Mastering the art of inclusive communications

By Erin Wadsworth '22

Scott Behm ’23 (MADC) has always been driven by his passions, from teaching high school English to using his professional work to support marginalized people. Even before exploring a career in communications, Behm always had a curiosity for writing and storytelling.

“I knew English was something that I was really interested in — the way that words and language can impact how we think and the way that we communicate and even what our values are as a society,” Behm said.

After 10 years of teaching, Behm ventured out of the classroom for a career with more personal and professional growth opportunities and started over as a publications specialist for Duke University Health System. He was promoted to director of communications for Duke Surgery in 2019, but he felt like he needed to return to school to grow as a communicator, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic developed.

“2020 was a dumpster fire, you know? Social unrest, George Floyd's murder and the pandemic were impacting the way that we communicated with each other professionally,” Behm said. “I thought to myself, ‘I need to go back to school and really learn some solid communications techniques and skills in order to navigate this new world that we're in.’”

Behm started the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s Master of Arts in Digital Communication in 2021. He didn’t know where to begin with his thesis project, but he went back to his passions.


Scott Behm (back row, second from left) with the 2024 MADC Cohort during orientation in the summer of 2021.


“I'm a gay man, and I'm open about that. I'm fortunate enough to be in a place here in Durham and at Duke and UNC where I have the privilege to be open and talk about my identity, so I knew that I wanted my research to focus on queer people,” Behm said. “Fortunately, working with Lightning [Czabovsky], my thesis chair, really helped me to focus in and figure out a way that I could look at the lived experiences of queer people and understand how the media and communications impact their experience and how people perceive them.”

At the same time, for the first time in our nation’s history, the Human Rights Campaign issued a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans in 2023.

“To see it in a statement from an official institution saying there is a real danger for queer people — that was a wakeup call for me that we need to think intentionally about the way that we communicate about marginalized groups,” Behm said. “How does the media, even on a very subconscious level, impact the narrative about queer people?”

His dissertation, “Perpetuating Queer Stigma: Examining the Media’s Coverage of LGBTQ+ Health News,” was inspired by how the media framed the queer community.

“Scott’s research is important, impactful and highly relevant to the scholarship and the practice of communication,” said Raul Reis, dean of UNC Hussman. “It is another example of how our graduate students, mentored by our faculty, work to explore the complex interplay of communication and societal values.”

Behm used a case study approach, analyzing three cases: media coverage of the FDA’s approval of Truvada as a preventative measure for HIV, the 2022 mpox outbreak and Florida’s 2023 anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that has been dubbed by the Human Rights Campaign as the “Slate of Hate.” He studied the subtle ways that communication, diction and semantics controlled the narrative about the LGBTQ+ community.

“One example of stigma that came up in much of my research was a repeated connection of the gay community to HIV and AIDS,” Behm said. “This connection creates a narrative about this population, that they're in peril, that they're in danger, that they need to be protected, or that they should be ostracized because they're dangerous. Very few references to HIV discuss the immense progress that has been made medically and scientifically, which omits the hope and resilience that are true defining aspects of queer history.”

Behm noted that this isn’t just a problem for queer folks. Most, if not all, marginalized groups are often represented unfavorably in the media. Intersectionality, or the idea that two or more minority identities create unique circumstances of discrimination, contributes to increased stigmatized media coverage.

Behm created a language guide to reduce negative narratives in the media, and it informs his work at Duke.

“We're starting to see a trend at Duke. The communicators are working together to understand how to be more intentional in developing inclusive communications, not just representing marginalized people or tokenizing minorities by putting them in the spotlight, but really supporting them in our communications and providing resources on how can we do that effectively,” Behm said. “The main takeaways that I shared in my research are helpful with that process and thinking about very small ways that that communicators can subtly change the narrative about underrepresented people.”

With his master’s degree, Behm was promoted in 2023 to associate dean of communications and marketing for The Graduate School at Duke University, and he’s still mastering the art of inclusive communications.

“It's important for communicators to continue to research and continue to explore the way that language impacts meaning and the way that our communications methods impact the narrative,” Behm said. “We are never going to get to a point where we can say ‘We're done. We've learned what we need to do now. We can go communicate.’”