Narratives, Truths, and Policymaking

By Joseph Monardo

Podcasts are responsible for some of my most memorable policy learnings. Longform journalism has given me insights I haven’t found elsewhere. Personal profiles have revealed elusive truths about our world and our country. Video features have added nuance to my understanding of important issues.

What can I make of that?

To use an encompassing term, these forms of “soft policy media” are distinct from academic research and traditional political coverage. They aren’t in textbooks, printed on the pages of top academic journals, or in policy-brief format. Nonetheless, all of these forms of storytelling represent for policymakers a solution to a common problem. They offer a remedy to the echo chamber that threatens to envelop formal analysis and ensure policy work maintains an immediate connection to humanity.

Before I began my Master of Public Policy, these forms of media were my tethers to the policy field. Working in the Sales department of General Mills — toaster pastries are worlds away from public policy — these articles sat silently in peripheral tabs along the top of my computer screen. On my way to and from work, familiar voices on podcasts gave me new ways of thinking about the policies that shaped my world and the issues faced by people in it. I would watch Vice News Tonight most evenings while eating dinner as a final passive attempt at increasing my global-issue fluency.

Engagement with those stories only got me so far. A Master of Public Policy provides the framework necessary to truly approach policy change and the skills necessary to achieve it. But I see quite clearly that various forms of soft policy media played a crucial part in getting me interested in policy school and helping me articulate why I wanted to be there. Further, they remain an important complement to the technical skills central to an academic degree program. More broadly, they have a critical role to play in advancing policy interests in the national conversation.

Policy research, analysis, and implementation fundamentally aim to impact the lives of individuals. To do so, the fields rely on understandings of preexisting systems and knowledge of institutions to identify and support cases for change. But that process — or any other definition of policy work you wish to substitute — is meaningless if divorced from its fundamental purpose: people. Unfortunately, ideals of objectivity or the allure of quantifiable findings can often lead even well-meaning researchers away from that purpose. This can be the role of soft policy media for policymakers (or, less ambitiously, policy students): to prioritize the humanity underneath each policy.

As a student primarily focused on elementary education policy, I think often of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work as an especially powerful example of what this media can do. In the (digital) pages of The New York Times Magazine, on This American Life, and from the Longform podcast studio, Hannah-Jones uses personal stories — both her own and those of others — to reveal truths about school segregation and racism that can otherwise be difficult to flesh out. By doing so, she implicitly builds the case for corrective policies, empowering the work of progressive education professionals.

There are countless other examples of similar media that do the work policy analysis is often unable to do. Literally every day I wait to publish this piece another example springs up. These human-focused narratives have the power to be more engaging than their academic counterparts and can inspire empathy and compel action to greater degrees. Michael Barbaro’s voice has framed pressing political and policy issues with a human lens more times than I can count since The Daily nearly two years ago. Rachel Kaadzi Gansah, Eli Saslow, and Elle Reeves added clarity to the incomprehensible hate at the center of white nationalism. Shane Bauer captured the dehumanization underlying the nation’s private prison system. The list could continue indefinitely.

There is no larger example of these policy-adjacent commentaries, by the numbers, than Serial. The podcast’s first season received more than 175 million downloads and you likely already know what it was about; if not, ask someone next to you and they’ll probably be able to fill you in. After a second season focusing on the capture/desertion of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the country’s biggest form of soft policy media re-launched in September with a season from inside the courtrooms of Cleveland. Even having consumed only the early episodes of season three, it would be difficult for a listener to avoid thinking critically about the amount of justice truly embedded within the justice system. By telling stories, Serial has shone a light on important legal and procedural issues, implicitly clarifying the need for progress through policy.

I value soft policy media as much today as I did when it was my sole avenue to policy thoughts. It’s just that now instead of sneaking glances — a few paragraphs at a time — through frozen biscuit slide decks or greek yogurt sales-trend spreadsheets, I’m weaving these narratives into days built around the theories and technical aspects of policy. I don’t want to feel that the narratives are the less-valid piece of that whole. I’m gaining an education in the discipline of public policy, but the humanity that precipitated the discipline remains as important as ever.

Perhaps my definition of soft policy media remains a bit too vague for this discussion to fully resonate. On the other hand, perhaps the idea is clear but already seemed obvious to you. Using human narrative to convey complex ideas is nothing new, after all. Fiction and nonfiction writing have always employed allegory and other similar mechanisms. Journalists and politicians, alike, have used individuals’ stories to represent larger ideas for centuries.

To answer both possible critiques, I will aim to clarify soft policy media as something both wholly consistent and wholly distinct. More than ever before, we have access to an overwhelming number of resources aiming to help us understand the lived experiences of real people. Their authors speak to specific policy mechanisms and political structures only to the extent necessary to clearly and completely characterize the humans at the center of their stories. Despite remaining separate from the formal field of public policy, they hold immense value to policy practitioners because they represent attempts to understand people and convey a shared understanding of the world to a broad audience. In their thoughtfulness, curiosity, empathy, and completeness, these forms of soft policy media stand as a worthy partner to academic techniques. The words of Saslow from the Longform podcast stand out as a fitting conclusion:

“I feel like the value oftentimes of longer journalism, and sort of narrative journalism — or at least the kind that I try to do — is to take things that seem simple and make them complicated. I’m trying to find things that people have assumptions about, and think that they know, and have strong feelings about, and bring nuance to them make them think about in hopefully different ways. Because, actually, when they finish the story they know way more about it than they did before.”  

Joseph Monardo is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Co-Editor in Chief of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.