Voter engagement in North Philadelphia
Approximately one quarter of Philadelphians live in poverty – one of the highest percentages among American cities. This number is even higher for Philadelphians of color, with approximately 37.9% of Latino and 30.8% of Black residents living in poverty.
One way to improve outcomes for underserved populations is to make elected officials and institutions more accountable, and one way to do this is for underserved populations to become more powerful voting blocs. However, voter turnout among Philadelphia’s poorest wards is low. In the November 2022 midterm elections, four wards in Philadelphia (7, 19, 33, and 43) had turnouts under 30%. All these wards are located in low-income neighborhoods near and around the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia, which also represents the zip code with the lowest average household income in Philadelphia. These wards also have a large concentration of Latinos living in them. Latino voters saw the largest turnout drop among racial groups in Pennsylvania during the November 2022 midterm elections.
There are a variety of barriers standing in the way of voting for underserved populations – some of which are well-known (such as general distrust of elected officials) and some of which are less well understood (such as the impact of disinformation and misinformation). Our research aims to 1) identify barriers to voting in North Philadelphia through a survey and focus groups and 2) design and implement a campaign to address identified barriers in upcoming elections.
Covid-19 vaccinations in North Philadelphia
Soon after the Covid-19 vaccines became available in December 2020, Temple’s medical school received funding to provide vaccinations to underserved communities in North Philadelphia. While there was high demand for vaccinations after they had first become available, demand had severely dropped by June of 2021. Because of this, the medical school reached out to the Klein College of Media and Communication for assistance persuading residents to get vaccinated.
Working with my colleague Deborah Cai, we conducted surveys with community members and in-depth interviews with representatives from community-based organizations to understand vaccine hesitancy in North Philadelphia. We analyzed the interviews through qualitative thematic analysis.
Through our research, we were able to make concrete recommendations to the medical school regarding how to persuade North Philadelphia residents to get vaccinated. Key among these was that vaccination campaigns ought to focus much less on persuading people that vaccinations are safe and much more on making vaccinations convenient. Many of the interviewees we spoke with emphasized that residents were not vehemently opposed to vaccinations but that they simply faced other daily challenges that made vaccinations, which often require (unpaid) time away from work, a low priority.
Our research not only led to changes that helped bring more residents to the clinics (such as holding more clinics on Saturdays, when fewer people work; ensuring that residents knew the vaccines were free, did not require insurance, and did not require identification; and shifting to hyper-local communication strategies so residents knew when a clinic was within walking distance of their home), but also built evidence for the value of obtaining and incorporating input from community members when designing communication interventions. This research has so far resulted in a journal article published in American Behavioral Scientist in 2022 and an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2021.
Transitional housing for homeless victims of intimate partner violence
In 2018 I conducted an evaluation of a local non-profit dedicated to empowering victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) and helping them thrive. This project used participatory design and participatory evaluation. As part of this project, I also became a Pennsylvania-certified domestic violence advocate.
The evaluation, including the invaluable insights of the women I worked with, allowed me to build upon theory about the role of empowerment in social change. I published my findings in the Journal of Applied Communication Research.
In this article, I proposed a model for social change that incorporates the importance of overcoming trauma for some marginalized and oppressed populations, and the potential role of internal communication and storytelling, including self-reflection and journaling, in overcoming trauma.
This line of investigation is central to one of my key research questions regarding the value of terms like empowerment and participation. In the article I propose that over emphasis on empowerment and participation has resulted in many projects deemphasizing the importance of trauma healing, arguably a more foundational step. I also make the case that among the underserved populations upon which social change projects tend to focus, rates of trauma are much higher than is often assumed. In addition, I created a short video about participatory evaluation methods based on this project (with minimal resources, from my home, during the first month of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns) for a special video presentation session at the 2020 conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). I am currently developing this research into a journal article on participatory evaluation methods.
Evaluation of the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index
In 2018 I conducted an evaluation of the Ranking Digital Rights Index (now called the “Big Tech Scorecard”). The Index, created and implemented by New America, ranks 26 of the world’s largest information, communication, and technology (ICT) companies on their privacy and freedom of expression policies based on the UN’s Guiding principles on business and human rights. I was hired by New America to assess whether and how the Index was being used by 1) the corporations ranked in the Index and 2) civil society organizations and social movement actors.
