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Center for Media & Social Impact
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This year’s conference, “Tools of the Trade,” focused on impact and measurement. It also marked a leadership transition at the Center for Media & Social Impact, celebrating Pat Aufderheide's achievements as she moves on to new pursuits and welcoming Caty Borum Chattoo and Brigid Maher as our new Co-Directors.
This year’s conference, “Tools of the Trade,” focused on impact and measurement. Caty Borum Chattoo, Creative Director and future Co-Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, kicked off the day with her keynote address, “Engaging Hearts, Minds and Actions: Exploring the Foundation & Future of Storytelling for Social Change.” She began by highlighting three traditions of social-change storytelling: entertainment education, strategic communication, and documentary production. She then took the audience through the history of these traditions and their interactions, showing how each has supported good storytelling. “All the strategy in the world won’t do anything if you don’t have a story,” she said. “It’s absolutely essential.”
For example, take Peru’s 1970s soap opera "Simplemente Maria." After Maria bought a sewing machine and enrolled in an adult literacy class, Peru saw dramatic increases in sewing machines sales and enrollment in literacy classes. Through story, Simplemente Maria influenced social norms and changed the relationship between the upper and lower classes. Media makers began to recognize the power of stories to galvanize real change.
Borum Chattoo also provided a more recent example from her own experience. In 2005, she co-produced the documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” to expose the company’s oppressive business practices. The film inspired so much opposition to Walmart that the company attempted to rebrand.
So how do we tell stories that will actually have impact? Borum Chattoo suggests that we start by identifying “actionable opportunities.” In other words, start by delving into an issue in order to figure out what its core components are and where the greatest need for action is. For example, an issue that no one knows about requires a very different type of action than an issue that is widely discussed but politically ensnared. The first might call for awareness raising and media campaigns, while the second might call for political advocacy and meetings with policy makers.
Timing is also important. If you tell a story about the relevant issues of the time, you can speak to audiences who already have an interest in those issues and may even be looking for ways to get involved. For example, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” resonated with existing animal rights groups and created new ways for these groups to engage the public. Borum Chattoo calls this “amplified community.”
Finally, we need to tell stories that people actually enjoy. Social change doesn’t have to be all sad music and serious faces – in fact, these sorts of conventions can actually distance viewers from people on the screen. That’s why Borum Chattoo has recently been focusing on a new storytelling idea: using comedy for change.
Borum Chattoo pointed out that the issues most important to a community also tend to be common topics for stand-up comics in the area. In South Africa, for instance, comics are talking about HIV; in India, sanitation. “These are what the comics are talking about,” said Borum Chattoo, “and these are also the actionable opportunities.”
Comedy gives storytellers a new way to reach apathetic audiences and create empathy. Quoting Tabitha Jackson, Borum Chattoo explained that “documentaries are empathy machines,” which is important when you want to inspire attitude and behavioral changes.
This is what Borum Chattoo found in her recent project “Stand Up Planet,” featuring comics performing in impoverished communities across the globe. Her impact analysis revealed that the audience “didn’t just care about global poverty issues, they cared about the daily lives of people living around the world,” said Borum Chattoo. “If we feel that they are not others, that they’re not different from us,” then we’re more likely to take action.
Finally, Borum Chattoo stressed the importance of impact measurement. Stand-alone projects are great, but they lead media makers to needlessly reinvent the wheel with every new project. “We need to know what works so we can build from it,” said Borum Chattoo.
In our first talk of the day, Dana Chinn of the Media Impact Project, Luisa Dantas of “Land of Opportunity” and Benjamin Stokes of Games for Change discussed the process of designing for impact. The conversation was led by American University Professor and future Center Co-Director Brigid Maher, whose documentary “Mama Sherpas” will be released later this year.
The speakers offered the audience different perspectives of impact based on their experiences with their own projects. “Impact is really all about identifying a target audience,” said Chinn. “Your target audience is a group of individuals. They’re individuals with names.” Before you can really speak to an audience, you need to know who they are.
You also need to know who you’re working with. Dantas pointed out that when you’re collaborating on a project, “impact” will have different meaning for different partners, who have different goals and can offer different insights. Integrating their goals can encourage “deeper engagement.” For the creation of the transmedia platform LandofOpportunity, Dantas said, “All the partners were at the table with us, thinking about how to create a cross-disciplinary experience to encourage people to make connections.”
Stokes brought up the impact of games. Games have recently been undergoing “pretty substantial changes in the form,” such that many now facilitate real-world exploration and connection between players. For example, the game Macon Money helps players meet people they wouldn’t have otherwise, and also get people to visit local businesses for the first time. “Games in some way are all about choices,” said Stokes, so designers ask the engagement questions – “What do we want people to do? What is the action?” – early in the process.
