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Co-Director, Center for Media & Social Impact, American University
With substantial funding from:
The Ford Foundation
And additional help from:
Phoebe Haas Charitable Trust
Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media
The conclusions in this report depend on expertise I have garnered as a cultural journalist, film critic, curator and academic. During my sabbatical year 2002-2003, I was able to conduct an extensive literature review, to supervise a scan of graduate curricula in film production programs, and to conduct three focus groups on the subject of curriculum for social documentary. I was also able to participate in events (see sidebar) and to meet with a wide array of people who enriched this study.
I further benefited from collegial exchange with the ad hoc network of scholars who also received Ford grants in the same time period, and from interviews with many people at events and also via phone and Internet. Among the people who provided me with valuable interview material are members of the Center's advisory board, as well as Larry Daressa of California Newsreel, Elizabeth Fox of AID, Chris Hahn of Children's Express, Bill Henley of Twin Cities Public TV, Sheri Herndon of Indymedia, Steve Mendelsohn and Tracy Holder of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, Rhea Mokund, assistant director of Listen Up!, Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art, Bunnie Reidel, Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Media, Nan Rubin, Ellen Schneider, executive director of ActiveVoice, Nina Shapiro-Perl of Service Employees International Union, John Schwartz of Free Speech TV , John Stout of Free Speech TV , Elizabeth Weatherford, National Museum of the American Indian, Robert West of Working Films, Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director of Women Make Movies. Focus group members included Randall Blair, Michal Carr, Ginnie Durrin, Elizabeth Fox, Phyllis Geller, Charlene Gilbert, Judith Hallet, Tony Hidenrick, Jennifer Lawson, Joy Moore, Dana Sheets, Robin Smith, Fred Tutman, Dan Sonnett, Virginia Williams, and Steve York. Advisors on policy included Gigi Bradford, Cindy Cohn, Shari Kizirian, Chris Murray, Andy Schwartzman, Gigi Sohn, Jonathan Tasini, and Woodward Wickham. Patrick Wickham of the Independent Television Service co-designed charts showing linkages between production, distribution and policy. The manuscript benefited as well from the comments of Barbara Abrash, Nicole Betancourt, Helen De Michiel, Ginnie Durrin, Thomas Harding, Fred Johnson, Alyce Myatt, jesikah maria ross, Jeff Spitz, Woodward Wickham, and Patricia Zimmerman. Many more people talked with me informally, and I am grateful for their generosity, a hallmark of this arena of activity.
I drew extensively upon my work since 1996 as curator of the Council on Foundations Film and Video festival, for examples and information, and am deeply grateful to Evelyn Gibson at the Council for an extended education in this creative field. The Council has established a website, fundfilm.org, which provides information on many films referred to here, and many more as well.
A grant from the Ford Foundation made this research possible and sustained it over the course of the sabbatical year. A grant from the Phoebe Haas Charitable Trust, which supported work at the Center for Social Media, permitted me to extend my sabbatical. The University Senate at American University provided grants for curriculum development and for travel. Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media provided funds for dissemination of the report. The encouragement of Dean Larry Kirkman at American University was essential to this work. Jana Germano, Shari Kizirian, Paula Manley, Felicia Sullivan, and Agnes Varnum assisted in research. Jana Germano brought both great creativity and patience to the design of the report.
This report provides an overview of U.S.1 social documentary production and use. Social documentaries often openly address power relations in society, with the goal of making citizens and activists aware and motivated to act for social justice, equality and democracy. Documentaries expressly designed to play this role are the subject of this report. They are live links in the communications networks that create new possibilities for democracy. Social documentary production and use are described in four, sometimes overlapping areas: professional independent production aimed at television; alternative production; community media; and nonprofit production.
Camcorders, VCRs, DVDs have vastly increased the opportunity to make and see social documentaries, and the Internet and World Wide Web have only speeded the process.
So it has never been easier or cheaper to make a social documentary than today. Many a film professional will grumble, though, that it's still pretty hard to make a watchable one. No matter how cheap it gets to capture images and edit them on your own computer, a social documentary is an artform, and it requires the powerful storytelling skills that are at the base of that artform (Bernard, 2003). It also requires the expert skills of craftspeople ranging from camera to lighting to digital effects to editing. Their jobs may be facilitated by technology, but the technology can't teach them their craft.
