What Do We Really Know About Changing Minds?

Unlocking the power of behavioral science to build enduring trust and mutual respect between newsrooms and the public

Today the News Integrity Initiative is excited to announce a unique partnership with the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Together, we will convene scholars, journalists and design thinkers to explore what social science can tell us about trust, community building, identity, worldviews, and information avoidance, as well as a range of other behaviors and attitudes. We want to help build bridges between the academic research and newsrooms practices, in order to help newsrooms create deep, sustainable connections to the communities they serve.

This partnership builds on the groundbreaking work of the university’s Center for Public Interest Communications, which helps social change leaders and scientists develop communications strategies rooted in research about what makes stories compelling, memorable and inspiring. For the past five years, they have hosted the “frank” gathering as a forum for exploring and featuring emerging research and helping change-makers learn how to use communications to drive social change.

I went to frank this year for the first time, and it was a revelation. Understanding how change happens in the world is fundamental to the success of our work in philanthropy (as it is for many other fields). For all the time we spend mapping out systems and theories of change, however, we have far less understanding than we care to admit about what drives real behavior change on both a micro and a macro level.

There are many examples of well-intentioned but ill-informed public education campaigns and programs that have had the opposite of the intended effect. A major 10-year study by the American Psychological Association, for example, showed that graduates of the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program introduced in elementary schools in the early 1980s led to higher drug use among D.A.R.E. graduates once they reached high school than those who did not participate in the program. As one psychologist put it, “as they get a little older, [students] become very curious about these drugs they’ve learned about from police officers.”

Since the 2016 presidential election, we are seeing an explosion of media literacy programs, fact-checking initiatives, and communications campaigns asking people to trust in facts and pay for the news. Are any of these initiatives working? When and how will we know? What if they backfire? What if instead of stopping the spread of mis- and disinformation, funders are supporting programs that are unintentionally perpetuating it?

The Science of Storytelling Summit (October 2016) / University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications

At this year’s frank gathering, Solutions Journalism Network co-founder Tina Rosenberg raised similar questions and concerns. “Journalists produce a product that is painful to consume,” she noted, “and then we wonder why no one wants to pay for it.”

Attending frank brought to life for me how many assumptions we make about how we think change works. It also helped me see that we have a secret superpower we’re not really using: unpacking and translating wide ranging research — from sociology and behavior economics to psychology and neuroscience — that can help newsrooms create and strengthen community connections, and build sustainable businesses.

Given UF’s extensive and pioneering experience in public interest communications, its progressive journalism program, the ability to infuse social science insights into the College’s Innovation News Center and Hatch content incubator, and the sheer creativity of their work, we are both delighted to partner with them and eager to get started.

To learn more about UF’s work: