Words to embrace, words to replace

October 9, 2017 - 2:04 pm
In this post, we spotlight the contributions of messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio who applies tools from cognition and linguistics to examine not just which words work when discussing civil legal aid and access to justice, but also to explain why certain words work when others don't.

Why do some messages fail to persuade while others lure people to your side of an argument?

In recent posts, we highlighted how our new opinion research finds voters overwhelmingly believing that equal justice under the law is a right, not a privilege.  We shared guidance on how to talk to the philanthropic community about civil legal aid.

In this post, we spotlight the contributions of messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio who applies tools from cognition and linguistics to examine not just which words work, but also to explain why.

In preparation for our latest round of empirical research, we commissioned Anat to conduct a language analysis of how our issues – civil legal aid and civil justice reform – are currently talked about. She examined more than 600 unique expressions in public communications, including legal aid, the courts, the media, the opposition’s arguments, and in popular culture. Her analysis revealed a few competing frames for how we describe the problem we want to solve, and the story we tell about its origins.

Anat’s memo, Prosecuting Our Pitch: An Analysis of Language on Civil Legal Aid, is now posted on the Voices website. Also, you can listen to the audio recording (minute 19:53 – minute 36:00) of Anat presenting to attendees at the Voices’ Communications & Media training on July 19.

Here are three key findings and recommendations:

1) Frame problems as legal

Anat reminds us that frames and metaphors matter – they influence not just how we speak, but the ways we decide, unconsciously, what ought to be done about an issue. Research has shown, for example, that groups primed with a metaphor of “crime as disease” (plaguing our communities, spreading around) came up with preventative solutions such as after school programs and preschool for all. Those who were presented with a metaphor of “crime as opponent” (fight crime, get tough on crime) thought harsher punishments were the way to go.

One of the most consistent findings in each phase of Voices’ opinion research is that Americans have little understanding about the kinds of cases the civil justice system addresses. Research from Rebecca Sandefur suggests that a key barrier to Americans’ getting legal help to solve their civil legal problems is their failure to perceive their problems as legal in nature.

To address this clear challenge, Anat recommends that we bring the courtroom into the frame. Courtrooms have a prominent place on television, but our advocacy for legal aid often shunts them to the background. By using terms like “legal aid lawyer” and phrases like “having your day in court” and “appearing before a judge,” we can activate this familiar frame and help our audience see, for example, that a dispute with a landlord or getting hounded by a bill collector is actually a legal problem with a potential legal solution.

2) Put the actors into our story

When we don’t make clear that people do things, what we suggest instead is that harms are visited upon people, and solutions similarly fall from the sky. Harms result from deliberate bad decisions, if not bad actors, and it takes people to correct them. Anat found that we tend to shield from view the actors who create the harms we catalogue, and we fail to give our audiences the clarity they need to “get” our story about the sources of and solutions to the problems we describe. We are falling prey to the common tendency of implying that bad things just happen by, as she calls it, “passivizing problems.” Her memo enumerates many examples of this that you’ll readily recognize – and can easily fix.

Worse yet, obscuring the origin of problems risks making legal aid itself seem culpable: “Legal aid programs turn away at least one case for every one they take.”

We also tend to leave out of view the people who are subjected to problems as well as those fixing them. For example, better to say: “Politicians who deny funding for civil legal aid force us to turn away half of the eligible people who need our help.”

3) Avoid “Gap” language

There is more harm than good in using the term “justice gap”.

The “gap” metaphor, while popular, fails in every domain where it’s been tested, including health care access, educational achievement, income, and now justice. Anat’s advice to drop gap language is somewhat complicated by our desire to cite and publicize data in an important new LSC report about unmet legal needs, titled The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans. While we should certainly utilize the contents of the report, we are well advised to minimize and eventually eliminate the use of the “justice gap” metaphor as a way of explaining the problem we’re trying to fix.

The word “gap” says there is a difference, but it offers no origin story about how or why it came to be. Anat strongly cautions that when we offer people no origin story, they will fill one in for themselves, and generally, they default all too readily to blaming individuals rather than systemic problems.

In contrast, using the word “barrier” suggests something that people put up – and that people can, in turn, tear down.

In the upcoming months, Voices will share and train advocates across the country in the new and broader messaging.  We are eager to engage with you as we build a message that will catch on in every corner of the country. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns we can be reached at team@voicesforciviljustice.org.