement,” Medium, June 12, 2018
MEDIA AND SOCAL MEDIA RESEARCH

To identify media trends, we developed a series of search terms and used the LexisNexis database, which provides access to more than 40,000 sources, including up-to-date and archived news. For social media trends, we utilized the social listening tool Brandwatch, a leading social media analytics software that aggregates publicly available social media data.

THE SIZE OF THE PROBLEM

The fact that the prevalence of sexual assault in the United States is high is not open to controversy. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, the rate of rape increased by 15 percent between 2014 and 2018.[2] Since rape is a crime that is greatly underreported, the actual numbers are likely much higher.

The numbers from institutions that are required by law to collect such data are also sobering. In the military, 6.2 percent of active-duty women reported a violent sexual assault in 2018, and 24.2 percent reported an experience of sexual harassment. Again, the actual numbers are much higher. The military estimates that only one out of every three servicewomen who experience sexual assault files a report.[3] On college campuses, a 2019 survey of more than 181,000 students found that one in four undergraduate women from 33 large universities had experienced sexual assault while they were students.[4] Compounding the problem is the fact that so few individuals are held accountable for their actions. According to World Population Review, only 9 percent of rapists in the United States get prosecuted and only 3 percent of rapists will spend a day in prison. Of rapists in the United States, 97 percent walk free.[5]

Sexual harassment in the workplace is also extremely common in the United States. Surveys show that approximately 30 percent of women have experienced such harassment.[6] In an ABC News/Washington Post survey conducted Oct. 12–15, 2017, after the Weinstein revelations became public but before #MeToo, 54 percent of women said they had received unwanted sexual advances from a man that they felt were inappropriate whether or not those advances were work-related; 30 percent said this had happened to them at work.[7] In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted Nov. 13–15, 2017, 35 percent of women said they have personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse from someone in the workplace.[8]

BACKGROUND: THE ANTI-RAPE MOVEMENT OF THE 1970S

The rise of the women’s movement in the mid-1960s put sexual violence on the public policy agenda for the first time. Until feminists proclaimed that “the personal is political,” any public discussion of rape and other forms of sexual assault was considered taboo, hidden behind a veil of secrecy, shame, and myth. Susan Brownmiller, whose groundbreaking 1975 book Against Our Will would articulate a feminist analysis of rape, admitted that like many other women of that era, she had perceived it as “a sex crime, a product of a diseased, deranged mind” or as a false charge made by a white woman against a Black man. She wrote that she once believed women in the movement “had nothing in common with rape victims.”

That view began to change with the proliferation of consciousness-raising groups throughout the country. In these intimate and safe settings, women began to reveal experiences from their own lives that they had long kept hidden because of fear and shame. Through this process they discovered that problems they thought were individual actually reflected common conditions faced by all women—including unwanted sexual contact. In January 1971, the New York Radical Feminists held the first public event in the United States at which women spoke about their experiences of being raped. The speak-out was held in a small church in midtown Manhattan. With more than 300 women in attendance, forty spoke about their assault both at the hands of the rapist and then again at the hands of the justice system. The result of this event was the birth of the anti-rape movement and a challenge to the “rape myths” that were embedded in American culture.

ANTI-RAPE IDEOLOGY 

Throughout the decade of the 1970s feminists developed an analysis that would challenge the most common myths about rape, which they defined as any unwanted sexual contact. They organized more speak-outs across the country to demonstrate that rape was not an isolated or uncommon event. They published hugely influential books and articles such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Susan Griffin’s Rape—The All American Crime, Barbara Mehrhof and Pamela Kearon’s Rape: An Act of Terror, and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. At its core, anti-rape ideology insisted that rape was about violence, not sex, providing feminists with a new framework that removed all blame from victims whose claims were viewed as fully credible. The threat of sexual violence perpetuated male dominance and patriarchy, and eliminating rape would require transforming the gendered social arrangements that pervaded American culture. These ideas were then disseminated through the growing network of journals and newspapers, both mainstream and underground. By 1973 more than 560 feminist periodicals were being published in the United States, such as Everywoman (Los Angeles), Second Wave (Cambridge), Off Our Back (Washington, D.C.), Rat (New York), and Big Mama Rag (Denver).

ANTI-RAPE ORGANIZING

Armed with a shared consciousness and set of political goals, feminists created an array of organizations to agitate for policy reform and provide services to victims. They took many forms. Self-defense groups trained women in martial arts and other skills to combat violence against them and instill a sense of self-reliance. The first rape crisis center, designed to provide direct services to sexual assault victims, was founded in 1972 in Washington, D.C. Rape crisis centers cropped up throughout the country, aided by the Washington, D.C., center’s widely distributed pamphlet, “How to Start a Rape Crisis Center.” At its 1973 national conference, the National Organization of Women, the nation’s largest women’s rights organization, adopted Resolution 148, creating the organization’s National Rape Task Force. And in mid-1974 the Feminist Alliance Against Rape (FAAR) was founded to serve as “an autonomous organization of community-based and feminist-controlled anti-rape projects.” In 1975, “Take back the night” became a rallying cry when the first march calling for an end to sexual violence took place in Philadelphia. The year 1978 saw the founding of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA), whose main goal was “to end sexual violence and rape in our society.”

By the mid-1970s the anti-rape movement had achieved some significant policy victories. A major focus was law reform. The humiliation and dismissiveness faced by victims brave enough to report their assaults to the police and to press for criminal prosecution and accountability were characterized as simply another rape. Rape laws themselves were seen as biased toward the defendant because they required standards of proof that were almost impossible to meet.[9] In some states, for example, the law required “corroborative evidence” of non-consent before a prosecutor would bring a case; the victim’s testimony, no matter how compelling, was never enough. In New York the Anti-Rape Squad organized an “Assault on the State Legislature to Repeal the Corroboration Requirement,” and a coalition of feminist groups campaigned for its full repeal with legislative testimony, press conferences, and rallies. In 1974, the campaign succeeded, demonstrating the movement’s ability to change entrenched law and policy. Other reforms followed.

THE MOVEMENT’S LIMITATIONS

RAPE AND RACE

The feminist movement of the 1970s and beyond has long been criticized for being predominantly white and middle-class and for not addressing the needs and concerns of poor women, Black women, and other women of color. Although there were Black women who participated in and led the anti-rape movement, critics argued that the movement did not adequately analyze or act upon the complex intersection of rape and race in this country. Obviously, Black men accused of raping white women, especially in the South, did not enjoy the deference the legal system paid to white male defendants. And the movement’s assertion that all women were equally subject to rape and its aftermath was rejected by Black women and other women of color who never expected fair treatment from the criminal justice system. Scholar and activist bell hooks explained the racial hierarchy that applied in how rape was treated in her 1981 book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism:

As far back as slavery, white people established a social hierarchy based on race and sex that ranked white men first, white women second, though sometimes equal to black men, who are ranked third, and black women last. What this means in terms of the sexual politics of rape is that if one white woman is raped by a black man, it is seen as more important, more significant than if thousands of black women are raped by one white man. Most Americans, and that includes black people, acknowledge and accept this hierarchy; they have internalized it either consciously or unconsciously. And for this reason, all through American history, black male rape of white women has attracted much more attention and is seen as much more significant than rape of black women by either white or black men.

RAPE AND GENDER

The exclusive focus on cisgender women led the anti-rape movement to ignore other groups of people who were preyed upon sexually. A survey of close to 30,000 transgender people in the United States conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that nearly half (47%) of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten (10%) were sexually assaulted in the past year. In communities of color, these numbers are higher: 53% of Black respondents were sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 13% were sexually assaulted in the past year.[10] Although such data were not collected in the 1970s before the advent of a transgender rights movement, there is every reason to believe that the statistics were equally disturbing. Sexual violence against men and boys was also unexamined and discounted as an issue by the early anti-rape movement.

RAPE CULTURE

In spite of its many achievements, the anti-rape movement did not dislodge what came to be called the country’s “rape culture,” a term first coined by the New York Radical Feminist Collective in 1974 in Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women. It is a term in much use today in discussions about the continuing prevalence of sexual assaults. In the words of feminist journalist Amanda Taub, rape culture is: “A culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It’s not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault” (“Rape Culture Isn’t a Myth,” Vox, Dec. 15, 2014). It leads to victim-blaming (“slutshaming”), stigmatization of the victim, and the perpetuation of sexist attitudes and leniency for the perpetrator. This in turn discourages survivors from speaking out and so, until recently, created a culture of silence.

According to Women’s Studies Professor Maria Bevacqua, who authored Rape on the Public Agenda (Northeastern University Press, 2000), by the time of Ronald Reagan’s ascendance to the presidency in 1981 the anti-rape movement had “reached the stage of abeyance. Organizations were operating in a ‘holding pattern,’ devoting energy to maintaining hard-won gains rather than undertaking new challenges to the established order.” Rape was no longer the hot issue it had been in the 1970s. In many ways, the existing narratives were left intact.

 

THE SEXUAL ASSAULT NARRATIVES BEFORE #METOO

In 2010 FrameWorks Institute, a progressive communications think tank, published a study commissioned by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). Titled, “American Perceptions of Sexual Violence,” it reported findings based on a series of interviews with both experts and “average Americans.” The experts, who were identified by the NSVRC, were practitioners working in the field of sexual violence and its prevention. The average Americans were recruited in Los Angeles and Philadelphia by a professional marketing firm to “represent variation along the domains of ethnicity, gender, age, educational background and political ideology.”

FrameWorks found that there were substantial gaps in understanding between the two groups. The experts emphasized that sexual violence impacts all parts of society and that it happens more frequently than most members of the public realize. They explained that perpetrators are “everyday people” who are known and even loved by their victims. According to the experts, one of the primary causes of sexual violence is a culture of unequal power relationships seen to “give people permission” to dehumanize others. In contrast, the nonexperts regarded sexual predators as mentally disturbed or immoral individuals who were molded by “bad upbringing” by their parents. They fell back on the assumption that people are responsible for ensuring their own safety and talked about girls and women needing to “think about” and “choose” the kinds of clothes they wear, the places they go, behaviors such as walking alone, and the company they keep. In these responses are the telltale signs of the acceptance of “rape myths.”

In 1980, psychologist Martha M. Burt published her groundbreaking research on the prevalence of rape myths and their influence on interpersonal violence. She defined rape myths as “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.” Her hypothesis was that the acceptance of rape myths predisposed individuals to perpetrate sexual assaults. Based on the administration of a Rape Myth Acceptance Scale (RMAS) of her own devising to 600 randomly selected adults, she found that many Americans believed in rape myths. For example, more than half of the individuals agreed that “a woman who goes to the home or apartment of a man” on the first date “implies she is willing to have sex” and that in the majority of rapes “the victim was promiscuous or had a bad reputation.” More than half of Burt’s respondents agreed that 50 percent or more of reported rapes were reported “only because the woman was trying to get back at a man” or “trying to cover up an illegitimate pregnancy.” Burt posited that rape myth acceptance was the link to the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the United States. Her RMAS is still used today by researchers.

Since that time, a body of interdisciplinary social science research has documented that rape myth acceptance is still pervasive in American society. In a leading journal article surveying the field, the authors conclude:

  • “Rape myths, which include elements of victim blame, perpetrator absolution, and minimization or rationalization of sexual violence, perpetuate sexual violence against women. Indeed, research has documented that men’s engagement in sexual violence is predicted by rape myth acceptance…rape myths, despite their falsehood, are endorsed by a substantial segment of the population and permeate legal, media, and religious institutions.”[11]
  • Recent examples of rape myths in action are legion, but here are just a few:

· The dismissal of then-candidate Trump’s boast about his own sexually assaultive behavior in the Access Hollywood recording as “just locker room talk.”

· Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) claim in 2012 in a debate over abortion rights that “[i]f it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has a way of shutting that whole thing down.”

· A 2014 Forbes.com article by columnist Bill Frezza titled, “Drunk Female Guests Are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities.”

· Fraternity pledges at Yale chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.”

· A judge lectures the victim of a sexual groping incident: “If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you…. When you blame others you give up your power to change.”[12]

Popular culture transmits and reinforces rape myths through song lyrics, television shows, movies, and, of course, pornography, especially when it depicts violence. Rick Ross raps: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it, I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” The role of popular media in reinforcing rape myths has been the subject of research.One study of the effects of certain video games concluded that “a video game depicting sexual objectification of women and violence against women resulted in statistically significant increased rape myths acceptance (rape-supportive attitudes) for male study participants but not for female participants.”[13] A study of the content of popular comic books found that they reinforced rape myths: “Rape myths that were supported included a number of rape survivor, rape perpetrator, and victim blaming myths.”[14]

A LITANY OF SCANDALS, 1991-2017

The recurring sex scandals that have rocked the nation over the past 30 years are compelling evidence of the persistent influence of rape myths and rape culture—scandals that have been vigorously reported in the media, to be followed by some reforms, and then pushed into the background. This is the backdrop for what was to become the #MeToo Movement.

SEPTEMBER 1991: The Tailhook Scandal
The Tailhook Association, a fraternal organization for members of the military, held its annual convention at the Las Vegas Hilton. One night, a “gauntlet” of male military officers groped, molested, or committed other sexual or physical assaults and harassment on women who walked through the hotel’s third floor hallway. Ultimately, more than one hundred U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation officers were accused of sexually assaulting eighty-three women and seven men. An investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office led to approximately forty naval and Marine officers receiving nonjudicial punishment for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Three officers were taken to courts-martial, but their cases were dismissed. No officers were disciplined for the alleged sexual assaults.

OCTOBER 1991: The Anita Hill Hearings
In 3 days of televised hearings before the U.S. Senate, law professor Anita Hill described the crude and relentless sexual harassment she had experienced during the time she worked under the supervision of Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated to serve on the Supreme Court. The all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee’s dismissive and offensive treatment of Ms. Hill became legendary. Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court.

NOVEMBER 1996: The Aberdeen Sex Scandal
The Army opened an investigation into multiple sexual assaults at the Army Ordnance Center and Schools on Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland after a female recruit reported an assault. Referred to as “the Army’s Tailhook” and “the Aberdeen rape ring,” twelve drill instructors were charged with sex crimes, including one instructor who was eventually convicted of raping six female trainees. Ultimately, four were sentenced to prison, while eight others were discharged or received nonjudicial punishment.

