In this first Sighting, we reflect on the role that stories, language and framing will play as we decide, as a society, how to rebuild. 

Observation

The stories we tell now about how society is responding to COVID-19 will shape how we look back on this time and how we move forward as a society. 

Questions we’ve been asking ourselves

  • How do we promote stories of connection and support without silencing important voices?
  • How do we spread these stories beyond our own ‘echo chambers’, generating the critical mass that is needed to provoke change? 
Some have been talking this week about the three quarters of a million people volunteering for the NHS support programme and more than 270,000 community groups formed in 15 days. Others have focused on people who ignore the guidelines on distancing or hoard and waste food. In general we know that crises are more likely to reinforce, than to challenge, our existing beliefs and, more than ever, social media allows us to draw all the evidence we want from people who agree with us. 

Perhaps then it is not surprising that we are almost equally divided in our opinions on the state of society; You Gov found that, at the end of the first full week of lockdown 51% feel less positive about society than they did before the crisis began.

“How we talk about the crisis now will determine how we come out of it. When the events of 2008 became known as ‘Labour’s financial crisis’ and ‘Labour’s deficit’ it established  a storyline for the policies on austerity and public expenditure which were to follow. If phrases like the ‘Banking crisis’ or the ‘Global financial crisis’ had dominated discourse, the policy would have been different. Today we are also using different language; telling and hearing different stories.” Observatory Contributor

Surfacing and spreading positive stories

Iona Lawrence has been leading work on The Connection Coalition to help to spread “stories of connection”. Iona describes the Coalition as “a cross-sector partnership designed to ensure that physical distancing doesn’t create a crisis of disconnection, enforced social isolation and loneliness now and in the future.” The Coalition will “collect and share stories of connection in all its different forms to share with wider audiences”

There are plenty of people saying the current moment is a massive opportunity for change, and I agree. But like the new relationships that are emerging, the spaces where calls for change are emerging are disconnected and vulnerable to the same old vices: lots of little fields with their own gatekeepers patrolling the conversations. Meanwhile those who are determined that change should not happen, or should happen in ways that shore up existing systems, are well organised and well resourced. So this time round, what will sustain a movement to rebuild and reconfigure relationships? If we are seeking to learn in real time from the crisis we are in, how will that learning reach beyond our own networks and communities? Observatory Contributor

Observation

The language that we use to tell the stories of the response needs to be carefully considered. New words are needed to describe new responses. 

Questions we’ve been asking ourselves

  • What language should we be using to pave the way for a connected, cohesive transition out of this period? 
  • What language should we be avoiding?
Existing vocabulary can underplay the significance of an idea. We need new words. 

  • Re-neighbouring” is capturing the dramatic change in behaviours in many neighbourhoods and
  • “Caremongering”, first coined in Canada, describes the antithesis of scaremongering. 

“Scaremongering is a big problem,” Mita Hans told the BBC. “We wanted to switch that around and get people to connect on a positive level….It’s spread the opposite of panic, brought out community and camaraderie, and allowed us to tackle the needs of those who are at-risk all the time – but now more than ever.” Her Toronto FaceBook group  now has more than 9,000 members and other local groups have begun. It’s really shown us the need that people have to have some level of reassurance and hope”.  Mita Hans

And sometimes old words are wrong. This is a time of change and disruption but “opportunity” feels inappropriate when people are dying. It would be better to borrow a phrase from public health and talk about “teachable moments”.  

Useful resources to help us think about framing

In this practical and uplifting blog Alice Sachrajda says “just as every story has a beginning, middle and an end, so does the pandemic. But the difference is, this is a story that hasn’t been written yet. It’s an open book and we all have a role to play in shaping the story that unfolds”.

There are also more great “Tips for framing covid19” from Ella Saltmarshe. And the Frameworks Institute are “pulling guidance from twenty years of framing research and practice to help advocates and experts be heard and understood in a time of global crisis” in a series of briefings

Julia Unwin writes well on language and other aspects of our response to the crisis. She also contributed to this Compass podcast alongside Jennifer Nadel and David Robinson.

And finally, a round of applause

We couldn’t let the week go by without acknowledging the Applause for Key workers not least because it is the kind of moment that won’t make more than a footnote in any retrospective account but has felt significant to several of our contributors. It is an expression of gratitude, also a rare opportunity to escape from captivity at the end of a tedious day, but both objectives could be met without others. The Applause represents something more, something bigger than ourselves and suggests a deep yearning for connectivity, not just in the UK but across the world. Sometimes we don’t notice things until we don’t have them.

“Every night in Cape Town at 8.00pm there is applause, hooting, singing, lights flashing to thank all those working in hospitals, care workers etc. It has been every night of the lockdown so far. I find it incredibly moving and it also makes you feel part of something. That there are all these other people inside their homes and we are having a shared experience.” Observatory Contributor

Thanks to this week’s contributors

The Observatory is a voluntary collaboration led by the Relationships Project. We are dependent on the eyes and ears of our observers and partner organisations and we need more.

Find out how to get involved.

The voices heard this week include Linda Woolston, Richard McKeever, Julian Dobson, Alice Sachrajda, and Iona Lawrence.