It is also hard to match viewers with the documentary, and so far new technologies have not solved that problem either. (You can easily load a film onto an Internet site; the wit comes in figuring out how to make people want to download it.) When you see a documentary that addresses power relations, you are usually looking at work that has passed over big hurdles. It has not only won resources to make a well-crafted work. It has also benefited from a successful marketing and promotion strategy, and distributors or programmers have usually greenlighted it to the screen you watch it on. The work you see was probably enabled, directly or indirectly, by government policies, whether those that established public TV or arts and humanities agencies or the Internet itself. Finally, you are looking at work usually fuelled by the belief that participatory democracy needs diverse expression.
Today's documentary practices emerge both from technological developments and from powerful social trends.
The civil rights movements, starting with the battle for civil rights for African-Americans and growing with feminist, ethnic rights and gender rights movements, spurred many people to express their views, to create new institutions, and to seek out support for expanded notions of citizenship and rights. The expansion of nonprofit organizations, including those that represent rights movements, created institutional vehicles to channel that energy. Public and foundation investment in culture and in mass media created new resources for aspiring makers and institutions that supported them.
In the 1960s, dissident filmmakers working in the social documentary tradition began using film and video to challenge authorities ranging from the U.S. Pentagon (as the collectively made, anti-Vietnam War film Winter Soldier did) to union-busting corporations (as Barbara Kopple did with Harlan County, USA). Filmmakers formed groups to create works by and with citizens and community members. Kartemquin Films, which went on to make such major theatrical releases as Hoop Dreams and Stevie, worked during the later '60s and '70s as a collective that documented and worked with working people. Kartemquin's earliest work featured anti-war students, members of the Chicago youth activist group Rising Up Angry, and others.
These filmmakers established the image of the independent filmmaker as society's conscience, perhaps unconsciously echoing the English documentary producer John Grierson's goal of creating a "documentary conscience." They founded organizations such as Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers and the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture to defend their interests, and they formed distributors such as the cooperative New Day Films. They organized for and won greater access to public television, and created, in tandem with civil rights organizations, groups defending interests of minority filmmakers. Closely related to this aggressively independent filmmaking stance was that of the entrepreneurial investigative journalist, whose work would emerge on public affairs programs on television; Jon Alpert, Bill Moyers, and Peter Davis were among those who became independent broadcast journalistic voices (Barnouw, 1993). Major private funders supported this work over time. For instance, the Ford Foundation's early backing for public TV also nurtured social documentarians; the Rockefeller Foundation Media Arts Fellowships, which began in 1988, encouraged many socially-engaged filmmakers striving for artistic innovation (Rockefeller, 2002; Zimmermann, 2000; Zimmermann & Bradley, 1998).
Some makers saw themselves liberated from a professional tradition, and used media as part of an oppositional or alternative cultural stance in an aggressively commercial culture. Political newsreels such as those produced by Newsreel, "guerrilla" video, pirate radio, TV programming initiatives such as Paper Tiger and Deep Dish, and some young people's media all participated in this "alternative" or "radical" media phenomenon, which created vehicles and venues outside commercial media (Kester, 1998; Halleck, 2002; Boyle, 1997).
Others began making and using video as part of strategic campaigns, making media part of their toolkits. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Earth First documented their own actions both to give to mainstream media for coverage, and to use in organizing and recruiting (Harding, 2001; Hirsch, 2000).
In the late '60s and early '70s, social activists began to see media as enabling and enabled by community development. Media arts centers, some sponsored by Great Society-initiative funds, offered new voices the chance to express themselves, and to explain their cultures to others. The now-widespread phenomenon of cable access channels - cable TV channels dedicated to governmental, educational and public programming - resulted from grassroots community organizing to demand such channels in the franchise negotiating process. Cable access activists commonly saw themselves creating not more TV programming but new resources for community self-knowledge and growth. As computing became accessible to consumers in the 1980s, the same logic drove activists to form community technology centers related to social service agencies, nonprofit organizations and as stand-alone projects. There, people could learn computing skills, connect to the Internet, and, increasingly, compose media. Foundation support for community media - notably, from the 1980s to the early 21st century at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation - helped to sustain the work. So did public resources, such as cable franchise fees given under municipal contracts and state and federal economic development funds. (Sullivan, 2003)
Professionals often understand media as the lifeblood of an information society; activists see media as a voice of a movement or action; institutional organizers often see the mediamaking process as a means to individual and community development. These expectations can overlap, of course. Indie filmmakers want their films to reach out from broadcast to community activists, while nonprofits hope to get a TV window for their issue.
