What’s Your Issue?: Practice-led Research, Exploring the Portrayal of Issues Through Narrative

Throughout the development of our project concept, Fair to Wear, my group and I were faced with the problem of presenting a clear, identifiable issue as a story. Fair to Wear focuses on the Fair Trade Clothing industry in Australia and the lack of both transparency and availability of Fair Trade Certified clothing that is guaranteed to be ethically sourced along every step of the production and distribution line. If presented as a question, the premise is: if we are opposed to the unethical treatment of children and workers, is it possible to truly shop our values?

Arguably, the premise is clear. It is, however, devoid of narrative. When developing a digital story, or, any issue-based story for that matter, a strong narrative is integral to effectively communicating the ideas, themes and premise (as discussed in my earlier post: Tell Me a Story). It is this conflict that will be the focus of the following discussion.


Researcher Ruth M. Campbell, while working with undocumented immigrants and the problems that they face accessing health care, was confronted, towards the end of her research, by one of the participants:

It is great that you like words, Ruth. I know doctors and researchers like words. You aren’t capturing everything though … We [the participants] have been talking. We want to do an art project to capture this. Then maybe your colleagues at the hospital, doctors, policemen and the public will understand us.

— Anonymous participant via Ruth M. Campell, Turning Research into Art, 2013

Campbell’s participant understands public opinion, and their comments capture the essence of a content-creator’s thirst for narrative. Working on Fair to Wear, our group found ourselves in a similar situation as Campbell. Put simply, we have a lot of facts and figures we could list and an important message that those facts could illustrate. However, as Campbell’s participant points out, audiences may not connect to and/or interpret “words” the way researchers do, they need something else to hold on to, to help them understand(a).

Translation: how is narrative achieved?

In an analysis of narrativity and the newsroom, Jacobs observes how “social actors emplot events into narrative…and this emplotment is structured by certain general forms” such as “appropriate subject matter” and literary techniques such as genre and character archetypes (1996, pp. 383 – 385). Jacobs explains that, for example, the archetypes evident in an event inform how news workers determine what type of story it will become and how it will be dramatised (1996, pp. 383).

With Fair to Wear, there are multiple possible readings. One, for example, could take the B-Corp etiko as our protagonist, a ‘for profit for purpose’ social enterprise fighting against all odds, including social perceptions and commercial compeition, to bring Fair Trade certified clothing to the mainstream and end human rights abuses in the clothing/merchandising industry. With these facts, we can interpret story elements from the subject matter. In the frame of a narrative and through the lens of genre and character archetypes, we could begin to see an ‘Epic’ genre with a ‘Rebel/Revolutionary’ character.

With this technique, there are many ways that the subject matter could be interpreted as a narrative. Another example would be a tragedy, in which the protagonist may be the etiko CEO, Nick, and the narrative trajectory focused on a Fair Trade Clothing industry in Australia that has repeatedly seen attempt after attempt fall flat, while our protagonist is screaming into seemingly deaf ears about consumer consciousness.
Feel free to leave a comment, below, with your own interpretation.

For clarity, I’d like to list some other observations outlined by professionals from the news sector:

They all [the panellists of One World Media’s event ‘Turning global issues into stories’] agreed that we should be focused on telling the stories of people rather than issues, “ You can state statistics all you want, but you need to put a face to that, delivering what people’s real experience is like” said Strudwick.

— Zeyad Salem and Patrick Strudwick , UK LGBT Editor for Buzzfeed News qtd. by Zeyad SalemTurning global issues into stories, is anything but easy, 2015

And the marketing sector:

“ People sympathize more with individuals rather than abstract statistics about an issue,” “They find relevance and become engaged”

— Chris Wainwright, Head of communications at WaterAid qtd. by Zeyad SalemTurning global issues into stories, is anything but easy, 2015

Here are four essential questions that, if you can answer them in relation to your message, will help you inject an element of story into any piece of information.

  1. Who is the hero? We want someone to root for.
  2. What is the plot? We need to see movement.
  3. What is the setting? Specifying a setting makes it real and relatable. It’s not just happening in limbo.
  4. What’s the conflict? Conflict adds tension, which gets us emotionally involved, and it also gets us invested in someone’s success or failure

Conflict might seem tricky, but take Apple’s classic “I’m a Mac” ads. The purpose of these ads was simply to explain some of the Mac’s features, but by comparing them to the features of a PC, Apple injected a sense of conflict.

— Khaled AllenHow To Turn Any Message Into Story2015


Evidently, it is integral to face the challenge of Issue vs. Narrative head on in developing a media project, as has been the case in developing the project Fair to Wear. As discussed, a narrative is often the most effective way of communicating ideas. However, when you want to promote an issue, it can be difficult to develop an effective story to articulate that issue through emotion, art and craft. The news worker techniques promoted by Jacobs offer a framework for narrativisation of subject matter, and, as seen through exercises in this post, can do so effectively. However, an important criticism of the use of narrative to convey epic, ongoing crisis, is offered by McComas and Shanahan in relation to Climate Change and is not irrelevant to Fair to Wear or this discussion. McComas and Shanahan note that, while we generally connect with issues through the use of story, the problem with narrative is that it is archetypically structured to end (1999, pp. 36 – 37). Beginning-middle-end. Climate Change does not end at the conclusion of a story. Nor does child labour, or human rights abuses throughout the clothing industry.
Addressing this conflict is crucial to a successful project.

Works Cited

Allen, K. (2015, July 13). How To Turn Any Message Into Story . Retrieved from CauseVox: https://www.causevox.com/blog/turn-any-message-into-story/

Campbell, R. M. (2013). Turning research into art. Canadian Medical Association. Journal: CMAJ; Ottawa, 64 – 65.

Jacobs, R. N. (1996). Producing the news, producing the crisis: narrativity, television and news work. Media, Culture & Society, 18(3), 373 – 397.

McComas, K., & Shanahan, J. (1999). Telling Stories About Global Climate Change: Measuring the Impact of Narratives on Issue Cycles. Communication Research, 26(1), 30 – 57.

Salem, Z. (2015, October 21). Turning global issues into stories, is anything but easy. . Retrieved from Medium: https://medium.com/the-monocle/turning-global-issues-into-stories-is-everything-but-easy-203e91734c40



a“Them” in this context is referring to the audience. It is important to note that this is contextual. Really, we are all the audience. Researchers, when not in the context of research (ie. for their job, academia etc.) are the audience. This is not intended to be divisive or elitist, placing researchers on a kind of pedestal of factual understanding in the absence of narrative. It would perhaps be more fitting to say, “we”, however for the purpose of distinction in this particular context, “them” remains.

*Featured Image Credit: thinkgeek, CC BY-SA

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