Using Media to Prompt Social Change: Lessons Gleaned From the Million Mom March

    • July 23, 2009

Lawrence Wallack, DrPH
College of Urban and Public Affairs
Portland State University
Portland, Ore.

Program background: Lawrence Wallack, DrPH, pioneered the strategic use of mass media and media advocacy as methods to advance public policy initiatives. His earlier work focused on developing a public health-based environmental approach to broaden understanding of substance abuse.

The award: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) created the Innovators Combating Substance Abuse award program to nurture and promote innovation in combating substance abuse. Between 2000 and 2003, some 20 senior researchers, practitioners and policy-makers received Innovators awards. See Program Results Report for more information on the program.

Wallack used his 2000 Innovators award to capture the story and lessons of the Million Mom March social movement that organized the May 2000 Million Mom March on Washington. Million Mom March was started by a mother who was appalled by a shooting at a child care center. The march aimed to galvanize mothers across the country to demand that Congress, state legislators and the public take serious and immediate action to end gun violence.

Wallack viewed the Million Mom March as a significant public health grassroots event and believed it had lessons that could be applied to other social movements, including those addressing substance abuse.

He also used his Innovators award to refine his earlier work on creating strategies for using the media to further social change and to create a more sophisticated approach to analyzing content in news media.

Results: Wallack reported the following results of his work to RWJF:

Lessons from the Million Mom March

  • The importance of timing and the role of media in setting the agenda for action.
  • The importance of a resonant message carefully framed to address the factual and emotional component at the same time.
  • The importance of giving people something to do when they want to participate in a cause or event.
  • Even in a mass movement, the glue that one charismatic person can provide is defining.
  • The importance of effectively addressing myriad issues including transcending political identification, dealing with racial and gender differences and recognizing the differences between people who have been personally victimized by gun violence and those who have not.

Lessons regarding using the media to prompt social change

  • There is a growing sophistication about the role of mass media among community organizations.
  • Successful communication is about more than a message. It is about framing around deeply held values.
  • An ethic of social justice underlies many community-based programs, but this ethic is not adequately communicated.

Lessons regarding media content analysis

  • The media do not discuss substance abuse as a comprehensive problem.
  • Using a cognitive linguistic approach (one which focuses on the connection between language and thought) to analyze text is promising in developing a relatively quick but sophisticated way to analyze new media coverage of various public health issues including substance abuse.