We know very little about the success of such efforts, and estimates of long-term impact are speculative. Especially since social documentaries often depend on funding outside the usual profit streams, many funders are frustrated by the problems of measurement. Media expressions are, by their nature, a puzzle to evaluate for their consequences, much less any effectiveness at achieving an intended result. In commercial television, measures such as ratings and webhits ask a simple question: did this work reach viewers we consider valuable? Just finding them is enough for advertisers, who are convinced through experience that exposure leads for enough of them to action. Expensive and unreliable, these measures nonetheless are the shared data for one of the most important business sectors in the U.S.
Going beyond exposure, you confront the fact that our media habits are threads in our cultural tapestries, not stand-alone features; their impact on our beliefs and actions are sometimes impossible to separate from other parts of our experience. The social science pursuit of media social effects is hobbled by this reality. Laboratory conditions do not bear much similarity to peoples' lived experience with media. Social scientists in this as in other arenas of social science depend on a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches, to provide a range of techniques to address the same problem in the hopes that the limitations of each can be supplemented by others (Jensen 2002, Jensen 2002a).
Grounded, empirical studies of the creation and circulation of media are few, and they have typically not been executed on one-time events and certainly not on documentaries (Schrøder, 2002, 108). Textual analysis (a favorite of the literarily inclined), reception analysis (an approach congenial to the more sociologically inclined), and political economic analysis (political scientists and economists have been drawn to this approach) have all been employed to establish some basic generalizations about media social effects (Murdock, 2002). Even the 30-year, Congressionally-funded studies investigating relationships between violent television programming and children's violent behavior resulted in only broad generalizations (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988).
Cultural studies theorists, and some political economy analysts, have focused directly on the issue that makes many funders deeply uncomfortable: the relationship between media and power. Stuart Hall and other cultural studies theorists argue that media both are created in a world of meaning and also constitute that world of meaning (Hartley, 2002). Thus, they have conceived the challenge of understanding the role of media as that of communicating power - at the most basic and crucial level, the power to establish the nature of reality. Intervening in the media flow is always a way of disrupting the status quo. So if, as scholar James Carey (1989) has put it, "reality is a scarce resource," every TV program and every DVD is part of the contest over it.
Philosophers have also engaged the question of media as a force in public, democratic culture. The very notion of the public has long kept scholars and politicians in contentious discussion. It is a highly elastic concept, and one more often invoked than defined, but it is worth looking at closely, when we think about media. What American philosopher John Dewey thought of when he thought of the public is helpful in seeing the link between media and democracy. Dewey described a public that creates itself - that comes into being as it acts as an independent social force (Dewey, 1927). It takes action on issues that affect everyone in the public, civic side of their lives. You know a public is real when people in a community are able to know about and act on problems created by some members of that community - be it a criminal, a polluting corporation, or an unresponsive government - that affect everyone in it.
This public is distinct from government, which can be a force acting against the public; or individuals, who can only act as individuals; or the mass of consumers that make up audiences or markets. The public is a concept, not an institution or a thing. A person in a democratic society is a member of a public as well as having other identities, but that person isn't forced to segregate his or her concerns. One of the important nurturing institutions for the public is the non-governmental, voluntary association, whether a church or a human rights group or a civic association or a parents' group.
This sense of the public resonates well with the notion of the public that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas conveyed in his helpful phrase "the public sphere" (Habermas, 1989). Habermas noted the imperfect, unrepresentative but still vital role played by members of 18th century French salons in shaping a public that demanded universal human rights, and he went on to investigate the nature of deliberative discourse. A public that can communicate with itself, gathering informally beyond the professionalized sphere of party politics is what political philosophers imagine informing "strong democracy" (Barber, 1984).