JANUARY 1998: The Bill Clinton Sex Scandal
The legal and political fallout from the President’s affair with his 24-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky, would dominate the news for much of the year. Although portrayed as a consensual relationship, Clinton’s behavior and his repeated claims that he “had not had sexual relations with that woman” were emblematic of the unequal power relationships that exist in the workplace and how powerful men can prey upon their subordinates with relative impunity.

JANUARY 2002:
The Boston Globe broke the story about sexual abuse of boys committed by priest John J. Geoghan and the coverup by the Catholic diocese. This revelation was followed by the public exposure of numerous priests in the United States and around the world who had molested children under their care and supervision.

JANUARY 2003: The Colorado Springs Air Force Academy Scandal
An anonymous e-mail to the Air Force chief of staff, members of Congress, and the media alleging that there was a serious sexual assault problem at the Academy that was being ignored by the institution’s leadership ignited an investigation by the Air Force’s inspector general. The investigation revealed that 12 percent of the women who graduated from the Academy in 2003 reported that they were victims of rape or attempted rape. A survey of 579 women at the academy (out of a total enrollment of 659) found that 70 percent had been the victims of sexual harassment, of which 22 percent said they experienced “pressure for sexual favors.”

NOVEMBER 2011: Pennsylvania State University Scandal
The Penn State scandal broke when Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach for the university’s football team, was charged with 52 counts of child molestation over a period of 15 years. Three Penn State officials were charged with perjury, obstruction of justice, and failure to report suspected child abuse. Sandusky was ultimately convicted on forty-five counts of child sexual abuse and was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of 60 years in prison.

MAY 2011: Delta Kappa Epsilon Suspension
The Yale University chapter of the DKE fraternity was suspended for 5 years after pledges marched through the freshman residential quadrangle chanting “No means yes, yes means anal,” “Fucking sluts!” and “I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen” and for carrying a sign that read “We love Yale sluts.”

FEBRUARY 2014: University of Michigan Cover-Up
In 2009 a student accused an up-and-coming football kicker, Brendan Gibbons, of rape. She reported the incident to the resident advisor of her dorm, a university housing security officer, campus police, and Ann Arbor police, but nothing was done. Four years later it was revealed that the university had engaged in a cover-up so that Gibbons could continue to play for the school team.

APRIL 2014: Complaints Against Columbia University
Twenty-three Columbia University students filed complaints with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights charging systematic mishandling of sexual assault claims and mistreatment of victims by the university. They contended that campus counseling services pressured them not to report sexual assault or harassment and that perpetrators were rarely expelled. One of the survivors, Emma Sulkowicz, generated media attention by carrying around a mattress on campus in protest.

JULY 2014: University of Connecticut Settles Case
It was announced that the University of Connecticut would pay $1.28 million to settle a lawsuit filed by five students who charged that the university had treated their claims of sexual assault and harassment with indifference. The university denied any wrongdoing. None of the men accused in the complaint faced criminal charges. One accused rapist was expelled, but his expulsion was appealed and he was permitted back on campus.

NOVEMBER 2014: Bill Cosby Survivors Speak Out
After stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress called out Cosby as a rapist during a Philadelphia performance, numerous women describe being drugged and raped by him. Eventually, nearly sixty women accused him of sexual assault over a period of 30 years. The criminal investigation, trials, and conviction in Pennsylvania generated enormous press coverage.

OCTOBER 2016: Access Hollywood Tape
On October 7, during the run-up to the presidential election, The Washington Post published a video and accompanying article about candidate Donald Trump’s comments to Access Hollywood TV show host Billy Bush in 2005. In the video, Trump described his attempt to seduce a married woman and indicated he might start kissing a woman that he and Bush were about to meet. He added, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

APRIL 1, 2017: Bill O’Reilly Settlements
The New York Times broke the story that Fox News had reached settlements with six women who had worked for him or appeared on his show totaling $45 million and dating to 2002. The news came out in spite of the nondisclosure agreements each woman was compelled to sign. O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News.

OCTOBER 5, 2017: The Outing of Harvey Weinstein
The New York Times ran the story investigated by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades.” It included quotes from several of his victims, including actress Ashley Judd, and described how his misconduct had been tolerated and kept hidden by his company’s inner circle. Two days later he was fired by his own company.

OCTOBER 10, 2017: The Weinstein Scandal Deepens
The New Yorker published Ronan Farrow’s investigative report, “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories.” Based on interviews with thirteen women who Weinstein had harassed or assaulted, the article described how Weinstein and his associates used nondisclosure agreements, payoffs, and legal threats to suppress their accounts.

OCTOBER 15, 2017: #MeToo
In a tweet titled Me Too, actress Alyssa Milano wrote: Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” By 3:21 p.m. that day, 90,400 people were “talking about this.”

THE ORIGINS OF ME TOO

The scandals that erupted during the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s in hotspots like the military and college campuses or that involved well-known perpetrators received extensive media coverage and led to some ameliorative policies and actions. In 1994 the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, providing federal funding for investigation and prosecution of crimes against women. In 2004 the Congressional Women’s Caucus held a hearing on the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, which led to the introduction of the Military Justice Improvement Act. And in 2014, President Obama formed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. But still hidden from view and unaddressed was another scandal: the large number of sexual assaults against women and girls of color in low-wealth communities and the desperate lack of resources and services for the survivors of those assaults. Enter Tarana Burke.

Tarana Burke is an activist from the Bronx, New York who is herself a survivor of sexual violence. In 2003 she began working with an afterschool program for Black girls aged 12 to 18 in Philadelphia and was struck by how many of them were traumatized by sexual assaults they had experienced. In her own words, she “set out to bring healing to the Black and Brown girls in my community while raising awareness about the trauma they faced, and the lack of protections made available to them.” In 2006 she founded a nonprofit organization called Me Too. Burke’s goal was to center survivors in their own healing journeys, to create community, and work “to interrupt sexual violence in a real way.”

On the day of the Milano tweet Burke began receiving phone calls and e-mails from friends telling her that the MeToo hashtag was all over social media. “I didn’t really tweet; I wasn’t a tweeter.” Burke said. In an interview with Teen Vogue she described her initial reaction:

This fortuitous confluence of a celebrity-driven social media campaign with an existing social justice–oriented, Black-led movement would be the catalyst for shifting the narrative about sexual violence in America.

#METOO

The Milano tweet opened the floodgates and demonstrated, for the first time, the force and power social media was able to inject into the framing of sexual violence. The phrase “Me too” was used more than 200,000 times by the end of the first day and had been tweeted more than 500,000 times by the next day, October 16. On Facebook, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours. By October 17 it had become headline news all over the country:

  • #MeToo Floods Social Media With Stories of Harassment and Assault, New York Times
  • Mich. women call out sexual harassment, Detroit Free Press
  • #MeToo Campaign Empowers Women in Pittsburgh to Join Movement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • ‘Me too’ campaign gains ground as safe space for stories of harassment, The San Francisco Chronicle
  • Oklahomans say #MeToo, The Oklahoman

By the end of the first week, 1,595,453 tweets were posted, and the numbers continued to soar. The hashtag went global, with tweets from 85 countries posted by October 27. As noted in a 2018 report produced by The Opportunity Agenda, between October 2017 and September 30, 2018, more than 27 million online posts with specific references to “Me-Too,” “me too,” “me too movement,” and other variants were generated (The Opportunity Agenda, 2018). The vast majority of content in this first year of widespread online engagement focused on Harvey Weinstein, and sexual violence within the entertainment industry more broadly. An exploration of key phrases generated between October 2017 and September 2018 shows a strong association between revelations of sexual harassment experienced by high-profile women within the entertainment industry and overall discourse related to #MeToo (Figure 1).

Despite this early focus on the culture of sexual violence within Hollywood, data from a variety of sources have revealed a strong correlation between the initial viral proliferation of #MeToo and wider narrative and cultural change. For instance, traffic to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s page about sexual harassment saw a significant spike beginning in October 2017, when a total of 66,625 unique visitors came to the website, more than double the number of visitors from the previous month.[15]

A similar pattern is observed in the national and local news media, with a clear correlation between increased discussion of #MeToo and a dramatic increase in news media coverage of sexual assault, harassment, and related topics. While overall coverage related to sexual violence had begun to increase in 2013, between 2016 and 2017, news media coverage of sexual violence saw a 65 percent increase as a direct result of #MeToo (see Figures 3 and 4).

 

Far from being restricted to the high-profile women, the culture of silence that had shrouded sexual violence in secrecy was ended as millions of women (and men) shared their long-buried experiences. This, in itself, was a momentous narrative shift. In Alyssa Milano’s words, the response gave people “a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” and the ground shifted.

#MeToo allowed survivors of sexual assault to reclaim their formerly “stigmatized narrative.” Past surveys have shown that up to 40 percent of women never disclosed to anyone, and of those who did, most confided only in a close friend. Scholars explain that:

Stigmatization depends on an implicit collective enforcement of the boundaries between public and private. Pregnancy loss, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other issues experienced by women have a long history of being excluded from the public sphere by being deemed private matters. Women who do choose to disclose publicly risk reactions of disbelief or worse, blame. Blaming survivors of sexual violence discourages further disclosures, effectively chilling the collective narrative of those who have been sexually harassed and assaulted. The totality and consequences of social stigma against disclosures of sexual violence paint a bleak picture of a culture where sexual violence against women is not recognized as the pervasive public health issue which it is.[16]

Through survivors’ access to social media, this previously hidden “collective narrative” was able to break through the “chill.” As one scholar put it, “Digital spaces create perpetual conversations, especially for marginalized folk who use social media as an access point they are often denied in live communication.”[17] Once those “perpetual conversations” reach a size and level of intensity that cannot be ignored by the mainstream media, they pose a counternarrative that has the capacity to capture the general public’s attention.

The term “hashtag activism” first appeared in news coverage in 2011 to describe the creation and proliferation of online activism stamped with a hashtag. It has been critiqued as “slacktivism” because it enables participants to feel that they have done something good when all they have done is make the minimal effort of clicking “like” to show support. Because of “slacktivism,” critics assert that social media movements rarely manifest in the physical world as actual protest movements. But in certain circumstances, social media in general, and Twitter in particular, can lead to a firestorm of political action and activity.

In their book #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, communication scholars Sarah Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles argue for:

the importance of the digital labor of raced and gendered counter-publics. Ordinary African Americans, women, transgender people, and others aligned with racial justice and feminist causes have long been excluded from the elite media spaces yet have repurposed Twitter in particular to make identity-based cultural and political demands, and in doing so have forever changed national consciousness. From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, hashtags have been the lingua franca of this phenomenon.

It is fair to say that #MeToo has been one of the most, if not the most, successful example of hashtag activism to date. The early participation of celebrities with their huge numbers of Twitter followers was a major factor, but so too was the fact that the pump had been primed by earlier online efforts to bring attention to the issue of sexual violence:

The #MeToo boon was made possible by its predecessors and by the digital labor, consciousness raising, and alternative storytelling done by #YesAllWomen, #SurvivorPrivilege, #WhyIStayed, #TheEmptyChair, and many other hashtags and conversations about gendered violence that were pushed into visibility by women and their allies on Twitter.”[18]

 

In the ensuing days, weeks, and months survivors’ stories continued to reverberate in both traditional and social media. Three days after the Milano tweet, gymnast McKayla Maroney tweeted about her sexual assault at the hands of Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics national team doctor at Michigan State University. After that, more than 150 others came forward and shocked the nation with their stories of abuse by Nassar when they were young gymnasts. The issue was kept alive by a steady stream—some might say cascade—of accusations against men, many of them celebrities, politicians, or titans of industry, who then resigned, were fired, or were replaced. An incomplete list for the last quarter of 2017 includes:

OCTOBER
Chris Savino, creator of Nickelodeon’s The Loud House; Mark Halperin, political journalist; Cliff Hite, Ohio state senator; Kevin Spacey and Andy Dick, actors; Michael Oreskes, head of news at NPR; Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios.

NOVEMBER
Don Shooter, Arizona state representative; Dan Schoen, Minnesota state senator; Louis C.K., comedian and producer; Tony Mendoza, California state senator; Andrew Kreisberg, executive producer of superhero dramas; Steve Lebsock, Colorado state representative; Jeff Kruse, Oregon state senator; Senator Al Franken (D-MI); David Sweeney, chief news editor at NPR; Charlie Rose, television host; Matt Lauer, television news anchor.

DECEMBER
James Levine, conductor at the Metropolitan Opera; Peter Martins, ballet master in chief, New York City Ballet; Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review; Matt Manweller, Washington State representative; Leonard Lopate, host on New York Public Radio; Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers NFL team; Trent Franks, U.S. Representative for Arizona; John Moore, Mississippi state representative.

Time Magazine named “the Silence Breakers,” the men and women who spoke about their experiences with sexual misconduct, as Person of the Year in 2017. On January 1, 2018 the Time’s Up initiative was announced. Spearheaded by 300 women working in entertainment, its mission statement says:

By helping change culture, companies, and laws, TIME’S UP Now aims to create a society free of gender-based discrimination in the workplace and beyond. We want every person—across race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, and income level—to be safe on the job and have equal opportunity for economic success and security.

On January 7, actors and actresses participated in a red carpet “blackout” by wearing black gowns and Time’s Up pins at the Golden Globe awards and Tarana Burke was introduced to the world. On January 20, millions participated in the second annual Women’s March. On March 4, #MeToo and Time’s Up came to the Oscars and Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd, and Salma Hayek, three of Weinstein’s many accusers, spoke of the movements and the changes they hoped to see take place in Hollywood and beyond. On April 16, Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times and Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their investigation of Harvey Weinstein and company.

The ferocity of the movement and the speed with which powerful (and not so powerful) men were being toppled from their positions led to a backlash from both the left and the right. In a piece entitled, “It’s Time to Resist the Excesses of #MeToo,” conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan dismissed it as a “moral panic” that would “at some point exhaust itself.” “Politically Incorrect” Bill Maher worried that “fragile” millennials were “going to bleed what is so great out of life” by being oversensitive. Contrarian feminist Katie Roiphe published “The Other Whisper Network” in Harper’s Magazine in which she accused “the feminist moment” of #MeToo of “great, unmanageable anger…that can lead to an alarming lack of proportion.” Many other articles of similar ilk were published in the early months of the movement, along with responses from equally passionate defenders. But these controversies did not alter the narrative shift’s inexorable advance, at least among women. According to a Vox-commissioned survey conducted in March 2018, 71 percent of women under the age of 35 and 68 percent of women age 35-plus said they supported #MeToo.

Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who was the architect of interpreting sexual harassment in the workplace as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by federal law, has described #MeToo as “a cataclysmic transformation” that is “shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.” Because of #MeToo:

Sexual abuse was finally being reported in the established media as pervasive and endemic rather than sensational and exceptional…. Sexual abuse is being unearthed in every corner of society—sports as well as entertainment, food as well as finance, tech and transportation as well as employment and education, children as well as adults. As staggering as the revelations have been to many who failed to face the long-known real numbers, the structural place of this dynamic has only begun to be exposed[19]

Because of #MeToo, the conversation began to change.

#METOO IN THE NOW: ONLINE DISCOURSE 2018–2020

While Harvey Weinstein and the entertainment industry played a central role in propelling #MeToo into a global movement, an analysis of more recent data highlights the longer-term impact of the initial hashtag, specifically the tensions that have emerged as discourse has become increasingly politicized across party lines.

Between September 2018 and October 2020, a further 5 million unique social media posts were generated referring to “me too” or the “me too movement” in the United States, highlighting the continued momentum of the movement and hashtag. As seen in Figure 5, the significant spike in engagement driven by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing in October 2018 was a pivotal point in terms of the volume of online discourse, with commentary around the hearing generating 867,000 posts from nearly 300,000 unique authors.

Alongside generating a significant volume of social media content, online commentary around Brett Kavanaugh singled an important turning point in focus of online discourse related to #MeToo. Since the end of October 2018, #MeToo experienced three additional spikes in online engagement:

  • April 1, 2019: Following widespread media coverage of Lucy Flores’s and Amy Lappos’s accusations of sexual harassment against Joe Biden
  • April 27, 2020: Widespread media coverage of Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual harassment against Joe Biden
  • August 17, 2020: Controversy following Bill Clinton’s presence at the Democratic National Convention

All three spikes in engagement were linked by a central theme—that is, the growing partisanship with which discussions of sexual violence and belief of survivors appears to be governed. The visualization of the top topics/phrases to dominate social media discourse between September 2018 and October 2020 (Figure 6) highlights how political figures accused of sexual assault and harassment have become a prominent feature of online discourse. In addition to Kavanaugh, “Trump,” “President, “Senate,” and “Biden” appear as some of the most prominent topics of focus in overall online discourse related to #MeToo within the same timeframe.

The more prominent focus on high-profile political figures is just one example of how #MeToo discourse online has become increasingly muddled by those seeking to discredit political opponents. It also points to the tension between the heightened calls to “believe survivors” and the continued concessions made for powerful men, particularly when the belief or disbelief in a survivor intersects with political affiliation. This tension is clearly seen in the discussions of accusations facing now President Joe Biden. While opinion of #MeToo has always been split across party lines (in a May 2018 poll by Morning Consulting, 81% of Democrats said they backed the movement, compared with 54 percent of Republicans),[20] the commentary surrounding Tara Reade has been largely shadowed by partisanship.

While these attempts to co-opt the movement for political purposes have become a prominent feature of online discourse since 2018, online data also indicate that a large portion of women continue to engage with #MeToo as an avenue to challenge the culture of sexual violence. Figure 7 visualizes the phrases commonly found within mentions according to association with male or female authors.[21] Between 2018 and 2020, identifiable female authors were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to mention “times up,” “sexual violence,” and “sexual harassment” in relation to #MeToo. At the same time, identifiable male authors were more likely to mention “Bernie,” “Biden,” and “Democratic Party” in relation to #MeToo than their female counterparts, reflecting the differing priorities, and more partisan motivations, of many male authors.

 

While the longer-term impact of this global movement is yet to be realized, because of #MeToo, the conversation began to change.

THE SURVIVORS’ AGENDA

On June 25, 2020, in the midst of both the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests over the police murder of George Floyd, an online panel discussion was held to announce the launch of Survivors’ Agenda, whose mission statement reads:

In October 2017, the world shifted as millions of people raised their hand to say ‘me too.’ This shift has impacted the personal lives of millions, and entered the cultural zeitgeist in an unpredictable and unprecedented way. Two years later, we are still experiencing the ripple effects of the moment, and shifting into how a movement is born from its wake. The Survivors’ Agenda Initiative is about building power and changing the conversation—especially for those most marginalized and kept down by the structural oppressions of our society.[22]

With more than 700 participants in virtual attendance, six leaders representing organizations that represent women of color spoke.[23] Emphasizing the need for an intersectional approach that recognizes the various forms of “interlocking oppression” people of color and other marginalized people face, their remarks embrace the components of a bold new narrative about sexual violence in America from which four main pillars emerge.

THE FOUR PILLARS OF A NEW NARRATIVE

Listen to and believe survivors.

So many survivors have been speaking out and organizing, and we’re still struggling to have our voices heard. And the dominant narrative still blames us and shames us at worst, or, at best defines us as victims without power, without agency and without leadership capacity. And so that means that when these solutions get developed, if they get defined, it’s too often without us. And so the only thing that really shifts that dynamic is us organizing as survivors together, building our power together. And that’s what this is all about.

AI-JEN POO

Survivors come from diverse backgrounds; the most marginalized voices must be included and amplified.

People of color, Black people and other marginalized groups feel unseen; not in the mainstream. We don’t see ourselves in the media or on the news unless it’s to benefit the media.…We are prioritizing the most marginalized. This work is being led by folks who represent those groups. And it’s in our principles to uplift and amplify those voices. It’s not just survivors that don’t get heard, but as you add the intersections of who we are as survivors: disabled, queer, veteran, I mean you can go down the list of people whose voices get pushed to the side.

TARANA BURKE

Surviving sexual violence can lead to a lifetime of trauma; it is a public health crisis and survivors need and deserve respect and help.

Violence is not just between white men in uniforms and folks on street corners. Violence also looks like intimate partner violence, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. It also looks like the intimate ways that it lives in our home, in our communities. We understand that sexual abuse is a public health crisis. Too long it has been told that it is a personal issue. But we are here saying that it is a public health crisis…. What do we need to feel safe, loved and cared for by our communities and by lawmakers?

NIKITA MITCHELL

The culture must change; institutions must be held accountable; new systems must be created.

When we consider the kinds of systems that have to exist to eradicate sexual violence, it’s an xercise in thinking about what are the changes that have to be made within the systems, and also re-imagining what justice and safety look like…. What is a system that promotes healing? What are the systems that promote prevention? And what are the kinds of teachings that we’re offering to people so that we can create a new world that is free of violence? When it comes to the eradication of violence, we have to acknowledge the fact that there are power imbalances that have allowed people to perpetuate violence without any accountability…. So, when we think about gender inequality and the ways in which we have sexual violence happening in the workplace, it’s because people think they can wield power over survivors. That exists because of systems of discrimination and inequality.

MONICA RAMIREZ

CONCLUSION

The stories that we are trying to undo are longstanding and extraordinarily deeply embedded and it’s going to take a while to uproot them. I’m optimistic because we’re in the middle of tightening and weaving together a new story and it’s through activism and engagement that we will open people’s minds to something different. But it would be wrong to suggest that we are not still grappling with old tropes like survivors lie and this being an individual, not a societal, problem. We are grappling with these old tropes every day across the nation.”

FATIMA GOSS GRAVES, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center

Two significant events in the midst of #MeToo showed the continuing power of rape myths on the one hand and the public’s changing consciousness about the realities of sexual violence on the other. In September 2018 a woman named Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault committed when they were teenagers. In a tumultuous televised Senate hearing, Blasey Ford was interrogated by a seasoned female sex crimes prosecutor hired by the all-male Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee “as an appropriate reflection of the seriousness” of the hearing. Democrats on the committee complained that having a prosecutor rather than a committee member doing the questioning gave the impression Blasey Ford was on trial, and indeed the questions posed were geared toward undermining her credibility.[24] Kavanaugh’s testimony was described by one reporter as “a combination of anger and pathos” during which he lashed out at Democrats and what he called a “grotesque and co-ordinated character assassination,” warning darkly, “what goes around comes around.”[25] The Senate’s very partisan vote to elevate this man to the highest court could be described as a classic case of rape myth acceptance.

In contrast, the jury’s conviction of Harvey Weinstein in February 2020 showed that people are ready, willing, and able to reject longstanding rape myths. Weinstein’s defense made much of the fact that some of the women who testified against him had maintained a relationship with him after the assault occurred, arguing that would never have happened if there had really been nonconsensual sex. But the prosecutors called veteran forensic psychiatrist Dr. Barbara Ziv, who had testified at Bill Cosby’s criminal trial the year before. Through her expert testimony she exposed and undermined a number of rape myths and explained to the jury that the failure to report a rape and the maintenance of contact with the perpetrator after the assault did not support Weinstein’s claims that the acts of which he was accused were consensual. She testified that it was very rare for a woman who has been sexually assaulted by someone she knew—which is the case in 85 percent of rapes—to tell others about it. It is rarer still for her to report the crime to the police. And she testified that victims typically do continue contact with their perpetrator, including texting, calling, and even having a relationship with their rapist. On February 24, the jury found Weinstein guilty, and a month later he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Headlines emphasized the historical significance of the conviction:

  • Harvey Weinstein sentenced to 23 years in prison in landmark #MeToo case, NBC News
  • Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault and rape convictions marked a major #MeToo moment, CNN
  • Weinstein faces sentencing, prison in landmark #MeToo case, AP

Will this new movement against sexual violence succeed where its precursors have not? Much will depend on its efforts to bring about narrative shift, and in this regard, there is reason to be hopeful. Narrative shift is an explicit goal of #MeToo: “We are about strategizing action to disrupt rape culture, and shifting the narrative to bring these conversations into the powerful spaces where change happens.”[26] With its focus on how different forms of oppression intersect because of oppressive systems, this movement has the potential to bring about the fundamental change necessary to minimize the public health threat that is sexual violence in America.

Request Interview Transcripts


1 Carly Gieseler, The Voices of #MeToo: From Grassroots Activism to a Viral Roar, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019, 170.

2 https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/sffucrp.pdf

3 https://www.sapr.mil/sites/default/files/FY17_AR_Report_Statistical_Highlights_Info_Graphic_FINAL.jpg

4 https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2019/10/campus-sexual-assault-survey/

5 World Population Review is a website dedicated to global population data and trends.

6 https://www.forbes.com/sites/bowmanmarsico/2018/01/16/sexual-harassment-what-do-the-polls-say/#6ddf09a35ac0

7 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/a-majority-of-americans-now-say-that-sexual-harassment-is-a-serious-problem/2017/10/16/707e6b74-b290-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html

8 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/poll-a-third-of-women-say-theyve-been-sexually-harassed-or-abused-at-work

9 This criticism, of course, did not apply when Black men were accused of sexually assaulting white women.

10 https://vawnet.org/sc/serving-trans-and-non-binary-survivors-domestic-and-sexual-violence/violence-against-trans-and

11 Edwards KM, Turchik JT, Dardis T, Reynolds N, and Gidycz CA, Rape myths: History, individual and institutional-level presence, and implications for change. Sex Roles, 2011:65, 761–773.

12 http://archive.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/20120907roberts0908-unbelievable-judge-lectures-abuse-victim.html

13 Beck, et al., “Violence Against Women in Video Games: A Prequel or Sequel to Rape Myth Acceptance?” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2012.

14 Garland et al., “Blurring the Lines: Reinforcing Rape Myths in Comic Books” (Feminist Criminology, 2015).

15 Chiwaya, Nigel, “New data on #MeToo’s first year shows ‘undeniable’ impact,” NBC News, October 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/new-data-metoo-s-first-year-showsundeniable-impact-n918821?cid=sm_npd_nn_tw_ma

16 Ryan Gallagher, Elizabeth Stowell, Andrea G. Parker, and Brooke Foucault Welles. “Reclaiming stigmatized narratives: The networked disclosure landscape of #MeToo.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction. November 2019:96. https://doi.org/10.1145/3359198

17 Carly Gieseler, The Voices of #MeToo: From Grassroots Activism to a Viral Roar (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

18 Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, Brooke Foucault Welles, #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020).

19 Where #MeToo Came From, and Where It’s Going, The Atlantic, March 24, 2019.

20 https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/are-americans-more-divided-on-metoo-issues/

21 It is important to note significant limitations of these data. First, the data do not account for non-gender binary individuals. Also, gender identification is based on self-identification and is likely to be skewed by bots, dummy accounts, and misidentification.

22 Emphasis added.

23 They were Nikita Mitchell, Rising Majority; Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance; Monica Ramirez, Justice for Migrant Women; Tarana Burke, ‘me too’; Michelle Grier, Girls for Gender Equity; and Fatima Goss Graves, National Women’s Law Center.

24 https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/25/republicans-hire-female-sex-prosecutor-to-grill-kavanaugh-and-accuser-ford.html

25 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45660297

26 me too. Impact Report 2019, p. 8

Narrative Shift and The Death Penalty

In this case study, The Opportunity Agenda explores a narrative shift that transpired over a period of almost 50 years—from 1972, a time when the death penalty was widely supported by the American public, to the present, a time of growing concern about its application and a significant drop in support. It tells the story of how a small, under-resourced group of death penalty abolitionists came together and developed a communications strategy designed to raise doubts in people’s minds about the system’s fairness that would cause them to reconsider their views.

In its early days, the abolition movement was composed of civil liberties and civil rights organizations, death penalty litigators, academics, and religious groups and individuals. Later, new and influential voices joined who were directly impacted by the death penalty, including family members of murder victims and death row exonerees. Key players used a combination of tactics, including coalition building—which brought together litigators and grassroots organizers—protests and conferences, data collection, storage, and dissemination, original research followed by strategic media placements, and original public opinion research.

This case study highlights the importance of several factors necessary in bringing about narrative shift. Key findings include:

  • It can be a long haul. In the case of issues like the death penalty, with its heavy symbolic and racialized associations, change happens incrementally, and patience and persistence on the part of advocates are critical.
  • Research matters. Although limited to a few focus groups, the public opinion research undertaken in 1997 was critical in terms of both informing the communications strategy going forward and building unity among stakeholders.
  • Going on the offensive can change the game. Armed with an effective communications strategy, advocates can reset the terms of the debate and make considerable headway.
  • Bring in diverse voices. New messengers, especially “strange bedfellows”—in this case, families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty—can have a big impact.

METHODOLOGY

Our research methodology included in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, a document review, and a scan and analysis of traditional and social media.