So how should we think about impact? Evaluative metrics are important, said Chinn, but they need to be informed by outcome and audience. At the same time, however, we need to find metrics that we can use in the future so we don’t have to start over every time. Stokes agreed, stressing that creating adaptable models for evaluation could help build confidence among media makers striving for impact. If we invest a lot in creating robust assessment tools now, evaluation will cost much less in the future.
Dantas highlighted the importance of iterating versions of your project and getting feedback from stakeholders and audience members at each stage. It’s a resource-intensive process, especially for independent filmmakers, she said. Impact media makers should include a line item in their budgets for impact evaluation. Chinn added that budgeting for evaluation can strengthen partnerships between media makers and funders, because funders like to see the data and media makers can use it in the process of creating and innovating.
When it comes down to it, though, the speakers agreed that specific evaluation metrics have to come organically from the media maker’s priorities and goals. For instance, Stokes reminded the audience that assessing internal quality can be just as important as impact analysis for media makers who want to improve their work, particularly as projects become increasingly complex.
As a community, we need to “start reclaiming notions of assessment” as something that media makers can direct and learn from, said Stokes. “Who has the power to determine the criteria we’re going to be measured against?” he asked. Media makers should be proactive in determining what kinds of impact they care about. “Impact is something we should be thinking about from the beginning, and constantly optimizing our process,” Stokes said. It works best when we “feel a sense of ownership.”
Media makers shouldn’t be afraid to take control of the evaluation process. Chinn pointed out that evaluation is often about understanding what data you already have: “There’s no story without data and there’s no data without a story.” Many media makers think of measurement as a constraint, Stokes said, but “constraints are actually the birthplace of creativity.” Think of assessment rules like any other constraints, such as playing on a two-dimensional screen, and then find creative ways to work within that box.
Sometimes the right data isn’t collected and mistakes are made, but that’s okay, Chinn added. That’s part of the iterative process. “In this new media world there are no benchmarks. It’s not about comparing to others,” she said. You delve into your project, and then the metrics should follow – they should never lead. Dantas suggested that a code of best practices in evaluation could be developed as a guide for media makers.
The main question, said Stokes, is “What do you want to know?” Find out what you can, determine what you don’t know, and then bring in the experts. If we start by planning our own metrics, impact becomes “less of an ivory tower thing,” he said.
After lunch, Center Director Pat Aufderheide spoke about how the media community’s understanding of fair use has radically changed in the decade since the creation of the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use – and also how it hasn’t.
Back when the code was first released, self-censorship over copyright concerns was considered “being professional.” Media makers viewed fair use as a risk, because that’s the feedback they received. Insurers would refuse to accept fair use claims, or only accept them discretely. Lawyers would say (truthfully) that clearances were safer. Broadcasters would refuse to show films that relied on fair use for fear of liability. Filmmakers were also hesitant to accept fair use in case other people used it against them.
But now, according to a recent survey study that Aufderheide conducted with nearly 500 participants, the vast majority of filmmakers say they use fair use, they understand it, and they find it useful. Almost no one has trouble with insurers anymore. Gatekeepers are comfortable with employing fair use. And 97% of respondents said they have never lost money from others’ fair use of their materials.
However, the study also found that there is still “a massive amount of self-censorship” in the media-making community based on copyright concerns. 80% of respondents reported changing work because of copyright considerations – mostly out of their own fear. What is less clear is their motivation: did they change their work to bring it within the boundaries of fair use or because they were afraid to rely on fair use?
Overall, Aufderheide’s recent study “allowed the field to get perspective on itself,” but also showed “the power of matching the behavior of an academic field with creative research.” While we’ve certainly made progress, we need to continue moving forward. Our next steps, Aufderheide said, should incorporate three approaches: “Publicize. Educate. Convene.”
Aufderheide stressed the need for more widespread understanding of our DMCA fair use rights and the important roles that organizations like the IDA, WIFV, Docs in Progress, D-Word, TIVA and more can play in facilitating conversation around fair use. She also highlighted a variety of resources on the CMSI website that provide examples and best practices of fair use to help media makers understand how it might apply to their work.
After Aufderheide’s talk, her friends and colleagues surprised her with a short tribute to her work over the years, each taking a minute to share their personal experiences and say thanks. “I’ll always value Pat for the trouble she’s made,” said Gordon Quinn, “because it’s trouble that makes democracy work.”
Caty Borum Chattoo led the next talk, “Stories of Impact,” which featured Joe Brewster of “American Promise,” Jody Gottlieb of Vulcan Productions, and Richard Ray Perez of “Cesar’s Last Fast” and Sundance Institute. The speakers began by telling the audience about their latest projects.
Brewster’s “American Promise” looks at the challenges facing black male students in the US. It was created over 13 years with over 3,000 partner organizations. Brewster said that although he and his wife and codirector Michèle Stephenson weren’t initially planning an impact campaign, they have seen a lot of positive change in terms of recognition of the issues thanks to the “orchestra” of people involved. When they released the project, they found that “the mothers [involved] would talk about the film as if it was their film.” Brewster also learned a lot by making the film: “Filmmaking is a process of repeated failure and growth from that failure.”