This kind of a public is created by communication in public life. Dewey and Habermas, among others, built their arguments about public life on an insight alive in a long philosophical tradition: communication creates community (Depew, 2001). People construct relationships through communication, and the nature of the communication shapes their relationships. A democratic public needs individual access to knowledge - it needs to be an "informed citizenry." But that is not enough. A democratic public needs places both physical and virtual to go, information habits in common and common understandings.
Our mass media, designed as a one-to-many distribution system, act as a "pseudo public sphere" (Chanan, 2000), where public discussion may be mimicked or modeled, but most viewers cannot usually join in. Social documentaries engage this pseudo public sphere on its own terms, and also attempt to reach through, around and beyond it, to participate in and encourage a true public sphere. As a form featuring both story and conversation in service of public knowledge and action (Nichols, 2001), they both challenge the reality status quo and address themselves to publics.
Moreover, they cumulatively act, with other public media expressions, to create new cultural expectations. Media that are now accepted and routine - NPR-style and Lehrer NewsHour-style news, investigative television programs, quality children's programs - have built both audiences and cultural practices from zero within the last two generations. Social documentary practices add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Stanley Nelson's 2003 The Murder of Emmett Till was carried nationally on public TV via the popular strand American Experience. After its airing, 10,000 postcards and letters to Mississippi Attorney General have added to the campaign to reopen the case. Judith Helfand and Dan Gold's 2002"toxic comedy" Blue Vinyl, which has shown repeatedly on HBO, explores the deadly pollution created by polyvinyl chloride. As a result of an audience campaign at its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, the bath supplies company Bath and Bodyworks has agreed to stop packaging its mail order goods in vinyl. Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus' 1998 The Farm, about life prisoners in a Louisiana prison, was shown on A&E and shown to prisoners' families and in prisons throughout Louisiana, engaging viewers in discussion of the death penalty and sentencing practices.2
Some social documentarians, recognizing the enormous reach and impact of mass media, create work destined for television and theaters. They see themselves as intervening in the daily media diet of Americans, and offering both more information and another way to see the universe of possibilities. They might hope to have viewers change habits or opinions, share information, discuss a problem, or learn more about an issue.
To do so, they must negotiate with the gatekeepers with the tallest and best guarded gates in a highly competitive media environment, largely dedicated to entertaining viewers. The space inside is valuable because it is an arbiter of shared reality. Social documentaries hold a prestigious place on that landscape, although they are not usually the high-rated programs. Peabody, Sundance and Academy Awards for documentaries regularly favor social documentaries over other, more commercial documentary formats such as nature and docu-soaps, and they favor the voice of independent creators over works that fit into highly formatted cable genres. Still, work shown on the prime screens - theatrical screens and national broadcast and cablecast TV - is powerful storytelling, made with a keen awareness of the conventions of the genres, and with respect for craft. Viewers watching these prime screens expect sophisticated craft and art, and gatekeepers select for it.
Gatekeepers' decisions are inevitably driven by profit-and-loss realities of the entertainment industry, which are rarely favorable for social documentaries. Theatrical release is extremely rare; even niche-market chains such as Landmark select for shows that young professional and middle-aged couples are likely to find amusing. Michael Moore's spectacular success (Roger and Me; Bowling for Columbine) has long been the exception that proves the rule. His successes may create new opportunities for others, as it seems to have for Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans, two 2003 documentaries that won theatrical showings.
There are other exceptions as well. Kartemquin Films' Hoop Dreams, a sobering film about the American dream that follows two young African-American boys through their struggle to become basketball stars - was widely shown in theaters, after Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert - Chicago critics eager to discover a new film and trump their coastal competitors - celebrated it before it even debuted. But many social documentaries have a short theatrical run qualifying them for Academy Award consideration, and either break even or lose money. For instance, Long Night's Journey into Day, a much-lauded and moving documentary by Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid about the Peace and Reconciliation commission process in South Africa, played theatrically with success and rave reviews in several countries without making money on the theatrical runs.
