On framing and perceptions

Daily Show vaccine segment 02 June 2014
This segment on the Daily Show, and the reaction to it, set me to thinking about how our views as a population are shaped. To read even a smidgin of the literature on persuasive communication would take years — but in a little over five minutes, Samantha Bee’s piece has illustrated some of the high points quite nicely.

Storytelling through comedy.

It is a commonplace that we live in an age of information overload. It is hard even to get the attention of our fellow info-globe citizens, let alone inform or persuade them of anything important. The difficulty of persuasion in a churning sea of competing media is something that science film-maker Randy Olson has thought about quite a bit. With collaborators Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, Olson has developed a handbook and toolbox for anyone with a message to convey. I have no idea whether the Daily Show‘s producers were consciously working from the same playbook, but I was impressed by how deeply they seem to have understood and how effectively they have used the techniques described by Olson, Barton and Palermo.
The Daily Show is a comedy program that covers the news — or a news show that’s funny; take your pick. As a result, its style is an often disorienting chimera of comic and journalistic conventions. A regular feature of the show is a short piece like Samantha Bee’s, in which one of the Daily Show‘s comedy reporters produces a short, funny segment on a serious topic. Much of the narrative toolbox described by Olson et al. shows up here — the building from simple to elaborate, the conflict and the resolution, all in five minutes while being funny.

The theme sets the expectation.

Samantha Bee sets the segment up with a familiar observation: “Conservatives are fighting the good fight against something they think threatens us all — science.” followed by a sequence of conservative figures bashing science. She then introduces Paul Offit to make the core statement: vaccine-refusing parents are denying science and bringing back childhood diseases. Bee delivers the straight line: “Every scientific fact has a counter-fact that is true for other people.” Offit responds that the fact of vaccine effectiveness rests on evidence, not belief. Graphics then show disease incidence vs. vaccine introduction, underscoring the point. Bee sets up the joke as a map of the US lights up with foci of infection on both coasts: “Because of these right-wing nut-jobs, outbreaks of preventable diseases are occurring in the red states of California, New York and Oregon .. wait, what the [bleep] is going on here?” Cut back to Offit. Vaccine refusers are largely educated people in affluent communities. They think “by simply Googling the term ‘vaccine’ on the internet they can know as much, if not more, than anyone who is giving them advice.” Bee is shocked. “It’s happening in my community … people who juice?”
All this gives the piece a theme — liberals can be science-deniers too! — and causes the viewer to expect something unusual and interesting. In this case I think the underlying assertion is not true. Studies have found that vaccine denialists are equally likely to be conservative or liberal, and it is not difficult to find prominent conservatives who are rabidly anti-vaccine. But the premise works. It arouses interest and sets the stage for what is to come.

Every subject is a character.

The Daily Show segment is a narrative, however brief. And at the center of this narrative is the contrast between two people: Paul Offit, introduced at the outset, and “patient zero” — someone who is infected with science denial and transmits it to other victims. The Daily Show producers chose for their patient zero a vaccine opponent and blogger: Sarah Pope, the “Healthy Home Economist.” Pope was a good choice because it was not obvious at first how well she would play the role. Attractive, well-dressed, she could have easily been a reasonable, likable character — not a good contrast to Offit. The viewer knows nothing about Pope until Samantha Bee sets up the conflict with a throwaway question: “Do you know a good organic hair-gel recipe?” Of course Pope does, sounding earnest and faintly silly. The expectation is set (“You are definitely at risk.”). In the next frame, Pope lets the other shoe drop (“These vaccines are loaded with toxins …”) and the expectation is fulfilled (“You are definitely infected.”). The development of Pope’s character takes all of 23 seconds. With that element in place, the segment moves to a couple of stock shots illustrating science denial and vaccine opposition (one is of Andrew Wakefield, who is not named). Then it is back to Offit, then Pope, Offit again, accelerating to a series of short cuts in which Pope brings the crazy (“My data’s different … there is no herd immunity … you can line up the doctors from here down the block refuting me, but I’m not gonna change my mind.”). She appears a bit wild-eyed and smugly wacky as she supplies Samantha Bee with straight lines (“the decline of epidemics is … due to getting the filthiness of the horses out of the streets.” “You know that you don’t get measles from horseshit, right?”). With Pope firmly established as an utter nutjob, thesis and antithesis are complete.

Resolution and wrapup

The segment then moves to a farcical climax, in which Bee wages a desperate battle against contagious “liberal idiocy”, frantically looking for the next link in the chain of transmission (“Do you remember where you last had tea?” “It was Starbuck’s.” “Which one, which one, WHICH STARBUCK’S?”). After a few sight gags of Bee dashing around Manhattan in a hazmat suit, we return to Offit, who calmly opines that we probably need a few more disease outbreaks for enough people to realize why we have vaccines. Samantha Bee breathes a sigh of relief, bringing the right- and left-wings of looniness together: “So there IS a cure for science denial! Once Florida is under water, and we all have polio, it’ll be better.” And we have synthesis.

What can we learn?

Watching and thinking about this segment raised for me a few salient points, of greater or lesser obviousness:

  1. Making a complex point in a short time, while being funny and entertaining, is an art.
  2. Sometimes that art demands a compromise among primary and secondary messages — as here, where the politics of science denial were simplified in order to achieve impact.
  3. Characters are important. In interviews Paul Offit comes across as smart but unpretentious, good-humored, likable. Sarah Pope, in contrast, was intense, smug and combative — much harder to like. If they had said the same things, but with their styles reversed, the result would have been different.
  4. Communication technique is invisible but vital. The editing skill that went into this segment was not obvious to me until I had watched it several times. Much of its effectiveness came directly from that skill.
  5. Those skills can be used for different ends. In this case, we are fortunate that the Daily Show is on the side of the angels.
  6. For any message, some of the audience will never be reached. In this case, I think that the core of Daily Show viewers — young, educated, mostly liberal — are likely to be favorably influenced by this segment.

On the whole, I think this was a great example of sophisticated techniques of communication being used in a worthy cause. My hat’s off to the Daily Show, and I hope we see a lot more of this in the future.

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