INTERVIEWEES:
  • Richard Dieter, founding director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)
  • Robert Dunham, current director of DPIC
  • Sister Helen Prejean, longtime abolition activist and author of Dead Man Walking
  • Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP)
  • Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy

We analyzed both public opinion data and traditional and social media content to corroborate and validate our interviewees’ observations. Leading research organizations such as Roper, Gallup, and Pew have been measuring changes in public opinion on the death penalty for many years, making it possible to see trends clearly. We also had access to proprietary qualitative research conducted by the ACLU. To identify media trends, we developed a series of search terms and used the LexisNexis database. For social media trends we utilized the Crimson Hexagon online data library. Our interviews with key stakeholders and our review of public opinion and media/social media trends reveal a dynamic relationship that continues to reshape the public narrative about the death penalty in America.

Based on a series of historical benchmarks, we identified five time periods and their external (i.e., events beyond the control of the advocates) and field-wide tipping points that comprised the stages of narrative shift:

EARLY YEARS: 1972–1980

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • A 4-year moratorium begins following the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia. The death penalty statutes in 40 states are voided as arbitrary, cruel, and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
  • Surveys show public support for the death penalty for those convicted of murder is less than 50 percent.
  • States undertake reforms and the Supreme Court reinstates the death penalty in 1976 in Gregg v. Georgia.
  • The execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore, the first person to be executed post-Gregg, has intense media coverage
  • An uptick in crime reported and sensationalized by media occurs.
FIELD-WIDE TIPPING POINTS
  • The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty is established.
  • Strategies other than litigation are explored and implemented.

THE 1980s

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • Fear of crime increases. “If it bleeds, it leads” media coverage (i.e., fear-based media coverage focusing on murder and mayhem because it increases sales) intensifies it.
  • Law and order and racist dog-whistle political rhetoric increases, and Ronald Reagan is elected.
  • As new death sentences increase, appeals and procedural delays come under attack.
  • Support for the death penalty climbs; politicians take note.
  • The Supreme Court rejects racial bias argument in McClesky v. Kemp.
  • Bush/Dukakis campaign, the “Willie Horton ad,” and Dukakis’s anti-death penalty stance are shown to be a political liability.
FIELD-WIDE TIPPING POINTS
  • None: Abolition movement on the defensive.

THE 1990s

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • Candidate Clinton presides over the Arkansas execution of a mentally disabled man.
  • In reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was enacted.
  • New death sentences and executions reach an all-time high.
  • Eighty percent of the public favors the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.
FIELD-WIDE TIPPING POINTS
  • The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is established.
  • The Innocence Project and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) are founded.
  • 60 Minutes airs a feature story about EJI’s efforts to free Walter McMillian from Alabama’s death row.
  • Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile films are released.
  • Kirk Bloodsworth becomes the first death row inmate to be exonerated through DNA testing.
  • The American Bar Association passes a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions.
  • The Northwestern School of Law holds a conference with 29 “death row refugees.”
  • ACLU commissions focus groups; researchers recommend focusing on systemic unfairness.
  • A 3-day gathering at the Musgrove Conference Center of leaders from around the country is held to hammer out a new communications strategy to move hearts and minds.

THE 2000s

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • Illinois Governor George Ryan declares first moratorium on executions.
  • Executions and new death sentences begin to decline.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ends execution of people who have mental disabilities and people who committed crime as juveniles.
  • Exonerations receive increasing media attention; Congress passes the Innocence Protection Act.
  • The public supports life sentence without parole over death penalty.
  • Botched lethal injection controversy grows.
  • Pope Francis says the death penalty is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
  • Public support drops to a four-decade low.
  • Gov. Newsom orders moratorium on executions in California, the state with the largest death row.
FIELD-WIDE TIPPING POINTS
  • The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty grows to more than 100 affiliates and adopts a state-by-state strategy.
  • The DPIC website becomes a one-stop shop for journalists covering the issue; media coverage focuses on systemic flaws.
  • Murder Victims Families for Human Rights is founded.

2007-2020

EXTERNAL TIPPING POINTS
  • New Jersey is the first state to abolish capital punishment legislatively; nine more states follow suit.
  • Governors in four states—California, Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—declare moratoriums on executions.
  • Editorial support for abolition grows.
  • Public support for death penalty falls to lowest point since the 1970s.
FIELD-WIDE TIPPING POINTS
  • Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty is founded.
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is published and sells more than 1 million copies; a major film based on the book is released.
  • The campaign to save Rodney Reed, a Texas death row inmate convicted by an all-white jury, wins indefinite stay of execution.

BACKGROUND

On March 23, 2020 Colorado became the twenty-second state to abolish the death penalty and the tenth to do so since 2007. Once assumed to be a permanent fixture in the nation’s criminal justice system, with a few notable exceptions the death penalty has been in retreat since the early ’00s as one state after another has either repealed their death penalty statute or imposed a moratorium on executions. As of 2020, for the first time in U.S. history the death penalty is in perfect equipoise: 25 states retain it, and 25 states reject it, either through repeal (22) or moratorium (3). Once considered a third rail in politics, opposition to the death penalty has become sufficiently mainstream for elected leaders to openly embrace it.

These recent policy reforms would not have been possible were it not for the erosion of public support for the death penalty. In the peak year of 1995, 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty and only 16 percent opposed it for people convicted of murder. Today support for the death penalty is the lowest it has been in the past 40 years, with 56 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed. The decline in public support, in turn, is reflected in the imposition of fewer death sentences by juries. In 2018, 42 new death sentences were imposed as compared to 315 in 1996.

This case study describes the role that public narrative, as expressed through media coverage, popular culture, and the opinions of influential voices, has played in causing Americans to reconsider their position on what had, for decades, been a hot button issue. We look at how a relatively small movement of death penalty litigators and abolitionist advocates and activists representing arguably the most stigmatized constituency in America—people on death row—used the tools at their disposal to change the story.

THE DEATH PENALTY NARRATIVE, THEN AND NOW

THEN
We need the death penalty to punish those who break society’s rules and bring order to a criminal justice system that does not protect the public’s safety. The finality of the death penalty brings order to chaos and brings closure for the victims’ families.

NOW
The death penalty as it’s applied in this country is flawed, is infected with racial bias, and can’t be fixed. There are other ways to protect the public’s safety that are less costly, are just as effective, and don’t run the risk of executing innocent people.

Executions were rare in this country prior to the mid-1980s. In 1965 there were seven executions nationwide, four of them in Kansas. In 1966 there was one, and in 1967 there were two. Because of how rarely it was carried out, the death penalty was relatively uncontroversial. That changed in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in Furman v. Georgia, holding that the death penalty statute in question violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments because it was applied “arbitrarily and capriciously.” The 5-4 decision had the effect of abrogating every death penalty statute in the country. All pending death sentences were reduced to life imprisonment, and states understood that they had to go back to the drawing board if they wanted their statute to pass constitutional muster.[1]

The Furman decision was the result of a litigation strategy. Diann Rust-Tierney explains:

The same tools that were available to address civil rights violations were applied here by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. When you have a primarily legal argument it makes you think about issues a certain way, and it makes you think about your audience a certain way. The way that the LDF and others prosecuted these cases was to amass a great deal of information and facts and data and arguments and put them before the Court, and the Court makes a ruling. At the time there was the expectation that once a case was won the issue was settled. But states went right back to the drawing board. We learned that litigation strategies have to be accompanied by the work of changing public opinion.

In the aftermath of Furman, 37 states enacted new death penalty laws, and in 1976, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ended the de facto moratorium when it reviewed five new statutes (Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina) and found them to be constitutional. The number of new death sentences climbed rapidly, from just under 50 in 1973 to 300 in 1975, and that number would remain relatively constant until 2001.The number of executions grew slowly at first and then rose rapidly beginning in the mid-1990s. Ninety-eight executions were carried out in the peak year of 1998. The fact that 81 percent of those executions were carried out by southern states was not insignificant. Bryan Stevenson argues that “the death penalty is lynching’s stepchild”:

The race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in America. We moved lynchings from outside to inside in the 1940s and ’50s when the political pressure on these communities that tolerated this spectacle of violence got so great that they no longer felt they could do it with impunity. I think that connection is directly linked to what we tolerated during the era of lynching. And we use this lethal threat of violence from an electric chair to replace the threat that was created through hanging. I don’t think it’s an accident that the states with the highest lynching rates are the states with the highest execution rates. Nor do I think it’s an accident that communities in those states feel deeply burdened by our continuing willingness to kill people in this racialized way.[2]

The reinstatement of the death penalty arrived as law and order rhetoric came to dominate the public discourse. The Reagan Administration loudly attacked constitutional “technicalities” like the Exclusionary Rule and the Miranda warnings, claiming they “tied the hands of the police.” The war on drugs was declared, and politicians, concerned with being labeled “soft on crime,” enacted a raft of harsh anti-crime laws at the state and federal levels. “If it bleeds, it leads” came to dominate local media coverage, and fear of crime intensified. Underlying the growing support for the death penalty was the extent to which crime in America was racialized (i.e., experienced by whites, and others, in racial terms). According to public opinion surveys, white Americans overestimated (and still overestimate) the proportion of crime committed by people of color and the proportion of people of color who committed crime. And social science research shows that attributing crime to people of color limits empathy toward the accused and encourages retribution as the primary response to crime.[3] The death penalty, of course, is the ultimate form of retribution. The narrative promoted by “tough on crime” pundits that judges were too lenient and prisons were like country clubs also gained ground. In this environment, the death penalty was viewed as all that stood between the public and the most heinous crimes.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision reinstating the death penalty, there was minimal organizing and advocacy against it and abolitionists relied almost exclusively on litigation to press their case. A small group of legal organizations, most notably the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU, and a handful of attorneys and academics worked together to coordinate court challenges to various aspects of the death penalty. Days after the Gregg decision, Henry Schwarzschild, the head of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, sent out a tersely worded mailgram to leaders of the small abolition movement:

In light of the Supreme Court decision on death sentences, we are convening a working meeting on non-litigation strategy to prevent executions and abolish capital punishment. Your attendance is urgently invites. Please advise.

The meeting, held just a few days later, led to the founding of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and the earliest efforts to mobilize a grassroots movement.[4] As the organization’s name makes clear, the goal was, and still is, the complete eradication of the death penalty in the United States. Within its first year, 40 state affiliates had joined the coalition, representing faith, civil rights, and civil liberties organizations. Eventually growing to more than 100 affiliated organizations, the NCADP spread its message of abolition, grounded in opposition to all “state-sponsored killing,” through public speaking engagements, publications including Execution Alerts that reported impending executions, and vigils.

The 1980s: “Endless Appeals and Procedural Delays”

During the decade of the 1980s the death penalty became a potent symbol of toughness on crime, and its favorability rating among the public climbed steadily. Between 1980 and 1985, media coverage of the death penalty more than tripled. By the end of 1985, the death row population exceeded 1,500 people but executions were still relatively rare, and procedural delays in carrying out executions became a contentious issue. Headlines about legally thwarted executions such as the following were common:

  • Gray Execution Blocked Again (The Washington Post, July 7, 1983)
  • Convicted Murderer Gets a Stay in Louisiana (Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1981)
  • Execution of Child-Killer Stayed by U.S. Court (The New York Times, March 1, 1982)
  • Killer Wins Reprieve (Miami Herald, October 22, 1982)
  • State High Court Overturns 2 More Death Sentences (Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1986)

The Washington Legal Foundation, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, and other pro-death penalty organizations aggressively lobbied for limiting the appeals process and shortening the length of time between sentencing and execution. In 1989, a special committee of federal judges, set up at the request of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to study the judicial system’s handling of death penalty cases, recommended strict new limits on the multiple appeals filed by death row inmates. Pressure built for Congress to enact legislation curtailing the rights of people on death row.

As the 1980s came to an end, death penalty opponents were in an acutely defensive position. In 1987 the movement suffered a major legal defeat when the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp, rejecting the argument based on powerful statistical evidence that the application of the death penalty was racially biased.5 In 1988, the presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis reinforced the message that the death penalty was needed to protect public safety and that opposition to it was a definite political liability. First, the Bush campaign aired the “Willie Horton” TV attack ad.

Considered one of the most racially divisive ads in modern political history, it depicted an African American man who had been convicted of murder, who raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while furloughed from prison under a Massachusetts program in place when Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, was governor. In a voiceover, the narrator says: “Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.” Between 1988 when the ad first launched and 1990, more than 1,600 articles were published in mainstream media outlets making reference to Willie Horton.

Then, during a televised debate between the candidates, Gov. Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. He responded, “No, I don’t… I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Labeled “Dukakis’ Deadly Response” by Time magazine, pundits attributed his election defeat to his answer to this question.

In spite of the opposition’s efforts to sway the public through protest, argument, and litigation, by the end of the decade the dominant narrative about the death penalty was deeply embedded in the public discourse: The death sentence was needed as a deterrent to crime and an expression of the American public’s desire to punish wrongdoers, and the delays in executions brought about by defense lawyers and liberal judges violated the public’s trust. Politicians opposed it at their peril. Abolition leaders knew that a course correction was imperative.

In the 1980s, most of us were trying to just survive the tough on crime rhetoric and we were on the defensive. In the 1990s, some of us started to talk about what we needed to do to be proactive, and that’s what gave rise to the effort around creating concerns about the death penalty as applied, rather than in the abstract.

Bryan Stevenson

The 1990s: The Beginning of a Contest Over Narrative

In early 1990, a small group of leading abolitionists met in New York City to come up with a plan to break through what they viewed as a stalemate. They feared that the debate had been reduced to confrontations outside prisons on the eve of executions, with one side praying and the other side calling for death. Convened by journalist and philanthropist John “Rick” MacArthur, those present expressed their frustration with the limits of what they believed had been a mostly “philosophical” argument about the morality of capital punishment. They agreed with what Justice Thurgood Marshall had written in his opinion in Furman v. Georgia: If Americans knew all the facts, they would be against the death penalty. How, then, to bring all the facts to the attention of the public?

The result of that meeting was the birth of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), whose mission was to “serve the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.” DPIC, with a full-time staff of one, was initially housed in the offices of Fenton Communications, a public relations agency founded by David Fenton to further the goals of the movements for the environment, public health, and human rights. DPIC engaged in intensive media relations, identifying and working with journalists to tell a different story about the death penalty. It began to publish special reports focusing on the systemic flaws in its implementation, including racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and so on.