Festivals provide cachet and visibility, leading to promotional opportunities. There are hundreds of them, and it is easy to get accepted to many, especially those that do not function as markets (Coe, 2002). They do not pay, however, and most do not provide serious market opportunities. The Sundance film festival remains the touchstone event for social documentaries aimed at theatrical and TV; competition is brutal. Some 1,300 documentaries competed for 18 competition slots at Sundance in 2002.
International markets, some theatrical but mostly broadcasters in Europe and Japan, typically shy away from U.S. social topics. When they buy, they usually pay low prices that reflect the size of their broadcast audiences (Rofekamp, 2002).
Documentary programming has grown dramatically with the rise of cable networks (see Figure 3). Worldwide revenues for documentary production in 1984 totalled about $30 million; in 2002 they were nearly $4 billion, and the sector had been renamed "factual-programs," to encompass reality TV and docu-soaps (Hamilton, 2002). Documentaries that feed this business are usually highly formatted and branded, though. Networks have tight budget formulas and final cut. Subject matter - health, crime, sex - is typically stripped of a social action agenda. Court TV, TRIO, MTV, Lifetime and Discovery Times all offer small windows of opportunity for social issues. Investigative network programs such as Dateline and the venerable 60 Minutes all feature social issues, but usually within a rigid, detective-style format that resolves upon finding the bad guy. Nightline has, exceptionally on public TV, used segments from independent filmmakers within its issue- discussion format. An occasional program on social issues appears on the A&E cable channel (for instance, Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus' The Farm). HBO, whose subscription business model permits it investment in challenging topics, has aired social documentaries as part of its quest for awards: Calling the Ghosts, a film that became part of Amnesty International's campaign to recognize rape as a war crime, Long Night's Journey into Day, which showcased the South African truth and reconciliation commissions; and Blue Vinyl (see sidebar). But in 2002, according to Nielsen, there was not a single social documentary in the top-rated 20 cable documentary programs.
The most important location for social action programming is public TV, far friendlier to social-issue and underrepresented-voice productions than commercial television. On public television, a few public affairs filmmakers with impressive reputations, including Bill Moyers and Roger Weisberg, have produced provocative, controversial work that both informs citizens and provokes action. Some social documentaries are stand-alone specials, such as Moyers' controversial and powerful Trade Secrets, an indictment of the chemical industry both for toxic pollution and for covering up its role in creating it; and the two-hour People like Us (see p. 21), which boldly showcases the role of class in American culture. Some fit into series. Public TV's series for independent producers, Independent Lens and P.O.V., both regularly feature social action documentaries. Social documentaries also appear on other series such as Frontline and Nova, and international series Wide Angle often features international documentaries. Each of these program strands has websites that link knowledge and action.
Even public TV has trouble making much room for social documentaries, mostly because of its peculiar structure. Public TV's main funders are taxpayers, represented by legislators; members; and corporations. Controversy can make legislators hold hearings, members cancel their membership, and corporations reluctant to underwrite. Moreover, public TV is sprawling and centerless. Its hundreds of stations all control their own program schedules, although only a few have money to produce. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting channels the federal funds that make up about 12-15 percent of public TV's budget, mostly giving it directly to stations. It gives also money annually to five programming organizations representing federally-sanctioned ethnic minorities (these are the "minority consortia" [Okada, 2003])3 and to the Independent TV Service. Minority producers have charged that CPB's funding policies marginalize minority issues, faces and cultures (Haddock, 1998), zoning them into "themed" funding and programming areas. ITVS, created via independent producer pressure to serve underserved audiences with innovative programming, commissions many social documentaries, but must persuade stations or the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to air them. PBS is a membership organization, whose members are stations; its job is to package programs for them. Stations only agree to show two hours a night at the same time, limiting national promotion.
The arcane structure means that there are many people and reasons to say no to programs that might ruffle anyone's feathers. Public TV is not required by law, after all, to provide challenging material to citizens; stations are only required not to air commercials (and even then, underwriting credits can come very close to advertising). It is a credit to the ingenuity and commitment of some public TV staffers that so much has been accomplished within a structure so hobbled from its origins.