Gottlieb shared her experiences producing “We the Economy,” a set of 20 short videos from award-winning directors meant to explain how the economy works in understandable ways. The goal was to educate and inform the public. Vulcan Productions’ projects, including “We the Economy,” tend to include project-specific “integrated social media campaigns right off the bat,” said Gottlieb. “Every project that we do is completely different... [so] we really do assess each project on its own merit with the goal of moving the needle.”
Perez’s “Cesar’s Last Fast” began a bit differently when he came across old footage of Cesar Chavez: “I saw material I inherited and a story emerged from it, and I decided to make the story I saw.” Perez sought to tell that story in an interesting, non-textbook-like way and also to “up the game” of “stories told about people of color, by people of color.” But he also noted that impact storytelling requires some sacrifice: “Making a documentary and making a living are two different things.” Getting funding and designing an impact campaign are each additional hurdles.
In terms of fundraising, the speakers had a few suggestions for media makers. Brewster noted that funders support stories they really feel, and emphasized the importance of diversity in film. Gottlieb agreed that “it really is about that emotional resonance” that comes from the film. Funders “aren’t just funding a film. It’s really much more about the overall experience.”
Kickstarter is a great place to get initial funding, Gottlieb added. Some funders also look for emerging filmmakers and projects on Kickstarter. But, she added, you also have to take some initiative. You have to get out there and “sell the shoes.”
You should also think about the best format for your project. Perez spoke about the power of the documentary short in today’s digital world, where a lot of people won’t invest 90 minutes in an unknown film. Shorter films require less time, energy, and money.
Above all, the speakers emphasized the importance of staying true to your message. “When you’re ‘mainstreaming,’ generally you’re watering down the message,” said Brewster. “Don’t worry about having a white sidekick.” Make a strong film with amazing characters and then move on. Gottlieb added that as a funder, she looks for “filmmakers who really believe in the message” of the film they’re pitching. If the filmmaker isn’t “100% emotionally involved,” she said, it’s hard to get on board.
In order to stay true to your story, you’ll also want to create dialogue around your film. If you’re telling the story of a community, make sure you get people from that community involved, Gottlieb said. If you’re not sure how to start that dialogue, consult experts, Perez suggested. Even if you don’t have a budget, you might know someone who can help you figure out how to create conversation. And your audience should be part of the conversation as well, Gottlieb added. Get real feedback that you can turn into calls to action.
In the final talk of this year’s conference, Jennifer MacArthur of Borderline Media, Lauren Pabst of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Emily Verellen of Fledgling Fund shared their insights into what funders are looking for in grant applications.
It’s important to have a good sense of the information environment of the issue you’re addressing, said Pabst, adding that the MacArthur Foundation goes for projects that tackle new issues or news sides of issues. The others agreed: MacArthur cautioned that filmmakers dealing with popular or “saturated” issues should make sure they’re introducing a new aspect or frame, and Verellen urged the audience to bring new emotions and views that “add value” to old topics.
If you really want to inspire social change, Verellen said, get involved with the movement around your issue and ask for their expertise. What are the places and faces not being seen? In this way you can create a story people want to watch, Verellen said, instead of something that feels like a PSA. Pabst added that the MacArthur Foundation gives larger grants in order to give media makers this time to pursue a story and see where it goes.
MacArthur suggested that media makers think of funders as partners with resources and knowledge to contribute. “When you work with them, you build yourself into an ecosystem” she said. You therefore want to “find alignments” with the funder’s priorities while at the same time “maintaining your own creative vision.”
In terms of what funders specifically want to see, Verellen went over the basics. Fledgling Fund prefers to see a rough cut if possible. They look for timely issues – critical issues that could inspire concrete change really soon, or that aren’t even on the radar but could get people “talking about it for the first time around their dinner tables.” They also love projects that plan for engagement and outreach from the beginning, she said.
At the same time though, all the speakers agreed that outreach campaigns require a lot of time, effort, and dedication and aren’t for every filmmaker or project. “Only do it if it’s your core passion,” said Verellen, because “it’s really hard work” and takes over your whole life.
In response to an audience question about whether funders consulted each other about which projects to fund, Pabst noted that “there is a conversation among funders to try to make it a little bit easier for filmmakers” who are applying to multiple funders, but that there is no coordinated effort to greenlight certain projects.
Verellen agreed, but also noted that funders do take note of a project’s other sources of funding. This is partly because the support of other funders can serve as a kind of validation, but it also serves a practical purpose: “We can only fund a sliver” of each project, said Verellen, so it’s important to know that the project will be able to secure the rest of its funding as well and proceed forward.
The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, formerly the Center for Social Media, is an innovation lab and research center that studies, designs, and showcases media for social impact. The center is a project of the School of Communication, led by Jeffrey Rutenbeck, at American University in Washington, D.C.