Better Information In Pop Culture

Last month at Netroots, I had the great pleasure to spend some time talking to David Roberts from Grist, who mentioned an interview he’d done with an outfit called Hollywood, Health, and Society that’s a free informational resource for folks who are producing health- and climate-related pop culture who want to make sure they get their facts right. HHS director Sandra de Castro Buffington told him why she thinks their model works:

We hold panel discussions at the Writers Guild of America West on a regular basis. I have a climate change panel discussion coming up on March 9, so I’m going to bring together a small group of experts, a keynote speaker, and some writers and/or producers who have successfully portrayed climate issues in television or film. They can talk about how they did it, why they did it, what were some of the challenges, what are some of the opportunities. We get about 75 to 100 writers at these events.

We have long-standing, trusting relationships with the writers, so if I have an expert in town, I’ll call them and say, look, I’ve got this amazing person who has real stories I’m sure you’ve never heard before. Can we have one hour on Friday? Now, why do the writers trust us? They have every special interest group in the world hitting on them every day, but they don’t want someone else’s agenda being pushed on them. The reason they trust us is that we never push an agenda. We’re simply a free resource. We will get them an expert on any topic they want.

This strikes me as such an insanely smart model that I’m not sure why more folks aren’t doing it. Being a connector to experts and vetted information is a relatively cheap thing for foundations to support: it doesn’t require a huge staff, and it’s in the interests of a lot of organizations to make their experts available. Not every organization’s going to be able to pull this off — Focus on the Family, for example, is probably going to have a pretty hard time just putting themselves out there as objective efforts and convincing people to come to them. Anyone who tries to do this is going to have to be patient enough to put story ahead of their agenda, and to recognize that sometimes policy information or a policy agenda won’t fit neatly into the conventions of narrative. And for some folks, that may not be worth it, if they end up with compromised stories. But as this interview suggests, the increasing accuracy of health information in pop culture suggests that narrative drama and facts can coexist. And basic facts shape our expectations of what’s possible and what’s right.