At first there was some resentment within the abolition movement about the funding of DPIC. At a time when the death penalty defense bar had so few resources, some felt the money would be better spent on providing more and better legal services to the condemned. But several early breakthroughs that demonstrated the power and potential of favorable media coverage began to win those detractors over, including:

  • In May 1992 Time magazine published a cover story about Roger Keith Coleman, on Virginia’s death row for the murder of his sister-in-law. The cover headline, superimposed over a photograph of Coleman, read “THIS MAN MIGHT BE INNOCENT; THIS MAN IS DUE TO DIE.”

  • In the fall of 1992 CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a feature story about Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to free Walter McMillian from Alabama’s death row, illuminating the role of racism in the railroading of an innocent black man in the Deep South.
  • In June 1993, the exoneration of Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person on death row to be released as a result of DNA evidence, was covered in close to 200 stories in major U.S. newspapers and featured on television news programs nationwide.

These “earned media” stories were the results of hard work by advocates armed with a proactive communications strategy. They, and others like them during the early 1990s, were at the forefront of what would become a steady stream of stories that complicated, and gradually undermined, the widespread belief that the death penalty was fair and that miscarriages of justices were rare. In 1992 two professors at Cardozo Law School, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, founded the Innocence Project, putting the spotlight on the risk of miscarriages of justice by using DNA evidence to reopen cases, and the number of death row exonerations began to grow.[6] The Innocence Project, which eventually expanded into a large network of projects throughout the country, has been hugely influential in the narrative shift process. Since its founding, it has been featured in close to 7,000 news media articles. In April 2020 Netflix released a nine-part documentary series, The Innocence Files, which features the work of the Innocence Project.

Other events during this decade also contributed to growing unease about the death penalty. Two award-winning films based on best-selling books were released. In 1996, Dead Man Walking, based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean of the same title, came out to wide critical acclaim. The film introduced a mass audience not only to Sister Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon, and her moral crusade against the death penalty, but also to the character of Earl Delacroix, the father of one of the victims, who opposed the execution of his son’s murderer. The film’s portrayal of a grieving father who disputed the claim that the execution would help him find “closure” presented viewers with a counternarrative to the one they had been given. In 1999, The Green Mile, a fantasy crime drama starring Tom Hanks and based on a book by Stephen King, told the story of the execution of an innocent black man and the emotional toll it took on the prison official supervising the execution. Speaking of the impact murder victims’ families and corrections officials would have in voicing this counternarrative, Sister Helen Prejean explains:

When the New Jersey legislature was having hearings about the death penalty, sixty-two murder victims’ families testified saying ‘don’t kill for us.’ More and more victims’ families are saying the death penalty re-victimizes us. It puts your grief in the public spotlight. Every time there’s a change in the status of the case the media is at your door. You can’t grieve. You’re in trauma. It doesn’t help. Then there are the voices of wardens who have to carry out executions, and guards that are part of the execution squad. One warden in Florida has said publicly that he will be in therapy for the rest of his life: ‘I participated in the killing of someone who had been rendered defenseless.’

Events in Illinois were unfolding that would have an impact on public opinion nationwide. A spate of death row exonerations, some of them brought about through the investigatory efforts of journalism students at Northwestern University, put a spotlight on police and prosecutorial corruption and misconduct. By 1998, the Illinois death penalty score stood at 11 executed (since the reinstatement of the penalty in 1977) and nine exonerated. In November, the Northwestern School of Law held a conference that brought together on one stage 29 “death row refugees,” eight from Illinois and the rest from other states. An AP photo of the exonerees along with Professor Anthony Amsterdam, a well-known abolitionist attorney, was a jolting image of how serious the risk of executing the innocent really was.

Two months after the conference, the Chicago Tribune published a five-part series by two investigative reporters entitled, “Trial & Error. How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win.” A month after this hard-hitting series was published, in early 1999, another Illinois death row prisoner, Anthony Porter, was exonerated within 48 hours of his scheduled execution when an investigator hired by the Northwestern project obtained a video-recorded confession from the man who actually committed the murder. The Porter exoneration was swiftly followed by three more–Steven Smith, Ronald Jones, and Steven Manning—setting the stage for the new governor, George Ryan, to declare the country’s first moratorium on executions in January 2000. It was clear that the risk of executing the innocent was a key component of a new narrative about the death penalty. As Richard Dieter put it:

We had to reach a critical mass in the amount of information people heard about innocence. They had to hear it again and again. Innocence opened the door and you started to hear political leaders saying the reason they were stopping executions or voting to abolish the death penalty was the risk of an innocent person being put to death. Innocence was the breakthrough that was needed to deflate the pro-death penalty argument.

The progress in shifting the narrative did not lead to policy change right away. In fact, the abolition cause suffered a setback after the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in April 1995. President Bill Clinton, who had demonstrated his death penalty bona fides in 1992 when he interrupted his campaign for president to preside over the Arkansas execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally disabled man, signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 into law. The bipartisan act greatly limited the ability of federal courts to grant writs of habeas corpus, often the only legal relief available to those on death row.[7] The number of executions was climbing steadily at this juncture, and abolition advocates felt a new sense of urgency.

In 1997, the ACLU commissioned a series of focus groups to inform the organization and its allies about the general public’s attitudes toward the death penalty. Participants were either somewhat supportive of the death penalty or had no opinion on the issue. At the time the focus groups were held, public opinion surveys showed that three-quarters of Americans supported the death penalty. In a report titled, “Making the Case for Abolishing the Death Penalty,” the research firm of Belden Russonello & Stewart advised that “overall, the groups uncovered deeply-held support for the death penalty among these participants, but the discussions also identified some possible ways to begin to erode this support through long-term education.” The report and its recommendations were shared and discussed widely with the abolition community.

The views expressed by the focus group participants demonstrated that calling for abolition had little chance of success in the near term. According to the researchers’ analysis, the overarching theme that emerged from the focus groups was “don’t get rid of the death penalty, but use it wisely.” Participants believed that the death penalty was at times administered unfairly, but they did not see the problems as serious enough to warrant ending its use. In response to a story about an innocent person who had been sentenced to death, for example, a focus group participant said:

I just don’t think that’s a good reason to not kill the people that are guilty for fear that you might make a mistake and kill someone who’s innocent. You have to hope that the judicial system is fair and is structured so that it catches those mistakes.

The direction for changing the dominant narrative became clear: The anti-death penalty movement had to expose the many ways that the judicial system was riddled with errors and unfairness and use all the tools at its disposal to communicate those problems to the American public. In other words, follow Justice Thurgood Marshall’s admonition to “shock the conscience” of the “average American.”

In 1998 the ACLU received a grant to underwrite a convening of movement leaders to build unity around a new narrative—one based on exposing and challenging systemic flaws in the administration of the death penalty, state by state. For some organizations and individuals, this approach was problematic and smacked of “greasing the rope”—fixing the death penalty system so that it worked better. Bringing everyone on board would require the time and space for in-depth discussion and debate. The convening took place over several days at the Musgrove Retreat and Conference Center on St. Simons Island, Georgia. It included a presentation by the public opinion research firm that had conducted the ACLU’s focus groups. By the end of the convening, agreement had been reached on a new narrative and the state-based strategy. According to Richard Dieter, who participated in the Musgrove convening:

The narrative shifted from a theoretical, philosophical debate to a more pragmatic approach. And that brought in a broader group of people who questioned the death penalty but didn’t necessarily oppose it on principle. The broader approach, the ‘bigger tent,’ has been effective on this issue.

From 2000–2006: A New Narrative Takes Hold

By the turn of the new millennium, support for the death penalty in cases of murder had begun its downward trajectory.[8] On January 27, 1999, Pope John Paul II condemned it as “both cruel and unnecessary” during his Papal Mass in St. Louis, reinforcing the moral imperative for a moratorium. The abolition movement had reached a critical mass in terms of influencing the debate through public appearances, media outreach, and other forms of communication. As Robert Dunham points out, the movement had also grown increasingly diverse:

There are many organizations that have made a tremendous impact. The Southern Center for Human Rights, the Equal Justice Initiative, Witness to Innocence, and the Catholic Mobilizing Network. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon, because of her role in Dead Man Walking, attracted media attention. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the American Bar Association, Amnesty International, the Innocence Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Some of the most important people are the institutional capital defenders, because without them you would not see the stories of all the miscarriages of justice. They all play a vital role.

With the arrival of the internet, the Death Penalty Information Center became an even more efficient “one stop shop” for news and analysis. Between 1990 and December 31, 2019, 3,869 news articles were published in the mainstream U.S. news media referencing DPIC. In terms of overall share of media coverage, DPIC significantly outpaced its major opposition, the Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-death penalty organization.

New voices entered the debate, most significantly family members of murder victims who opposed the death penalty, and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights was founded. Affiliates of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty ramped up their efforts to expose the flaws in their states’ systems, issuing public reports and engaging in legislative advocacy and local media outreach. According to Diann Rust-Tierney:

The focus on changing the law at the state level—that was huge. Before, all of us thought our job was to just keep talking to people and if we convinced them to oppose the death penalty, something would happen. It was when we linked the communications strategy to actual state policy reforms that we began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

A survey of coverage in major U.S. newspapers during this period reveals the shifting narrative in real time. More and more, journalists focused on issues that the abolition movement was pressing: the role of race and poverty; the problems of prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate counsel that led to miscarriages of justice and exonerations; the cruelty of “botched” executions. These stories reinforced the public’s growing unease and also revealed the systemic fault lines that the movement had been trying to expose. In particular, the availability of post-conviction DNA testing revealed how high the risk of executing an innocent person really was.

News coverage of death row exonerations began to increase in 2001 and spiked in 2003. That year there were more than 500 stories published in major U.S. newspapers highlighting the rising number of exonerations. Hundreds of stories reported on Gov. George Ryan’s moratorium on executions and his decision to grant blanket commutations during his last days in office for all 156 people still on Illinois’s death row. His statement that “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die” received wide coverage in the print and broadcast media. Other stories reported on individual cases of exoneration around the country, some occasioned by new DNA evidence and others by evidence of prosecutorial misconduct or racial bias among jurors. Between 2003 and 2006, there were 1,495 news reports and opinion pieces nationwide focusing on exonerations, and anti-death penalty op-eds, columns, and editorials far outweighed the pro side. Other flaws in the system, including prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense, and racial disparities also received increasing media attention during this period.

From 2007–2020: An Era Drawing to a Close

This period saw a marked increase in the number of police shootings of unarmed black men and an uptick in media coverage of these incidents. The frequency and number of police killings gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement and a marked shift in the public’s consciousness about racial bias in the criminal justice system overall. In 1995, a majority of Americans believed the criminal justice system gave black people “fair treatment.” By 2007, the percentage that thought the system was “biased against Blacks” was on the rise, and between 1995 and 2015 it increased by almost 30 points.[9] This growing acceptance of the reality of systemic racial bias added to people’s disquiet over the death penalty.

By 2007, the efforts to shift the death penalty narrative began to bear fruit in the policymaking context. In December of that year, New Jersey became the first state to abolish capital punishment legislatively. (New York’s statute had been declared unconstitutional by the state’s high court in 2004.) New Jersey was followed by New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013), Nebraska (2015), Delaware (2016), Washington (2018), New Hampshire (2019), and Colorado (2020). In 2019 moratoriums were declared by the governors of four states: Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, and Colorado. The statements made by the governors explaining their reasons for suspending executions reflected the new narrative:

Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM, CA

This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania.

GOV. TOM WOLF, PA

If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER, CO

The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all.

GOV. JOHN KITZHABER, OR

Important new voices joined the chorus. Former prison wardens who had overseen executions, including Ron McAndrew of the Florida State Prison at Starke, Ohio Corrections Director Reggie Wilkinson, and San Quentin Warden Jeannie Woodford, publicly express their opposition. Newspapers in death penalty states published powerful editorials. In 2008, the Dallas Morning News called upon Texas, with its hyperactive death chamber, to stop the executions: “It’s the view of this newspaper that the justice system will never be foolproof and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified.” That same year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which had long supported the death penalty, changed its position stating, “The government ought to limit itself to protecting the public—and ought to refrain from playing God.” In 2013, a group of conservative thinkers and publishers formed Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty under the banner, “We are questioning a system marked by inefficiency, inequity, and inaccuracy.”

Social media came to play a significant role in the narrative shift process, and the available data show a growing public engagement with the issue. Between January 2009 and December 2019, more than 11.6 million social media posts were generated making reference to the death penalty, capital punishment, and related terms, averaging roughly 88,000 posts per month. The first significant spike occurred in September 2011 preceding and following the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.[10] Overall online engagement with the death penalty began a steady and sustained increase beginning in March 2015, reaching a peak in July 2019 when the Trump Department of Justice announced its plan to resume executions after an almost two decade de facto moratorium.

There were significant developments in the cultural field as well, most notably the publication of Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, recounting the racist railroading and eventual release from Alabama’s death row of his client, Fred McMillian. The book remained on The New York Times best seller list for more than a year, selling more than a million copies. A film based on the book, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, was released in December 2019 to critical acclaim.

CONCLUSION

Slow but steady progress characterizes the narrative shift when it comes to the death penalty. Armed with a proactive communications strategy based on fundamental American values (in this case, fairness) this case study shows that advocates can change the story even when the dominant narrative is firmly embedded in the public consciousness.

The power of the new narrative was on display in the nationwide campaign to win a stay of execution for Rodney Reed, an African American man sentenced to death by an all white jury in Texas in 1998. Reed, who has always maintained his innocence, was scheduled to be executed on November 20, 2019, but an outpouring of public support won him an indefinite stay of execution so that he could introduce new evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. In the weeks leading up to the execution, nearly 3 million people signed a petition to stop it, and celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, QuestLove, and Oprah Winfrey spoke out. Supporters protested outside Gov. Abbott’s mansion, and the governor received pleas from the Catholic Bishop of Austin, the European Union, and the American Bar Association. On November 8, 26 bipartisan members of the Texas House of Representative sent a letter to the governor seeking a reprieve to allow for DNA testing, followed by a similar call by a bipartisan group of 16 Texas state senators. On November 10, the Houston Chronicle published an editorial that opened with the simple declarative: “Don’t kill, wait.”

On November 15, just days before the scheduled execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in what the press called a “stunning decision” and a “dramatic turn of events” issued an indefinite stay, directing the Bastrop County district court to review Reed’s claims that prosecutors suppressed exculpatory evidence and presented false testimony and that he is actually innocent. The campaign to spare Rodney Reed from the busiest death chamber in the country has amplified the narrative that the death penalty is fatally flawed.