Filmmaker Jeff Spitz, creator of The Return of Navajo Boy, a film about radiation exposure of Navajos in mines on their reservation (navajoboy.com), recalled his struggles. When the film was shown in Washington, D.C., and later on PBS's Independent Lens series, it helped win support for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) legislation, he said, and it triggered a federal investigation into uranium stored on the Navajo Nation. It also moved the U.S. Department of Justice to pay out a $100,000 RECA claim to a former uranium miner whose case was features in the film. But initially, when he took it to the public TV station KEET in Arizona - the locality most centrally affected - the programmer had refused to carry the program, saying: "Cracking good story for a half hour, but please remember, in our market uranium is not pledgeable." (After the film premiered at Sundance and the Associated Press reported extensively on the film's subject matter, KAET-TV did in fact air the documentary in prime time.)
Other public windows are far more marginal than public TV, for professionals looking to reach broad mass audiences. Link TV (linktv.org) and Free Speech TV (freespeech.org) operate on satellite TV channels open to the public by law. Link TV provides a mix of upscale art films, selected ITVS programs, international news, and socially-engaged programming. Free Speech TV, a left-leaning, low-budget, grassroots strand of programming that mixes original and acquired work, and also shows it on cable and the Internet (see p. 34). Both make token payments. Cable access channels carry locally-produced programs or or programs made elsewhere and locally-sponsored, for free. Viewers without personal video recorders are hard-pressed to find program schedules.
Winning broadcast and cablecast can uniquely bring a subject or issue into the "pseudo-public sphere" of mass media, where issues take on crucial mainstream currency. But in a multichannel, multi-screen world, where viewers are plagued by what one researcher aptly called "data smog" (Shenk, 1997), a good publicity and promotion plan is needed. Too often neither the filmmaker nor the public TV station or cablecaster has the resources for the critical attention-getting that turns the social documentary into an event, and that in itself helps to change cultural expectations. The millions that General Motors added to the budget for Ken Burns' Civil War for publicity and promotion had a dramatic effect; sadly, corporate resources are unimaginable for most social documentaries, and even for series and strands that feature social documentaries.
The "pseudo-public sphere" of mass media can also be powerfully leveraged for civic or community engagement. This engagement, or what some call broadcast outreach when it is associated with a television showing, has steadily grown in sophistication over the last decade. Community engagement means finding groups that care about the documentary's concerns and helping them use it - either on broadcast or off-broadcast - to further their goals.
Outreach models for broadcast have been developed over two decades by several organizations. Public television's P.O.V. has developed an impressive, labor-intensive model for outreach, which uses national and local partnerships, feedback mechanisms, and Internet interfaces. It also builds relationships within public TV. With Two Towns of Jasper, for instance, P.O.V. succeeded in getting the filmmakers placed on Oprah, and having Nightline host a town meeting on racism (see sidebar) (West, 2003). The documentary Take this heart, a profile of a season in the life of a foster parent (see p. 56), was designed to be used with foster groups in communities across the country, with public TV stations as the liaison.
Several enterprises have developed different approaches to broadcast outreach. For instance, Active Voice (activevoice.org, part of P.O.V.'s parent organization) specializes in highly tailored relationships with community organizations and face-to-face events. Outreach Extensions depends on longstanding relationships with national service organizations. Working Films (workingfilms.org) selects films with a strategic social action agenda, and develops programs for change that begin, ideally, with the production of the film. Other organizations include Roundtable Media (roundtablemedia.org) and public television's own National Center for Outreach (nationaloutreach.org), which offers an annual conference for station representatives to learn from each other.
The mass media window also leads into the classroom. School and college teachers are voracious users of media and media literacy materials. Distributors create and cultivate these markets. Several dozen distributors specialize in various aspects of the professional (medical, social work, legal) and higher education markets, all with their roots in '60s and '70s activism. Such companies as California Newsreel, Women Make Movies, New Day Films, Fanlight, First Run Icarus, and Cinema Guild have created niche markets (Block, 2002; Richardson, 2002). Until now, home video has been unviable, because markets were too small to sustain such low prices; growing consumer appetites for DVD rentals and purchases, though, may change that.
