How to create audience empathy & engagement
Stories, including and especially fictional stories, are vital to our shared understanding of society — from articulating universal values in compelling ways to cultivating empathy. This is why the types of stories we tell are so important — they frame the way we view one another, teach audiences how to navigate cultural and social differences, and ultimately help us forge stronger relationships with our fellow humans.
However, mainstream stories often fail to capture the full range of experiences and perspectives in our society (as well as many other societies around the world). This means audiences have long had an attenuated appreciation of the people they live alongside — from members of diverse races, nationalities, and faiths to those with different sexual and gender identities. There’s an emerging awareness that greater representation won’t just provide outlets of expression for a broader range of communities — it will also enrich the lives of all communities by bringing new perspectives center-stage.
Audiences have never had a more acute awareness of the ways in which certain voices are amplified while others are marginalized, and they’ll continue to demand greater representation in all the forms of media they consume. When diverse storytelling becomes the norm, this will make for a more tolerant, inclusive, and better informed society.
Audiences demand diverse storytelling through consumption behavior
Diverse storytelling can have a powerful effect on communities that are often overlooked — it doesn’t just make the characters and settings we consume more relatable, it also expands the boundaries of what members of diverse groups think they can achieve. And while marginalized communities can benefit from greater representation in media — all viewers and listeners can learn something from people who have different identities and experiences. These stories allow them to discover new ways of looking at the same world. Diverse storytelling is educational, without calling itself education.
With this fact in mind, it’s no surprise that 80 percent of audiences want to change the state of diversity in the media. While 49 percent of respondents to the same survey say they feel positive about the media industry’s progress in elevating diverse voices, most of them said they would like to see at least one diverse storytelling issue addressed. The number of issues viewers identify — such as homogeneous casts and racial stereotypes — increases as they get younger, a reminder that future generations regard diversity as an indispensable element of their media experiences.
There has been a dramatic shift in consumer demands over the past several years. Edelman reports that half of consumers are “belief-driven buyers,” which means they’ll “choose, switch, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.” Almost two-thirds of consumers say they’re attracted to brands that are making the world a better place. These changes clearly apply to media consumers as well — audiences believe their shows, podcasts, and other forms of entertainment should reflect the society in which they live, which means diverse storytelling is paramount today.
Social change through fictional characters
The stories audiences are exposed to can have a direct impact on cultural and social attitudes. For example, “Will & Grace” likely played a key role in reducing homophobia in the United States — in 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden said, “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.” A 2018 study published in the journal Political Science Research and Methods found that a Mexican radio soap opera about a relationship that becomes increasingly violent “increased rejection of violence against women and increased support for gender equality.”
But just as stories can have a positive effect, they can also cause harm when they neglect or mis-portray groups. A study conducted by the USC Norman Lear Center and Define American found that immigrants on TV were associated with crime 34 percent of the time in 2018 — a proportion that fell to 22 percent a year later (immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes in the United States). Meanwhile, despite the fact that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population, they’re consistently underrepresented on TV. Other groups face similar issues — according to Nielsen, Native Americans’ screen time is less than a quarter of their population estimates, while the proportion is one-third for Hispanic Americans.
While diversity in the media has increased substantially over the past two decades, it’s clear that there’s plenty of work still left to be done.
Taking more bets on more underrepresented creators
Media has never been more thoroughly integrated into our daily lives. According to Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report, Americans spend an average of 10 hours per day interacting with their devices. From the rapid emergence of streaming services to the exploding number of podcast listeners, new mediums have made content more and more accessible. This isn’t just important because larger and more diverse audiences are interacting with a wider range of media — it also means media has an even more central cultural and social role.
Even as diversity becomes more apparent in the content we consume, there are constant reminders of how far we have to go. For example, one of the reasons representation remains an issue is the level of inequality on the production side of the media industry — a recent UCLA study on diversity in Hollywood found that less than a third of studio heads are women, while just 8 percent are members of minority groups. Meanwhile, less than a quarter of credited writers across broadcast media are minorities, and this proportion falls to less than 22 percent for the directors of episodes.
As media becomes more dynamic and democratized, content platforms and creators alike are increasingly focused on inclusivity and capturing a wider range of perspectives. In many cases, this is because content creators and storytellers from different backgrounds are entering the industry and have opportunities to create content for the masses. These developments reflect the surging demand for voices that offer unique points of view that will help audiences become better informed, more empathetic, and ultimately more engaged than ever before.