In his 1972 concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, “Assuming knowledge of all the facts presently available regarding capital punishment, the average citizen would, in my opinion, find it shocking to his conscience and sense of justice.” Thirty years ago, the abolition movement set itself the task of educating the “average citizen” about the many flaws in the application of the death penalty, but the ultimate goal was always to “shock the conscience” to the point where the average citizen would find it morally unacceptable. Since 2001, the Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs Survey has been asking the following question: “Do you believe that in general the death penalty is morally acceptable or morally wrong?” In 2019 60 percent said they still believed it was morally acceptable. Although still a majority belief, the percentage has dropped 10 points since 2005.

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Request Interview Transcripts


1 Furman v. Georgia was brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vAKvlsKXHs

3 The Opportunity Agenda, “A New Sensibility: An Analysis of Public Opinion Research on Attitudes Towards Crime and Criminal Justice,” pp. 40–41. This publication can be found at www.opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/new-sensibility.

4 According to the NCADP’s publication, “A 30th Anniversary History,” 26 organizations comprised the new coalition at its birth. In addition to the ACLU, they included, most notably, the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Friends Service Committee, NAACP LDF, U.S. Jesuit Conference, United Presbyterian Church, and National Conference of Black Lawyers.

5 The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) represented an African American man sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a white police officer during a robbery. On appeal, LDF presented the Court with statistical evidence showing that racial bias played a role in the state’s capital punishment system: African Americans were more likely to receive a death sentence, and African American defendants who killed white victims were the most likely to be sentenced to death. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the “racially disproportionate impact” shown by the statistics was not enough to overturn the guilty verdict without showing a “racially discriminatory purpose.”

6 By the end of the 1990s, eight people on death row had been exonerated and released as a result of DNA testing.

7 A writ of habeas corpus allows a defendant (now called the petitioner) to raise many issues that cannot be raised in an appeal because a writ is not limited to re-arguing points that were raised and lost below.

8 There was a brief uptick in support following 9/11.

9 New York Times/CBS News Poll on Race Relations in the U.S., July 23, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/23/us/document-new-york-timescbs-news-poll-on-race-relations-in-the-us.html. A 2019 poll of North Carolina voters showed that a majority (57 percent) believed it was likely that racial bias affected whether or not a person received a death sentence.

10 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/06/08/survey-higher-percentage-us-agree-black-people-face-discrimination/3143651001/

11 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/10/upshot/black-lives-matter-attitudes.html?referringSource=articleShare

12 The execution of Troy Davis, who maintained his innocence, received massive media coverage and was highly controversial. World figures, including Pope Benedict XVI and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, human rights groups, and commentators urged the execution to be halted.

Messaging on Affirmative Action

Narrative Principles for Discussing SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina

October/November 2022

Our constitutional values could not be more important as we anticipate the Supreme Court arguments on several important cases this term. This memo offers messaging advice for promoting diversity and equal opportunity in the context of  SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, constitutional challenges to college affirmative action policies.

In order to foster a diverse student body and overcome obstacles to educational opportunity, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina consider qualified students’ racial or ethnic backgrounds along with academic achievement and other qualities like leadership, socioeconomic status, and athletic or artistic talent. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether these policies violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars racial discrimination by government entities, including public universities. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will ensure that everyone fully enjoys the protections and rights provided in our Constitution by protecting affirmative action. However, it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will ban affirmative action programs in its decision on these cases.

The Court will hear arguments on October 31, 2022. This communications advice is intended to help mobilize supporters of diversity and equal opportunity while persuading undecided audiences. It is based on opinion and media research as well as practical experience from around the country.

Messaging Advice

1. Lead with Values. Undecided audiences respond best when we lead with values they share, rather than dense facts or political rhetoric. In these two affirmative action cases, the most important values are diversity, opportunity, and the national interest. However, other values to consider are equality, inclusivity, and mobility.

  • Expanding Opportunity: It is in everyone’s interest to see that talented students from all backgrounds get a close look and a fair shot and have the chance to overcome obstacles to educational opportunity.
  • The Benefits of Diversity: Learning with (and from) people from different backgrounds and perspectives benefits our students, our communities, our work force, our military, and our country as a whole.
  • Preventing Racial Isolation: It is important that schools are able to build student bodies that foster meaningful diversity that does not isolate any one group.
  • Our National Interest: Fostering educational diversity and greater opportunity is critical to our nation’s future in a global economy and an increasingly interconnected world.

2. Explain that Affirmative Action furthers the National Interest When It Comes to American Demographics. The U.S. Census confirms that American society is becoming more and more diverse with most young people originating from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. These changes mean that Americans must be able to learn and successfully navigate in increasingly diverse environments.

  • Colleges, as institutions that train future leaders and participate in this world, are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that students learn how to navigate diverse environments. Affirmative action provides colleges with the ability to immerse students in diverse environments, allowing them to best teach students how to successfully work within these environments in the future.

3. Emphasize that the Fourteenth Amendment was Intended to Expand Opportunity – Not Restrict It. It is concerned with protecting equal justice under law and was intended to help African Americans achieve opportunity in the United States.

  • As one of the Reconstruction Amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment’s goal was to “grant […] citizenship and equal civil rights to African Americans and enslaved people who had been emancipated after the American Civil War.”[1] The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to help ensure that newly freed African Americans were able to experience full citizenship and the related rights of citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment sought to provide African Americans with the opportunities and rights that they had been denied during slavery, but it is now being used to limit their rights. This history is an important reminder of how the Court is deviating from our values of equal justice and opportunity.

4. Discuss the Importance of a Judiciary that Respects Precedent and the Rule of Law. The Court’s approach to these cases, as well as the future direction of the Court, seems bleak given recent changes in its composition. It is nevertheless important to fight to protect the hard-fought, historic gains our country has made in promoting and preserving opportunity while critiquing the Supreme Court’s shortcomings. Advocates should encourage the Supreme Court justices to preserve prior decisions that protected constitutional rights, while seeking remedies to years of undemocratic practices that altered the Court’s composition.

  • It is well known that “public trust and confidence in our government institutions is critical to the function of our democratic republic.”[2] In the judicial system, the principle of precedent, or stare decisis, is the idea that a court respects and defers to decisions before it. This concept is key to preserving legitimacy, trust, and confidence in courts, which are at historic lows. For the sake of democracy, it is important that the Court respects past precedents protecting the use of race in college admissions processes.

For a summary of the litigants and their main arguments, go here.


[1] Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fourteenth-Amendment

[2] Natalie Anne Knowlton, Trusting the Public’s Perception of Our Justice System, IAALS (Aug. 27 2020), https://iaals.du.edu/blog/trusting-public-s-perception-our-justice-system.

Messaging Guidance for U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

Today, the United States Supreme Court took the dreaded step to overrule Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. The Court has now restricted the right of hundreds of millions of Americans to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion, uprooting decades of precedent and a right upon which hundreds of thousands of Americans have relied.

While today is a tremendous setback and sad day for our country, it is important to remain vigilant in the fight for social justice and bodily autonomy when communicating about Dobbs. While it is tempting to focus only on the sadness of the day, we must stick together and clarify in our communications that we will not stop pushing forward toward justice until full rights are realized for everyone.

We recognize that this opinion not only threatens reproductive freedom for millions, but that the Court’s inconsistent contemplation of whether a right even exists could jeopardize other rights. This may include the rights of people in same-sex relationships and interracial relationships, and the right to use contraceptives. Therefore, it is critical to advance a narrative that recognizes the aspiration of full rights and justice and the inherent values at stake in this decision, including:

  • Dignity;
  • Equal Justice; and
  • Freedom

We recommend bringing a values-focused framework when talking about this issue and focusing on solutions rather than on only the problems or the sadness of the day.

Key Takeaways

Dobbs represents a fundamental threat to reproductive liberty and justice.

Dobbs allows states to take action by banning any and all access to abortion. Less than one hour after the Court announced its decision in Dobbs, the state of Missouri’s attorney general swiftly implemented that state’s abortion ban. More than 25 states will likely take action to eliminate nearly all abortion rights immediately.[1] Even outside of the states considering complete bans, abortion rights may be severely weakened.

The repercussions could mean enhanced discrimination, forcing people without economic means, especially people of color, to travel extensively outside of the state they live in to have an abortion. As a result, the poorest Americans without financial resources to travel will face the brunt of having their reproductive liberty being stripped away.

Communicate that Dobbs will have a detrimental impact on the reproductive freedom, health, and dignity of millions of people across the country – especially low-income women and people of color.

Dobbs opens the door to weaken or eliminate many other fundamental rights.

In addition to how personhood is defined and whether fetuses should have the same rights as people, there are many other implications to the Dobbs ruling. Reproductive justice is not the only right that may be impacted. The Court’s narrow construction of the right to abortion in Dobbs comes from its reliance on Washington v. Glucksberg, in which the Court reconstrues Glucksberg to narrowly evaluate whether a right is protected. It asks whether that specific right is “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.” This means that instead of asking whether the right to privacy protects a specific right, courts can now ask whether that specific right, e.g. the right to buy contraception, was traditionally protected in the eighteenth century. This is a very narrow approach, which can be contrasted by the Supreme Court’s approach to marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges.

  • In Obergefell, the Court recognized a right for same-sex couples to get married and noted that the Glucksberg approach was overly narrow. It said that the proper approach is to ask whether the constitutional right to privacy meant that same-sex partners should be allowed to marry. The Court’s method for interpreting whether a right exists in Dobbs means that many other rights are at risk. This method could result in the erosion of freedoms, from the right to same-sex and interracial marriage, to the right to use contraceptives.

Right-wing activists and lawyers are already planning their assault on a broader set of rights. For example, Jonathan Mitchell, the former Solicitor General of Texas and the architect of Texas’s notorious SB-8 law, which restricts access to abortions, argued in an amicus brief that the logic to overrule Roe could be used to overrule Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges:

  • “This is not to say that the Court should announce the overruling of Lawrence and Obergefell if it decides to overrule Roe and Casey in this case. But neither should the Court hesitate to write an opinion that leaves those decisions hanging by a thread. Lawrence and Obergefell, while far less hazardous to human life, are as lawless as Roe.”[2]

The Dobbs opinion overruled a watershed precedent, weakening the Court’s legitimacy.

Dobbs overruled Roe v. Wade, which had been the law of the land for nearly 50 years. The principle of stare decisis, that a court respects and gives deference to decisions before it, is crucial in preserving the legitimacy of the Court. At his nomination hearing, Justice Alito himself stated that stare decisis was “a fundamental part of our legal system” despite his blatant disregard for the principle in Dobbs.[3]

Public polling has shown that the Court’s support dropped significantly in the wake of the leaked draft opinion of Dobbs, which greatly resembles the final version.[4]

Emphasize how the Court has significantly undermined its own legitimacy by ignoring its own precedent.

Key Questions

Some people say that this case is only about abortion and people who say otherwise are being alarmist. How should advocates respond to this?

A: It is clear that the Court could be leaving itself room to do additional harm to justice with this ruling. That’s because the approach that the Court adopted in Dobbs is an exceptionally narrow approach to analyze whether people have a right through the Constitution’s protection of substantive due process rights. This restrictive view is contrary to the approach taken in some of the Court’s most important decisions, including cases that protect the rights to same-sex marriage or the right to obtain contraception. This approach to judicial rulemaking could result in the erosion of other fundamental rights that Americans rely on every day. An expansive view of substantive due process, like the one taken in Lawrence and Obergefell, provides the most liberty and freedom for all Americans.

What about the concept of the “living Constitution”?

A: We share certain core values, but the way we express them changes as time passes. And that is what “living constitutionalism” is about — when we interpret the Constitution to include certain rights not explicitly enumerated in the document. The living constitution approach is also the dominant view throughout the world. Following a living constitution approach to Constitutional interpretation is not just popular, but will result in expanding rights and increasing opportunity for all Americans.

In fact, most Americans believe that the living constitution approach is the best way for the Supreme Court to analyze the Constitution[5] because it’s based on the idea that constitutional law grows and changes with the society within it. Sometimes, conservative thinkers acknowledge that it’s not, in fact, such a bad thing, and show how this is contrary to the constitutional conception of our nation. The idea of living constitutionalism allows our nation to continue to be governed by the people who live in it today, rather than the people who lived hundreds of years ago.

How do we stay energized and involved?

A: Despite this decision, the aspiration for justice and the world that we are trying to achieve must stay at the forefront. There are still many ways to protect abortion rights by advocating for legislation and executive orders at the state, local, and federal levels. We know from history as our guide that it takes time – sometimes generations – to achieve justice. And we must continue to put forward aspirational narratives that call for nothing short.

Check out other ways to make a difference here, here, and here.

Crafting Your Message

We recommend that you use VPSA when communicating about this issue. VPSA is a communications structure – Value, Problem, Solution, Action – that guides the creation of values-based messages that motivate audiences to action.

Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience. Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics. Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies. Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample VPSA Messages

Autonomy

VALUE

We should have control over what happens in our own lives. Autonomy means having self-directing freedom over our choices regardless of our race, sex, gender, or class.

PROBLEM

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs opinion is an affront to those freedoms. It prevents the autonomy of those with the ability to bear children, especially those from minority, marginalized, and low-income groups. The Court’s opinion permits states to infringe on the right to an abortion and destroys self-determination for those living in more than 25 states. Not only that, but the Dobbs opinion also jeopardizes other basic rights such as interracial marriage and same-sex marriage.

SOLUTION

The journey to reaching justice must continue. We have the power to encourage federal and state representatives to act, to influence public opinion and, in turn, to influence the outcome of future elections and the future makeup of the Supreme Court. We can also provide aid to organizations helping poor and marginalized communities access safe abortions.

ACTION

It is essential to use your voice and get involved to end the Court’s attack on basic human rights. Vote in every election. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of reproductive autonomy and freedom. Push your representatives for legislation and executive orders at the state, local, and federal levels.

Opportunity

VALUE

Everyone deserves equal opportunity. We must work to break down barriers that prevent equal opportunity based on race, sex, gender, and class.

PROBLEM

The Dobbs opinion destroys opportunity for those who can bear children and will hit members of the Black and brown communities hard. Dobbs astronomically increases the financial burden of obtaining an abortion. Low-income people, many of whom are Black and brown women, Black and brown transgender men, and Black and brown non-binary persons, will suffer the brunt of that blow.

SOLUTION

In light of Dobbs, we must work to decrease the financial burden of obtaining an abortion for low-income people. States and organizations with resources should support people who now need to travel out-of-state to secure their reproductive rights.