One of the assumptions of New America and other creators of human rights-based indices is that the publication of corporate rankings will incentivize corporate behavior change either through news media coverage of the rankings or simply the threat of potentially negative news media coverage. Through this evaluation I was therefore able to research how rankings data might effectively enter the news media and how social movement actors might use them strategically in their communications efforts. My conclusions addressed the circumstances under which this type of communication about social change could penetrate the incentive structure of the news media system and educate media audiences about corporate actors who are supporting or thwarting positive social change.
Based on my interviews with social movement actors, I published an article in the International Journal of Press / Politics in 2022 proposing that indices and indicators can function as key communication resources for social movements. This is part of my work on communication about social change in that it builds theory about how social movement actors bring information about solutions to social problems into the media.
- Research article / Evaluation: From statistics to stories: Indices and indicators as communication tools for social change. (2022). The International Journal of Press/Politics.
The terms ‘indices’ and ‘indicators’ may immediately cause eyelids to droop. How, then, might they serve to impassion publics and, ultimately, promote social change? This paper is part of my work on communication about social change in that it builds theory about how social movement actors bring information about solutions to social problems into the media. It does so by examining the extent to which indices and indicators can be considered communication tools for social movements and social change. The analysis is based on a 2018 evaluation of one index based in the United States – the Ranking Digital Rights Index, which assesses privacy and freedom of expression in the ICT space – and incorporates interviews with civil society stakeholders. Bringing theory from the fields of journalism and social movements together with the data from the evaluation, the findings suggest indices can serve as useful communication resources for social movements under certain circumstances. In particular, the analysis suggests three communication resources – legitimate information, newsworthy information, and flexible information – that human rights indices are most likely to provide.
- Research article / Evaluation: Better safe than sorry: Examining trauma as an obstacle to empowerment and social change in a U.S. intimate partner violence intervention. (2022). Journal of Applied Communication Research.
This paper was based on an evaluation of a housing facility for homeless survivors of intimate partner violence and is part of my effort to use evaluations to improve on-the-ground interventions and build theory regarding how media and communication can promote social change for marginalized communities. In this paper, I argue that CSC must better incorporate trauma healing into the concept of empowerment, and thus into a revised model of social change. Three broad theoretical arguments are offered regarding trauma within CSC: (1) trauma is rarely addressed outside peacebuilding interventions, but is relevant to other marginalized populations; (2) storytelling work has mostly focused on its politically empowering effects, and insufficiently on its healing effects related to trauma as a precursor to political empowerment; and (3) storytelling work almost always assumes an audience, but there is also value in internal communication – e.g. telling a story to oneself or journaling – when trauma has limited one’s opportunities for communication.
I also wrote a blog post about this piece. You can read it here.
- Research article: How media portrayals of suffering influence helping behavior: The role of solvability frames. (2019). With S. Dilliplane. Journal of Media Psychology.
This paper describes a research project that is part of my effort to build theory on the role of communication about development in promoting development outcomes. An online experiment was designed to test whether framing media portrayals of distant crises as “solvable,” by including concrete information about ways to address the problem, moves viewers to help more than framing crises as tragic and unsolvable. The common wisdom in the psychology literature on helping behavior is that sympathy is what drives action, not statistics and facts (which often in fact drive down helping behavior). We found that solvable frames were just as effective as unsolvable frames at promoting helping behavior, but that the prior influenced viewers through rationality, while the latter influenced by increasing sympathy.
Access the survey used for this experiment here.
- Research article: News you can use or news that moves? Journalists’ rationales for coverage of distant suffering (2019). Journalism Practice.
This paper describes a research project that is part of my effort to build theory on the role of communication about development in promoting development outcomes. This paper introduced the concept of solutions-oriented information, meaning information related to causes of, context of, or ways to address social ills. The study investigates how journalists covering international humanitarian crises make decisions regarding the inclusion / exclusion of solutions-oriented information in stories of suffering. Interviews with journalists reveal an internal tension between maintaining a neutral, unbiased position and writing in a way that supports engagement and action. Ironically, perhaps, journalists find that including solutions-oriented information amounts to unethical and biased coverage, despite the fact that inclusion of solutions to social problems is an accepted and institutionalized aspect of the American news media’s mandate to the public. Reasons for this seeming contradiction are discussed, and I argue that solutions-oriented information not only can be included without demonstrating bias, but that it ought to be included to support ethical coverage that properly informs citizens about potential paths for political engagement.
