Michael D. Jones
Deserai Anderson Crow
Publication Date
December 22, 2017

Oregon State University (Jones); University of Colorado (Crow)

"[T]o better connect with audiences communicators would do well to recognize themselves as storytellers - not to distort the truth, but to help people to connect with problems and issues on a more human level in terms of what matters to them."

Cognizant of the weaknesses in science communication that involves providing information based on only objective scientific evidence, the authors in this paper offer a step-by-step guide to narrating scientific evidence. In doing so, they draw on the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) to define narratives as having a setting, characters, plot, and moral. Examples of narratives from the United States (US) vaccine controversy serve to illustrate these elements in practice. Jones and Crow argue that, by "understanding the structure of a narrative, science communicators can engage in the policy process, remaining true to the tenets of science and maintaining the integrity of the evidence, but doing so in a way that is compelling and thus also effective in helping solve problems."

To provide an impetus for their proposed approach, Jones and Crow explore the Knowledge Deficit Model (KDM), "a model of communicating that emphasizes the repetition of emotionless objectively sterile information to increase understanding." They cite some of the research documenting KDM's deficiencies. In short, these studies have demonstrated that scientific evidence is important but not sufficient in most cases to persuade on its own. This is due to the fact that people do not actually make decisions or process information based on only objective scientific evidence; their personal beliefs and emotional understandings of the world also play a powerful role. Jones and Crow point to the concept of biased assimilation, which is a process by which people tend to engage new information in a way that affirms their existing understanding of the world, and themselves. Despite KDM shortcomings, "Western culture has fetishized objective expertize for most of the past century, which has helped enshrine KDM in our political processes."

An alternative is the NPF, which "establishes an empirical approach to measuring the influence that narratives have in the policy process by first defining a narrative as having a setting, characters, plot and a moral of the story (see Shanahan et al., 2017).

  1. Setting:...ideas, facts, and other policy consequential characteristics related to the issue. Some of these objects are relatively fixed and stable, such as constitutional parameters. Other elements of the setting, such as scientific findings, can be contested with variable meanings for different actors.
  2. Character:...the emotional engine of policy stories....Villains are responsible for the hurt, and heroes that bring promise of reprieve for the victim.
  3. Plot:...positions the characters within the setting across time and space, establishes relationships between characters, and determines what elements of the setting are active, what elements are dormant, or altogether left out.
  4. Moral:...what the listener is supposed to take with them. If told well, the story should maximize the ability to recall the moral. In a policy narrative, the moral of the story is often a solution to the policy problem."

Jones and Crow discuss each of these elements in detail and also look at the role of evidence, which can be trusted as legitimate even if it is not based in science. Using the 5 categories of evidence provided by the NPF, evidence can be used to help establish the setting of the narrative (e.g., time, history, and politics) or the problem definition and causality (e.g., data on the severity, causes, or consequences of a problem).

Figure 1 on page 5 of the paper depicts the authors' model of storytelling. By identifying the audience, the narrator can calibrate "narrative congruence" (whether or not it fits with an individual's pre-existing understanding of the world matters in terms of a story's persuasiveness). By next casting characters that are compelling and/or aligned with audience beliefs, the narrator can attempt to capture emotion and the audience's attention. Developing the problem definition in a manner consistent with evidence and prior beliefs (both the audience's and the narrator's) can also help increase the persuasiveness of a narrative. Finally, ensuring that the story has a moral (a solution to the problem) can move the narrative beyond critique into the realm of solving problems.

Next, Jones and Crow offer two real-world illustrative breakdowns of narratives that were originally published in mainstream media related to the issue of childhood vaccine safety in the US, a country where vaccination safety has been a public concern since the late 1990s, when medical literature appeared to indicate that a relationship existed between autism and the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine. In the first example, the authors look at the story of the anti-vaccine doctor as villain. Next, they explore the narrative of the anti-vaccine celebrity as villain. These illustrations were chosen because, in their view, the communications represent a likely-to-be told story mixing scientific evidence with story elements that are easy to follow. For each example, they touch on the 4 steps presented in the model above to illustrate how this model can help a narrator construct a compelling scientifically focused evidence-based story.

The two examples illustrate the authors' main points:

  • "Understanding the audience and clearly articulating a problem is essential....In both of these narrative examples, intended for different and yet broad audiences, the narrators take a traditional journalistic tone (Example 1) and a younger more cheeky columnist's tone (Example 2). Regardless of tone, both narratives have the potential to speak to their audiences and sway opinion about vaccines, but neither as originally written, has likely maximized its potential in accomplishing that goal."
  • "[C]haracters can package emotion and help tell the story of a problem by attaching emotion to elements of the setting through their relationships with each other and the problem, as depicted in both examples....Narrators in certain topical areas like vaccines, and perhaps also like climate change or other areas where there are significant numbers of anti-science voices in the public sphere, seem to focus on villains and victims as shown in our examples." Jones and Crow argue that by also focusing on heroic characters, "narrators might have a better chance of reaching their audience with more optimistic messages that might help shape understanding of science issues. These characters can help shape the moral of the story as well, wherein the narrator can construct a moral that is a clearer call-to-action (in opinion pieces like Example 2) or policy solution (like Example 1)."
  • Evidence can be effectively woven into narrative, and this can be done by scientists and advocates alike.

Jones and Crow stress that one of the key prerequisites of their narrative advice is that "one must be able to maneuver symbols, arguments, characters, and the like strategically. Therein is the difficulty. Because if what we argue about narrative is true of your audience, it is also true of yourself. The stories you will want to tell will be stories that emanate from you as expressions of you, your beliefs, and your identity....In the end, your ability to tell a good story embedded with scientific evidence will hinge to a greater or lesser extent on your ability to acknowledge your own beliefs in a somewhat dispassionate manner, embrace the perspectives of others, and view them all from the outside, treating elements strategically, and to do so in the name of science."


Palgrave Communications 3: 53 (2017) doi:10.1057/s41599-017-0047-7. Image credit: Brian Deer