ACTION

Governments and organizations should provide travel grants and other resources so people from states with limits on abortion rights can afford the costs of travel to obtain an abortion. Individuals with the means can support organizations that do so, and can push their elected representatives to take action.


[1] https://reproductiverights.org/maps/what-if-roe-fell/.

[2] Mitchell’s Texas Right to Life Amicus Brief. https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-1392/185344/20210729162610813_Dobbs%20Amicus%20FINAL%20PDFA.pdf

[3] Stone on Roberts, Alito, and stare decisis | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[4] https://law.marquette.edu/poll/2022/05/25/supreme-court-issues-press-release/

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/11/growing-share-of-americans-say-supreme-court-should-base-its-rulings-on-what-constitution-means-today/

Taking Action & Responding to the Attacks on Honest and Inclusive Education

In Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court recognized the strong importance of education in the formation of a civic society:

[Education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.

With this statement, the Court foreshadowed some of the strongest arguments for an education that provides an honest accounting of our past, including past injustices. Learning about racism and the triumphs of civil rights activists instills in students the cultural values of freedom, justice, and progress. Learning about racial differences also prepares students for the professional world, where they will encounter and work with people of diverse backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, learning about racial differences, racism, and historical events prepares students to engage in political and civic life with a deeper understanding of themselves and those around them.

The current attempts to prevent the discussion and examination of our history and the legacy of racial inequality threaten the values named by the Brown court, weakening students’ abilities to succeed professionally and engage politically and civically. This tool provides guidance for responding to the attacks on critical race theory and for building a narrative that advances an honest and inclusive education.

Building a Narrative to Support Honest, Inclusive, and Diverse Education

There are several key points to keep in mind when advocating for an inclusive and honest education:

1. Define what critical race theory is. Many people, including progressives, are hesitant to use the term critical race theory. They worry that conservatives have made it too divisive. However, preliminary research shows that more Americans support critical race theory than oppose it, and that many are simply undecided about it. Research also suggests that when some audiences are told that it is a tool for analyzing and understanding racism, they are more likely to support it. Conservatives have been defining their attacks on honest and inclusive education by focusing on critical race theory, and progressives should respond to these attacks directly.

2. Emphasize the need for education to go further. One of the strengths of this country is its diversity, and today’s schoolchildren will be adults in an increasingly diverse society. Teaching students about diverse perspectives will help them grow into engaged, informed, and empathetic adults. The education system should be doing more to prepare students for this future and to inform them about the lingering effects of racial inequality in this country, so they can address these harms. Rather than respond to attacks on critical race theory by stating that it’s not taught in K-12 schools (which is true), build a narrative for why it and other tools for providing race conscious education should be adopted in all our schools.

3. Appeal to shared values. Research shows that people are more open to different, unfamiliar arguments when these arguments are framed by common values. In fact, appealing to values and beliefs is often more effective than statistics in combatting misinformation.[1] When crafting ways to respond to politicians trying to politicize education, you will need to interrogate the intentions and values that lie behind the myths being spread about CRT and anti-racism education in classrooms. In this memo, we have identified several fundamental American values that are shared by most people across the political spectrum and that are served by teaching CRT and systemic racism in schools.

4. Don’t “myth-bust.” Research shows that myth-busting, or restating a claim just to “debunk” it or explain why it is not true, is ineffective in persuading people to change their minds about a topic. In fact, stating a false fact actually encourages people to misremember the false statement as fact—even days later and if they were repeatedly told the statement was false.[2] So, instead of myth-busting, just affirmatively state the truth. Affirmative statements will always be more powerful and memorable than defensive statements. When you engage in conversation with an opponent of CRT, you may feel like you are fighting an uphill battle, so you should use you best weapon: truthful affirmative statements.

5. Explain how learning about our past leads to progress. An honest and inclusive education will help students learn from our past mistakes as a country, so we can build a better future. While we have come far, we have further to go in order to reach our ideals as a country.

6. Use storytelling. Storytelling is an effective tool for persuasion and as a means of confronting racism and the status quo. “Counterstories,” or the stories of people from groups that have historically been marginalized, can be used to effectively challenge perceptions.[3] Effective, powerful counterstories do the following:

  • Use narrative — everyone loves a good, engaging story!
  • Encourage the listener to see things from the storyteller’s point of view. The listener should be pushed, by the end of the story, to compare their beliefs and their reality to the experiences of the storyteller or the counterstory’s characters.
  • Challenge mindsets, not individuals.
  • Use generalizations and exaggerations to highlight key points.[4]

7. Don’t make parents and teachers who oppose critical race theory into villains. Instead, emphasize how politicians are sowing divisions in our communities. Politicians and outside actors initiated the advocacy against an honest and inclusive education and spread misinformation to parents and community members. They should be the focus of communications on this issue.

8. Use VPSA when communicating about this issue. VPSA is a communications structure – Value, Problem, Solution, Action – that guides the creation of values-based messages that motivate audiences to action.

Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience. Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics. Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies. Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample VPSA Messages

Sample Message 1

Value: America was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. As Americans, it is important that fairness and equality are viewed as a central part of the American experience for everyone, and this includes the American legal system.

Problem: In order to uphold one of the founding principles in America, the legal system should be expected to deliver fair and equal results to all people. Decisions within the American legal system, from prosecutorial discretion to sentencing, have racial disparities. These racial disparities create additional divisiveness within the country.

Solution: Schools should embrace a curriculum that acknowledges that we have fallen short but remain committed to making racial progress.

Action: Share your views at events as small as school board meetings, to local or city council meetings, to calling state and federal officials and representatives, to voting in local, state, and federal elections. Make it known that you support equality and fairness in America.

Sample Message 2

Value: American society thrives when we acknowledge and grow from the challenges and conflicts of past generations.

Problem: Unfortunately, many states and school districts have been pushed to ban discussion on certain aspects of our shared history in schools. Topics of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement are under attack.

Solution: Learning, accepting, and growing from our shared history is important in ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of our past, and can work to remedy issues in our current era. These efforts to ban discussion in schools are un-American and must be stopped.

Action: You can be a part of protecting our history and preserving the ability of students to learn from it in its entirety, with both the good and the bad. Speak up against disinformation in your community, engage in your local school board meetings, and push back against efforts to muzzle our teachers.

Sample Message 3

Value: America is built on two major values—freedom and liberty. The respect and protection of the fundamental civil rights of all American citizens are core to our values and beliefs as a country. The protection of every American citizen’s right to be free from discrimination allows all Americans to preserve their freedom and liberty; these are two tenets that serve as the foundation of American ideals. Furthermore, in pursuit of freedom, American citizens are also guaranteed a right to free speech and the right to petition the government to address their grievances.

Problem: However, this freedom is at risk when topics and events that actually occurred are prevented from being taught in the classroom. This freedom is further jeopardized for students of color who must weigh the benefits and risks of participating in the classroom. When we have members of society who feel like their voices are not as important, then our entire democracy is at risk.

Solution: Race conscious education provides the language to allow all Americans to be able to speak about issues of race, providing a common foundation for the preservation of the right to free speech. It also provides students of color with the opportunity to “challeng[e] the status quo of racial inequality that has persisted for far too long in this nation…” [5]

Action: Reach out to local decision makers and inform them of the importance of CRT to students’ civil rights. If your state legislature, city council, or local school board are considering a ban on race conscious education, consider making a call, sending an email or letter to your representative describing your support for inclusive and diverse education. Attend school board or city council meetings and speak on the topic directly. Encourage friends, family, and members of the community to do the same. Communicating support—especially in large numbers—for the positive implications of honest and inclusive education for civil rights can help key decision makers understand what is at stake.


Special thanks to those who contributed to the research, analysis, review, and editing of this report, especially the students in I. India Thusi’s Fall 2021 Critical Race Theory seminar at Indiana University Maurer School of Law: Abby Akrong, Ethan Dawson, Erin Deckard, Rebeca Dorantes, Mary Kate Dugan, Lydia Elmer, Erica Fields, Kat Grant, Zoe Kolender, Emily McConville, Celia Meredith, Zoe Morgan, Kelsey Napier, Gabriel Retz, Maddie Satterly, Lainey Sezer, Hadley Smithhisler, Luke Steffe.


[1] Simon Oxxenham, When Evidence Backfires, Big Think (Apr. 15, 2014), https://bigthink.com/articles/when-evidence-backfires/.

[2] ‘See e.g., Ian Skurnik, Carolyn Yoon, Denise C. Park & Norbert Schwarz, How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations, 31 J. Consumer Rsch. 713, 718 (2005).

[3] Richard Delgado, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others, in Critical race theory, supra note 8, at 71–72.

[4] Id. at 79

[5] Janel George, A Lesson On Critical Race Theory, ABA (January 11, 2021), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/.

Six Tips for Responding to White Supremacist Terrorism

This past weekend, communities in Buffalo, and across the nation, were once again horrified and devastated by the ugly face of white supremacist terrorism. As people who work every day to build safe and more equitable communities, our hearts break for the 10 lives which were taken from our world and their loved ones.

White supremacy relies on violence, terrorism, and rationalization to survive. The killing of Black people in Buffalo and the recent shootings at Asian-run businesses in Dallas, remind us that confronting white supremacist violence is urgent. Buffalo, Atlanta, El Paso, Charleston, and countless other cities have seen racist, hate-driven violence strike at the heart of communities of color. Behind all of these attacks is incendiary right-wing rhetoric which too many advertisers, media personalities, politicians, tech companies, and community leaders have chosen to support. Only by working for a more just, equitable, and peaceful future can we hope to foster a safe environment for all communities.

Below are some messaging tips on how to facilitate a meaningful conversation about safety, community, and education in the wake of the white supremacist terrorism in Buffalo.

1. Create Space for the Pain and Trauma that People Are Feeling

May 14th was a traumatic moment for the people in Buffalo and all of us who can picture ourselves in their shoes. It is critical that we set aside space to acknowledge the pain that many people are feeling in the wake of this calculated violence. On Saturday, people just went grocery shopping and, because of white supremacist terrorism, that sense of normalcy was shattered.

Take a moment, and set space for people to grieve and process through this traumatic event. It is important to acknowledge the pain that hate crimes have caused across the country and how communities are still trying to navigate that trauma.

2. Frame the Conversation around Safety for BIPOC Communities

Conversations about safety which follow tragic events frequently include proposals for policy change – like further militarizing police forces – that, actually, create less safety for BIPOC communities. It is because of this that we must keep the vision of true safety for BIPOC communities at the heart of our work. After a white supremacist terrorist shot Asian-Americans in Atlanta, we developed Five Tips for Talking about Anti-Asian Racism and, in that piece, we recommend starting “our communications with a shared vision of what our country should be: a safe, inclusive place of participation and belonging where everyone’s rights are protected and respected, we can frame anything that gets in the way of that as a pressing issue.” In many cases, this includes adopting community-based responses that prioritize safety with community resources rather than relying exclusively on police or punitive measures.

3. The Importance of Supporting Community Based Solutions

The attack on Tops Friendly Markets supermarket in Buffalo, New York, has caused immeasurable harm, exacerbated food insecurity, and created significant trauma. In order to emerge from this act of terrorism stronger than before, we must emphasize investing in community-based organizations, services, and support programs. A number of organizations have compiled resources that you can access here and here. On top of this, support local efforts for recovery and create policies at home which will strengthen the communities in which you live.

4. Have an Honest Conversation about the Impact of White Supremacy in the U.S. and Take Action to Overcome It

We stand at a crossroads. In one direction, stands the history that has been told to us for generations, which ignores the role that white supremacy has played in our country and the violence that has been enacted for the sake of preserving white supremacist power. In the other direction, stands the honest history of the United States, which acknowledges the impact of white supremacy in perpetuating violence against communities of color. As we noted in our messaging memo, Talking About Attacks on Critical Race Theory, it is critical that we “remind audiences that banning education about our racial history, which these bans on ‘critical race theory’ seek to do, undermine our efforts to promote shared values like equal justice, honesty, opportunity, and basic compassion.”

5. Call it What it is – Racism

These white supremacist attacks are racist, not racially motivated nor racially charged. The perpetrators are also racists, not “lone wolves.” They were not only driven by their own hatred, but activated by a host of other racists, supported by racist institutions, and enabled by racist companies and spaces.

6. Use VPSA Messaging to Develop the Shared Vision

Using the Value, Problem, Solution and Action Framework, you can draft your own response to this act of white supremacist terrorism in a way that acknowledges our shared values and helps your audience overcome the fatigue often created by such a significant problem. In this case, we recommend centering Safety, Community, and Inclusivity. Example:

Value: True community safety means that everyone can shop, pray, drive, and engage in everyday activities without the fear of violence.

Problem: Incendiary far-right rhetoric has once again resulted in white supremacist violence.

Solution: As we mourn, communities everywhere can come together to declare zero tolerance for white supremacist hate and channel that declaration into replacing policies which uphold white supremacy with policies which support true safety and equity for all.

Action: Communities across the nation can take action at home to dismantle policies which uphold white supremacy and call on advertisers, donors and political leaders to also reject right wing incendiary rhetoric.

What Now?! Talking About the Supreme Court

How to Talk About the Leak & the Purported SCOTUS Decision to Overturn Roe v. Wade

 

As you have no doubt heard by now, a draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade and roll back the Constitutional precedent that guarantees a woman’s right to choose has been leaked to the media. Upon initial analysis, if this draft becomes the official majority opinion, it could have alarming impacts well beyond abortion rights.

We must use this moment to pronounce a vision of what full rights look like for all of us, for our children, and for generations to come, while at the same time repudiating this leaked decision. We must uplift the need to protect hard-fought, historic gains in promoting and preserving opportunity, and we must remain both vigilant and strategic in pushing back against legal decisions and legislative policies that undermine these gains.

The Opportunity Agenda believes that this starts with stories, with what we say, and how we say it.

 

 

Some Quick, General Tips

 

1. Remember that this is NOT the SCOTUS decision. It is a draft document – what could be a preview of what a Supreme Court decision might look like.

The draft opinion has no legal effect right now. Women’s, family planning, and abortion clinics are still operating. Don’t spend time discussing this as settled law, because it isn’t and may confuse people who are still struggling to access reproductive care in their communities.

Avoid communicating as though what’s done is done, because it isn’t.