- Research article / evaluation: Small group discussion to promote reflection and social change: A case study of a Half the Sky intervention in India (2019). Community Development Journal.
This paper is based on an evaluation I conducted of an intervention in India and is part of my effort to use evaluations to improve on-the-ground interventions and build theory regarding how media and communication can promote social change for marginalized communities. It discusses how small group discussion might spur consciousness-raising, and thus bottom-up, community-led social change, in this case regarding violence against women.
- Research article: What have we learned here? Questioning accountability in aid policy and practice. (2018). Evaluation.
This piece problematizes the notions of “accountability” and “learning” in aid policy and evaluation practice. It questions the role that project evaluations ought to serve. Accountability and learning are two terms that have been held up as twin pillars that will ensure a more effective aid-making system. Here, I question the ability of these concepts to improve aid in their current working forms. I offer a revised conceptualization of learning in order to improve funding and funding policy. The revised definition supports two particular areas in which “learning” is sorely needed but which are eschewed in most current institutionalized evaluation rhetoric: developing theory undergirding social change (such as theories relating to gender-based violence) and evaluating project design and implementation processes (such as participatory designs).
- Research report / Evaluation: The use of IVR to support monitoring and evaluation of media interventions: A case study of the VOTO system in Rwanda (2016). With B. Smith.
This is a report, funded by the U.S. Institute of Peace, on a pilot study of an IVR system in Rwanda, used to monitor and evaluate the success of an edutainment program. The study explores the potential that Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems have as both a distribution and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) tool, noting the limitations the current state of IVR technology imposes. The project explored mobile IVR technology for those engaged in peacebuilding, investigated the usefulness of the platform for information dissemination and infor-mation collection, and evaluated the platform as a tool to improve monitoring and evaluation. This work fills an evidence gap often found by organizations in the development field who are interested in using ICTs, but have inadequate information about effective and practical ways to do so.
- Research report / Evaluation: Half the Sky Movement global engagement initiative: Final M&E report (2016). With A. Esenler.
Based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s 2010 bestseller Half the Sky, the Half the Sky Movement conducted a multi-million dollar intervention to promote gender equality in India and Kenya through the use of media. Through a documentary film, educational videos, discussion groups, and mobile games, the project sought to change attitudes and behaviors regarding gender norms. The Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (where I was a post-doctoral fellow) was hired to consult on project design and to conduct monitoring and evaluation of the project. I led this effort.
- Research article: For the public good or just good publicity? Celebrities and humanitarianism (2015). Mass Communication and Society.
This paper on communication about development (CAD) evaluates how three of the most well-known “celebrity diplomats” in the United States – Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, and Bono – differ in their method of speaking about development, crises, and conflicts, focusing on how their public discourse adds to, or detracts from, citizens’ abilities to understand, discuss, and respond to the issues presented in the public sphere.
- Research article: Not up for debate: U.S. news coverage of hunger in Africa (2015). International Communication Gazette.
This CAD paper explores how the U.S. news media construct the topic of hunger in Africa for U.S. audiences. Specifically, the paper addresses how newspapers define and delimit the relationship between U.S. citizens and foreign sufferers. Through a framing analysis and critical discourse analysis of randomly sampled newspaper stories, as well as interviews with media stakeholders, I argue that while news articles covering hunger in the United States usually frame the problem as pertinent to the public sphere, the victim as worthy of political action, and the reader as political agent, articles covering hunger in Africa frame the issue as irrelevant to the public sphere, the victim as removed from political action, and the reader as politically impotent. This serves to weaken (or sever) the relationship between the marginalized and those in a position to help.
- Research article: In Search of Local Knowledge on ICTs in Africa (2015). With I. Gagliardone, A. Kalemera, L. Nalwoga, N. Stremlau, and W. Wairagala. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development.
