In summary

When we use crisis frames on issues that require long-term policy shifts, they can paralyze us, leading to thinking that the problem is too big to solve.

By Nat Kendall-Taylor and Bill Pitkin, Special to CalMatters

Nat Kendall-Taylor is CEO of FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank that works to shape the public discourse about social and scientific issues, nkendall-taylor@frameworksinstitute.org. Bill Pitkin advises nonprofit organizations and leaders on strategy and social change, wcpitkin@yahoo.com. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

The coronavirus pandemic and the protests against police brutality are laying bare long-standing problems and inequities. We are in the midst of social crisis. 

It makes sense to think that if we can bring this same sense of urgency to other, more specific issues, people will be more likely to act to solve them. But crisis framing doesn’t always work that way. 

Journalists, researchers, advocates and political leaders all have a tendency to frame social issues as a crisis. We see this from education and health care to climate change and addiction. This is particularly prevalent among people working on affordable housing and homelessness. 

In February, the Los Angeles Times launched an online section dedicated to “covering the state’s homelessness and affordable housing crisis.” That same month, in his State of the State address, Gov. Gavin Newsom called homelessness “the most pernicious crisis in our midst.” 

Housing issues are urgent and housing systems in many parts of the country are in fact in crisis. However, communications research shows that presenting these issues as a crisis may not be the best way to get society to address them. Crisis framing may create sympathy, but it does not lead to durable changes in thinking or support for long-term solutions. 

When we use crisis frames on issues that require long-term policy shifts, they can paralyze us, leading to fatalistic thinking that the problem is too big and deep to solve. As a society, we suffer from emergency inflation: if everything is a crisis then nothing is. 

When faced with a pile of problems that dwarfs visible solutions or messages that locate problems in systems without systems solutions, we lose our motivation and fail to act. This creates a backfire: the more we emphasize the crisis, the more people disengage. The pandemic and the protests are adding a new type of backfire. 

We are seeing that highlighting the gravity of the pandemic or police brutality can get people to comply with social distancing or take the streets. Crisis language might be just what we need in these circumstances. But, going forward, COIVD-19 and the protests are making crisis framing even more problematic on issues like housing and homelessness. 

Talking about these issues as a crisis is likely to pale in comparison to what we are going through right now and fall flat. Or worse, this kind of message framing may result in outright message rejection. As one California housing advocate recently wrote, “For years, builders and legislators have clamored about a housing crisis. COVID-19 shows us what a real crisis looks like. Healthy people get sick and die. Businesses close. Foreclosures and bankruptcies surge.”

As we emerge from the current phase of the pandemic and find ourselves on the other side of the protests, we need to explain why problems such as housing insecurity and homelessness deserve our attention and what we can do to address them. Calling them a crisis is likely to be ineffective in light of the dual crises we are currently experiencing.

Communications research shows that we are motivated to act when we understand something is urgent and see solutions we can advocate for. We are also more likely to address housing and homelessness if we aren’t constantly asked to think about people affected by these issues as “others.” Instead, if we hear messages that emphasize common experiences, we can see these as “our” rather than “their” issues. And if we are offered explanations about what causes these issues and how proposed solutions fix them, we will be more likely to lean in and work for change 

Let’s do away with the crisis language in describing homelessness and the lack of affordable housing – it’s more unlikely than ever to fail in getting us the change we’re after. Let’s explain why these problems exist, how they affect us all, and what we need to do to truly solve them. 

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Nat Kendall-Taylor is CEO of FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit think tank that works to shape the public discourse about social and scientific issues, nkendall-taylor@frameworksinstitute.org. Bill Pitkin advises nonprofit organizations and leaders on strategy and social change, wcpitkin@yahoo.com. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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