5.11 Narrowing the Focus

These techniques of idea mapping and observation can help you think expansively about the potential aspects of a topic but no one, especially not a busy reporter or strategic communicator juggling multiple clients’ demands, can address all of those aspects. What is needed now is a way to narrow the focus.

The following set of questions can help you identify and define a more specific aspect of a topic on which to focus.

  • What disciplines of knowledge might deal with this topic – and what would their focus be? To understand “disciplines of knowledge,” think about the departments that offer majors on a university campus — economics, political science, biology, etc.

  • What parts of the city / state / country / world are dealing with this – or how are they dealing with it differently?

  • Is this a new topic? How has it evolved over time? Where might it be going in the future?

  • What kind of groups have a stake in this topic and what are their positions?

Once all of these questions have been posed, you are in a position to focus selectively on some aspects of the larger question and develop an exacting standard for raising questions and seeking information to address your information needs. Going through this routine frequently allows you to revise or refine the question, making your information seeking tasks much more manageable.

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Mark Hunter: CC BY 2.0

For example, if the broad topic is, “homelessness” the formula for focusing the topic might work this way:

Disciplines: Economics, sociology, urban planning, and psychology are a few of the disciplines that might provide insight – each would have a specific aspect on which they focus – and their disciplinary focus might inform your own.

Geographic limits: Although homelessness exists throughout the U.S., how the condition is understood and approached varies from community to community and from state to state. In one area concerns about immigration policy might be big while in another it might be how to help the homeless during cold winter weather.

Time period limits: Much of mass communication work emphasizes recency. Therefore, the newest information is likely to be stressed. However, trends in homelessness over time (particularly the last decade or so) will surely help put the problem into an historical context. And some types of messages would benefit from an overview of how homelessness has been handled throughout many decades since this is a problem that has been with us for a very long time.

Stakeholders: Academics, politicians, social workers, activists and advocates for the homeless have entirely different ways of approaching the issue and defining the problem. The homeless themselves are certainly another stakeholder, and one that isn’t often featured in messages about the problem.