This article, written as part of a research grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, explores whether, and to what extent, local voices feature in research on the role of ICTs in statebuilding and peacebuilding in Africa, with a particular focus on Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. We question whether the claims of the transformative power of ICTs are backed by ‘evidence’ and whether information emanating from Africans is taken into consideration by ICT-based development initiatives.
- Research article: Scholar-practitioner collaboration in media-related interventions: A case study of Radio La Benevolencija in Rwanda (2014). With M.E. Price. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics.
Only a small portion of project evaluations are done by scholars and are based on theory. This limits the potential of evaluations to build development and social change theory. This article discusses the potential for fruitful collaboration between academics and practitioners through reflection on our work with the NGO Radio La Benevolencija.
- Research report / Evaluation: Assessing Impact, Evaluating Adaptability: A Decade of Radio La Benevolencija in Rwanda, Burundi, and the DRC (2013).
This evaluation was commissioned by Radio La Benevolencija (RLB), a Dutch NGO that aims to empower groups and individuals who are the target of hate speech and ensuing acts. The evaluation consisted of a document analysis of ten years’ worth of organization proposals and reports, as well as in-depth interviews. The report is owned by RLB but excerpts are available. I am currently finishing up an academic article summarizing how RLB’s work contributes to theory on the role of group discussion and social norms in behavior change.
- Research report / Evaluation: Testing a Media Intervention in Kenya: Vioja Mahakamani, Dangerous Speech, and the Benesch Guidelines (2013)
This evaluation was commissioned by Susan Benesch, Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center and Director of the Dangerous Speech Project, as part of a grant from the Fetzer Institute. For this project, Benesch partnered with Media Focus on Africa (MFA) and the cast and crew of a Kenyan television comedy drama series, Vioja Mahakamani, to “inoculate” audiences against inciting speech, and make them more skeptical of it, by increasing understanding of what constitutes incitement to violence, the psychology behind incitement that helps prepare groups of people to condone or even take part in violence, and its consequences.
- Research report: United States Institute of Peace Communication for Peacebuilding Priority Grant Program Learning Group Report (2012) With N. Sheth
In 2012 I led a learning group, facilitated by Internews, of the three grantees of USIP’s 2011 Communication for Peacebuilding priority grant program. The purpose of the learning group was to facilitate knowledge-sharing, mutual learning, joint dissemination, and collaboration regarding how to use media and communication for peacebuilding. This report summarizes the findings from our two-day meeting.
- Research report / Evaluation: Evaluating media and communication in development: Does evidence matter? (2012) With A. Arsenault, I. Gagliardone, K. Winneg & A. Buttenheim.
This report was commissioned by BBC Media Action in order to assess how communication research and evaluations are used by policymakers and others. The project examined the extent to which different donor organizations, foundations, think tanks, practitioners, and academics utilize research in general, and BBC Media Action research in particular.
- Research article: Deflecting the CNN Effect: Public opinion polling and Livingstonian outcomes (2011) With M.E. Price.
In this piece, we argue that public opinion polls can be used as tools by governments to change narratives around development policy options. We argue that polls can be used by governments to deflect the CNN effect by re-framing narratives and policy options; to trump the CNN effect by returning to a form of evidence-based policy making in which research, rather than media pressure, dictates decision making; and third, to circumvent the CNN effect by engaging in improved approaches to conflict resolution.
- Research article: Savage deregulation in Thailand: Expanding Hallin & Mancini’s European Model (2010). Media, Culture, and Society.
This article discusses the history of media deregulation in Southern Europe and Thailand and explores what sudden deregulation of media, in particular radio, can mean in terms of community radio and the ability of the radio sector to serve small or marginalized communities.
- Research article: Why the message should matter: Genocide and the ethics of global journalism in the ‘mediapolis’ (2009). Journal of International Communication.
Roger Silverstone’s concept of the mediapolis is used to incorporate the role of both the media and the media audience in recognizing and acknowledging the distant other. This idea is then expanded to the case of global humanitarian crises and distant others in distress. In terms of the role of the audience, behavior prediction models from the fields of economics and psychology are used to discuss what kind of communication about development in the mainstream media might prompt a particular response from the Western reader toward the distant other.