 

2. If this becomes the Court’s final decision, its impact could extend far beyond the right to access abortions.

The language in the draft opinion suggests that it would pave the way for eliminating a range of rights that most Americans have come to take for granted. It suggests that only those rights from the time of this country’s founding should be protected, thus opening the door for states to criminalize access to contraception, interracial relationships, same-sex marriage and sexual relationships, and parents’ right to educate their children as they see fit. The opinion might even open the door to question the continued relevance of cases like Brown v. Board Education, which held that legalized racial segregation was unconstitutional.

Communicate the potential reach of this draft opinion and its profound consequences, should it be handed down.

 

3. Pivot to solutions and action.

Despite the anxiety generated by this draft opinion, remember to pivot to solutions. Now is the time to recognize the power of voices coming together. Encourage audiences to take action, whether that’s demanding passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act or the Equal Rights Amendment, demonstrating outside the Supreme Court or at state courts and capitol buildings, or taking to the streets and the voting booth in order to convey and protect our values.

There is much we can do in this moment, and we have a duty to do it right now.

 

4. Uplift these values

Pragmatism, Common Sense, Innovation, Determination to Do The Right Thing, Shared Responsibility to Fix Flawed Policies, Solidarity, Full Inclusion.

 


 

P.S. Click here or here or to find a list of local and state-wide abortion access organizations to support, and here for resources and tools to take action on abortion access as well as an “Adopt-A-Clinic” Program.

Supporting Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Historic Nomination

President Biden made history by nominating Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and people have shared their enthusiastic support across the nation. Nevertheless, Judge Jackson has been subjected to hostile and disrespectful questioning from senators, which reflects how the standards of civility shift when a Black woman is in question. Given these attacks, we must continue to do the hard work of contextualizing this moment concerning what it means for the future of our country. We must continue to highlight the significance of this nomination for the aspirations we have toward breaking down systemic barriers that stand in the way of progress.  We need Supreme Court Justices who reflect the integrity and honor that Judge Jackson has shown throughout her career.

The Opportunity Agenda (TOA) strongly encourages communicators, advocates, and anyone concerned with social justice to uplift the importance of this nomination. Below is communications advice for talking about Judge Jackson’s nomination informed by recent opinion research.

Public Opinion

Despite attempts to tarnish Judge Jackson’s reputation, a Gallup poll found that Judge Jackson enjoys the highest support of any Supreme Court nominee since Chief Justice John Roberts, with 58 percent of people in the United States in favor of her confirmation.[1] An NBC National Poll found she had “the highest net support rating of any Supreme Court nominee since 2005.”[2]

This polling is likely due to her extraordinary background and credentials, along with the advocacy of groups like #SheWillRise and others. Through consistent message engagement, advocates can help promote a media and cultural landscape that is favorable to Judge Jackson while also effectively pivoting toward calling out unwarranted attacks when they arise.

Values-Based Messages

Because our research consistently shows that leading with values is an effective approach to communication, we encourage people to adopt a “VPSA” format in drafting their messages about Judge Jackson. We have described VPSA below and provided sample messages that adopt this format.

VPSA

  • Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience.
  • Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics.
  • Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies.
  • Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample Actions

TOA encourages people to continue their advocacy for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson by:

  1. Writing newspaper editorials or blogs that connect Judge Jackson’s nomination to their own shared experience.
  2. Posting on social media to celebrate her background and highlight how she reflects our shared values.
  3. Talking with those close to you about the significance of her nomination and likely confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Sample VPSA Messages

Judge Jackson is Committed to Equal Justice Under Law

The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are engraved into the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Judge Jackson’s historic nomination illustrates that this country is slowly coming closer to this ideal. Judge Jackson is on track to be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court and has led a life of public service through her work as a judge, public defender, and on the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Yet, some have tried to question her background because of this public service. As a judge and lawyer, she worked to ensure that everyone she served was treated fairly and equally. She was fair, measured, and consistent in reflecting the value of “Equal Justice Under Law,” but opponents are trying to distort her record.

Consequently, it is important to push for Judge Jackson’s speedy confirmation to the Supreme Court given her commitment to equal justice. We must continue to talk about the importance of her nomination. It is historic not only because Judge Jackson is a Black woman, but because she would help to realize a foundational goal of our highest court—Equal Justice Under Law.

Reach out to your local newspaper to submit a Letter to the Editor about why this nomination is so critical for you and your community

Judge Jackson Reflects the Ambitions of Americans

The American identity is inseparable from the ideal of achieving full opportunity, where everyone has a fair chance to reach their full potential. Judge Brown’s story as a public-school graduate from Miami to a current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court is an example of a classic American success story. James Truslow Adams described this dream as “that dream of a land…with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Judge Jackson worked hard in the face of extraordinary challenges and has achieved an exemplary stature as a jurist and lawyer committed to public service.

For far too long, access to education, advancement in the legal profession, and countless other hurdles have stood in the way of Black women aspiring to someday join the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has worked hard to obtain preeminent qualifications that exemplify what is possible when we expand access to opportunity.

By having Ketanji Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court Justice, the high court will be better positioned to more effectively confront those systemic hurdles that stand in the way of true opportunity and equal justice. The court will be hearing cases that might shift our access to opportunity in this country, and Judge Jackson’s background and experiences will only enrich the perspectives on the court.

In order to share your support for Judge Jackson’s speedy confirmation, tweet at your senator about why you support Judge Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, or post on social media about what this nomination means to you using #ConfirmJackson.

We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All

Art & Discussion Guide

We believe that ending poverty is within our reach, and that we have both the power and responsibility to do so. Unfortunately, persistent economic hardship is a pervasive, complicated issue with roots that grow deep into the fabric of our country, driven by a history of racism, classism, and gender inequality. All of this can make talking about poverty very difficult.

This is why we partnered with Amplifier to create We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All, an Economic Justice discussion guide that includes ten original works of art by Alex Albadree, Noa Denmon, and Rommy Torrico. These materials are open source, to be used by activists, cultural strategists, teachers, and youth across the country in a rising movement for Economic Justice. Amplifier has also developed four distinct lesson plans on Economic Justice, which will be distributed to 15,000 teachers across the country for their 2021 virtual curricula. (If you are interested in these lesson plans, please see the bottom of this page)

We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All is designed to start a conversation about what Economic Justice looks like and how to achieve it. It is also a call to action.

Discussion Guide (English)
Guía de Discusión (Español)

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Shifting the Narrative: Lessons Learned

Advocates have long understood the centrality of storytelling to building power, as well as winning both short term victories and long-term systemic change. Both research and lived experience consistently show that stories and language play a significant role in shaping our views of the world and, ultimately, the policies we support. These “big stories” or “narratives” about the world around us can either be a wind in our face, making advances in social justice extremely difficult or impossible, or they can be the wind in our sails, propelling us forward to victories and new frontiers of liberation.

Over the last several years, many social justice leaders have begun to actively engage in strategies designed to shift, counter, or replace prevailing narratives about social issues, the economy, our history, and other stories that shape and influence culture and policy.

But exactly how does narrative shift success happen? Are there key factors which organizers can learn and replicate? Or are they a mixture of luck and strategy?

The Opportunity Agenda is a social justice communications lab dedicated to helping movement leaders use their ideas to improve our world. We conducted a six-part study to look closely at a range of key narrative shifts over the past 70 years to answer those questions.

In Shifting the Narrative, our research and work set out to identify essential and replicable elements of past successful narrative change efforts by engaging in deep research of thousands of documents, and interviewing a diverse cadre of leaders who played a critical role in making those shifts happen, as well as academics and journalists.i

To this end, we chose the following six examples to study, from long-term efforts that resulted in shifts to both cultural thinking and policy, to shorter-term, focused campaigns. For most, we studied efforts that resulted in social justice wins or improvements. In one case, our examination of narratives related a governmental role in supporting economic justice, we looked at how the prevailing narrative shifted against us:

1. Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty. Shifting public understanding of the role of innocence in a campaign to eventually end the use of the death penalty.

2. Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It.” Examining the conservative response to New Deal programs enacted to eliminate persistent poverty.

3. Documentary Film and The Blackfish Effect. Exploring the role of a documentary film in public perception of the treatment and ethics of keeping animals in captivity.

4. Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift. Studying the recently amplified campaign designed to bring attention to long-standing issues of sexual harassment and assault.

5. Gun Politics and Narrative Shift. Tracking the long-term narrative-shift effort to enact gun control measures.

6. Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling. Moving from the “bad apple cop” to examining systemic racism.

Lessons Learned

At The Opportunity Agenda, we define narrative as a Big Story, rooted in shared values and common themes, that influences how audiences process information and make decisions. Narratives are conveyed not only in political and policy discourse, but also in news media, in popular culture, on social media, and at dinner tables across communities.

Here are key lessons learned or reinforced by Shifting the Narrative followed by the specific studies which best illustrate each lesson:

  • Narrative shift transcends messaging shifts and take longer. Narratives are not shortterm, single-audience-focused messages, but rather larger stories that often transcend any one campaign for policy change. Importantly, narratives shape the way audiences understand the context in which campaigns for policy change take place.For instance, in the case of the shift in public perceptions of gun control efforts in Virginia, the narrative challenge was not overcoming a lack of public support for gun control policies. In this case, most of the public supported gun control legislation but that public support was not resulting in policy change. The barrier to victory was the narrative that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was a credible and insurmountable obstacle to any such legislation. In the context of that narrative, efforts to pass gun control legislation died on the vine despite having public support. By intentionally undermining the credibility of the NRA by telling stories of mismanagement and incompetence over time, while also running pro-gun control candidates who won in the region, Virginia activists were able to weaken the prevailing narrative of the NRA being all powerful. The shift helped gun control supporters to see that Goliath could be defeated and energized them to introduce and pass legislation.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It; Gun Politics and Narrative Shift; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling.
  • Narrative shift efforts are difficult to evaluate. Because narratives happen over long periods of time and may not be focused on one specific outcome, evaluating the causality between a successful narrative shift and the strategies designed to shift it, can be particularly challenging. Over the long-term, changes in storytelling and language happen amidst an ever-changing landscape of environmental factors like political developments, economic trends, demographic shifts, cultural developments, and so on. Under these circumstances, narrative shift strategies are constantly affecting, and being affected by, the world around them. Because of this, pinpointing the precise moments in time when narrative shifts have happened is nearly impossible.Also complicating evaluation efforts is the fact that the field of narrative strategy research is relatively new. Therefore most, if not all, of the leaders we interviewed did not necessarily consider themselves to be engaged in a “narrative strategy” at the outset of their work. Narratives can often outwardly appear static for many years and then can appear to suddenly shift over a short period of time. This can make it difficult for people to observe the change they are making in the moment or to know precisely which activities are serving as the catalyst for change as they happen. Additionally, the effects of campaigns for social change often intersect with one another across issue areas. Because of this, social change leaders who are working in one issue area may inadvertently be playing a significant role in shifting narratives in areas they are not setting out to impact.Case studies to reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It; Gun Politics and Narrative Shift.
  • We must tell our own affirmative story, not just react to bad, dominant narratives. The investment in long-term thinking is crucial to any movement’s engagement in narrative shift. With this mindset, the challenge of shorter-term setbacks or unexpected headlines becomes how to build them into our own affirmative narrative, not how to deal with each individually. The latter often results in the outlay of significant time and resources to play a scattered defensive role instead of using each moment to bolster our longterm, affirmative story. In the case of the death penalty, advocates found themselves on the defensive throughout the 1980’s as media coverage about, and thus the public’s fear of, crime increased and intensified. Activists were primarily engaged in a series of legal fights, generating legal arguments, and gathering data as their strategy to challenge the death penalty. Advocates then realized that regardless of the number of court cases won, they had no hope of ending the death penalty amid a dominant narrative of increased crime and fear – they had a narrative problem on their hands. If activists could not get public opinion on their side, proponents of the death penalty would find new ways to pass laws enshrining the policy despite the mounting individual legal victories. By moving to a pro-active narrative strategy focused activists’ efforts on racial disparities and unfairness in its application, advocates were able to increase the public’s unease with the death penalty more than the previous strategy of amassing a string of court cases did.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling.
  • Social justice narratives must not shy from discussions of race. If those of us committed to social justice, fairness and true opportunity do not talk about race, we cede that conversation to the other side. For example, for a long time, advocates working on antipoverty policies did not address the racialization of poverty in a unified way, leaving the opponents of public benefits nearly unchallenged to use race in their drive to “end welfare as we know it.” While people did call out the “welfare queen” trope, it successfully persisted nonetheless without a directed, purposeful conversations about the historic and systemic causes of poverty and racial disparities in income and wealth. But those working on criminal justice reform – in the cases of racial profiling and the death penalty – realized they had to clearly discuss racial biases and disparities. If they did not, the myth of “Black criminality” would continue to successfully dominate conversations and meaningful, equitable reform would be out of reach.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It”

Moving Forward

There are approaches that those seeking to engage in narrative change strategies for justice can adopt to smooth the way for success.

First, narrative work takes long-term investment and a commitment to collaboration. Projects seeking to popularize a slogan or secure only an isolated policy win can be a part of a narrative strategy, but only if they are developed and executed in collaboration with other projects that build toward shared narrative goals. This means that spaces for those engaging in narrative work to collaborate and strategize are a much needed, and yet currently rare, resource.

Second, the development of frameworks and evaluation strategies that utilize well-defined benchmarks will be important contributions to the future of the field. The more that social justice communicators can agree on what comprises a narrative, and where we think we can see success along the path, the better we will be able to craft successful and collaborative narrative change strategies.

That said, while a shared agreement of form and definitions among those expressly inhabiting the young and growing field of narrative strategy are important, it is also crucial that a broad range of people can see themselves as part of any strategy. In the cases we studied, many people were engaging in narrative strategy who would never call it that. Our terms and approaches need to be accessible to people who do not see themselves as “narrative strategists,” or “communications experts.” We should find ways to make the case for the practical importance of narrative strategy to attract key collaborators and be effective in crafting strategies with them, while avoiding a reliance on jargon, formulas, or unwieldy definitions.

Finally, we need to tell the stories we want to tell rather than chasing behind current prevailing narratives just to argue with or shift them. By analyzing their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and then telling their own, affirmative story, we saw a wide range of advocates reshape the prevailing narrative in ways that put their goals and policies for justice on stronger ground. Using long range, affirmative narrative strategies, we can weaken the power of antijustice narratives and propel our campaigns toward victory.


i “Shifting the Narrative.” The Opportunity Agenda. Published 2021. https://opportunityagenda.org/messaging_reports/shifting-the-narrative/

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