Holt lecture highlights storytelling in a disconnected age

by Matthew Kredell

Television news journalist Soledad O’Brien sees an industry around her in which policy is rarely a focus. Political coverage in the media latches on to popularity and personality. Producers think people just want short quips and politicians arguing.

She disagrees.

Soledad O’Brien (Photo by David Giannamore)

As the 2019 speaker at The Holt Lecture, hosted by the USC Price School of Public Policy in October, O’Brien stressed the power of narratives and stories in public policy.

“To me, of course, policy is the building blocks of literally every single story,” O’Brien said. “If there is a pothole on your street, I guarantee you the backstory involves policy in some way, shape or form.”

USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott noted that in the current technological area, anyone can be a content producer. This makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from fiction.

“We are no longer able to trust fully the information we receive and our democracy in some ways is less for it, and that’s what we’re concerned about,” Knott said. “… Our job as a school of public policy is to produce the very best data and sound analytical theories, and to translate that into a narrative that helps us gain a more accurate and shared understanding of the world.”

Compton Mayor Aja Brown, who completed a bachelor’s (’04) and a Master of Planning (’05) degrees at USC Price, led a discussion with O’Brien.
See the full set of photos from this event.

O’Brien began her broadcasting career at NBC, co-anchoring Weekend Today, the Today Show and NBC Nightly News. She went on to co-anchor CNN’s flagship morning program American Morning before forming Starfish Media Group, a multi-platform media production company that produces her current show, Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, that airs on A&E.

Compton Mayor Aja Brown (right) leads the discussion. (Photo by David Giannamore)

She explains that TV news has always been about finding moments while policy tends to be more explanatory. Not enough news directors have come around on that policy is inherently interesting when told in narrative form – the background of the policy and the real-world impact it has on people.

“If it’s a well-told story, policy is every single thing that affects you,” O’Brien said. “Somehow there is this mythology around policy as boring, wonky people talking about issues, when actually policy can be incredibly exciting.”

With Matter of Fact, O’Brien is disproving the assumption that people don’t want to watch shows that delve into policy.

The show brings out the human-interest element of policy issues, taking on topics such as food insecurity for students on college campuses and if you can improve a community without gentrifying it.

She contends that such conversations can bridge the partisan divide separating the country.

“Conversations about policy and how to improve the world tend, I think, to unite people around what are the best solutions,” O’Brien said.

The show has grown from 500,000 viewers to as much as 2 million viewers in the latest season, all while airing Sunday mornings in most markets. She is proud to say it has the youngest and most diverse audience compared to cable news shows, handily beating everything on CNN and MSNBC.

“People want a good story,” O’Brien said. “We can use the platform to tackle complicated issues like policy and also, at the same time, highlight people whose stories have not been told. I think we have a great opportunity today to bring the relevance of policy back into the focus of reporting.”