Abstract: Media coverage often construes stories of misfortune as inspirational accounts of individuals overcoming challenges. These reports fail to address the systemic issues that have predisposed these individuals to their current situation, and may have unintended consequences when it comes to the ability to collectively address these failings as a society. The current research examines how audiences are affected by inspirational narrative framings by comparing responses to a narrative that has inspirational coverage of a social challenge to one that includes direct acknowledgement of the larger systemic failings. Participants (N = 495) were randomly assigned to 1) read an inspirational story about a boy saving up to buy a wheelchair for his friend, 2) read a version of the story that emphasized the need for increased disability funding/services, or 3) a no-story control group. Both story conditions raised readers’ willingness to help people with disabilities. Importantly, emphasizing social responsibility shifted readers’ perceptions: readers of the social responsibility story were less likely to believe an individual with a disability was responsible for paying for their medical devices, believed that some collective measures would have higher efficacy, and viewed the situation as less fair. Even though individuals in the social responsibility condition found the story less enjoyable, they were equally transported into it compared to the inspirational version, and were equally likely to want to share the story with others. Our results offer clear guidelines for media practitioners covering individual struggles and systemic issues within society.
Keywords: attributions of responsibility; issue framing; narrative; prosocial