Other organizations also help viewers find social documentaries. National Video Resources (nvr.org) creates study guides and topics guides. Filmmakers themselves often create websites designed to support learning activities with their work. The PBS website offers remarkable search tools to lead teachers to their products, and PBS also permits teachers to tape all its programs off-air for a year. MediaRights.org's database of social documentaries offers a way for users and makers to connect, as well outreach toolkits and valuable information on how others have succeeded. Distributor databases such as that housed at docuseek.org also help educational researchers. Amazon.com often functions as a makeshift search site for media hunters.
Everyone would like the equivalent of a simple Google topic search that would guide a searcher to a social documentary - or even to clips or images. The software to make that happen, as well as the library cataloging that would help libraries worldwide share information about audio-visual material, is still around several corners. Meanwhile, public TV is at least standardizing its terms of reference for programs, to help stations manage their own digital assets. This is a first step toward a more viewer-friendly searching environment.
Social documentaries destined for television have a wide range of budgets, and can cost anywhere from $75,000 to $1 million an hour. (See Figure 4, p. 26) Filmmakers rarely make a profit on social documentaries, and they often invest substantial amounts before public or private funders contribute. The process is fed by commitment, since filmmakers encounter what Mira Nair - who abandoned documentary for feature filmmaking - called "a mountain of rejection" (Lahr, 2002).
Public funding is important and imperiled. Funding from public television, mainly through ITVS, minority consortia, and from rental fees from strands such as as P.O.V. and Independent Lens, is critical to many first or second-time filmmakers. Other public funds important to filmmakers have come from humanities and arts endowments, but the culture wars savaged their budgets, with media coming under especially tight scrutiny. The NEA and NEH only target media arts for a small portion of their total funding (see Figures 5, 6, p. 30). Since 1996, NEA contributions to media arts have declined 90 percent, as the agency has been forced under political pressure to drop its individual grants to filmmakers (Alexander, 2000). The NEH's budget oriented to media projects has been cut in half since 1995 (Adams, 2001). Most state humanities and arts councils provide small amounts of money, which nonetheless are highly useful to launch work.
Private and commercial resources, important to documentary filmmaking generally, are spottily available for social-issue documentaries. Major foundations have supported some projects entirely, when the subject aligns with their specific program areas, but more commonly they contribute a portion. International television pre-sales and co-productions that are important to documentarians generally (Block, 2003) are hard for social documentarians to win. Professionals see the market for high-quality social documentaries as either stable or shrinking. The primary market (public TV or HBO) buy very few, and secondary broadcast markets pay very little (Rofekamp, 2002).
Despite these difficulties, many filmmakers every year decide to undertake such work. At the Independent Television Service, one of the places most likely to fund such work, 1,200-1,400 people apply each year (with only 2 percent ultimately finding funding). These numbers also reflect the enthusiasm of many first-time makers with their new digital camera.
The advantages of the broadcast-oriented model are clear: mass media reach many people, and mass media information shapes people's understanding of reality outside their own experience. In a society where mass media mimic the public sphere, and at the same time mostly entertain, the presence of a social documentary in that space is an important achievement. The broadcast or cablecast opportunity can make community engagement possible. Furthermore, mass media gatekeepers' stamp of approval gives the documentary a long life in classrooms and communities.
The limitations of the model are several. Social documentaries are by far the exception, not the rule. Not only are they difficult to get on the air, but they can easily get lost without extensive promotion. Tying action to a broadcast has meant linking activity to a screening time, although personal video recorders will change this. Many public television stations do not have extensive community relationships, and very rarely do they have their own funds to do outreach on anything but children's programs. Finally, a program that successfully attracts viewers at Sundance or on prime-time PBS may have a very different shape than a documentary suitable for a classroom or a community group (Daressa, n.d.).
The most typical measurements of success are, appropriately, those used by other mass media outlets to measure audience reach: ticket sales, ratings, hits on related websites, and anecdotes - all several steps removed from the goal, but all rough indicators of the amount of attention that has been paid. Public television's overall primetime ratings are low - less than 2 percent of national viewership - and declining. Some 47 percent of households, however, according to America's Public Television Stations, encounter it sometime in the week, and for social documentaries, audiences skew toward decision makers. Cable TV channel ratings are often lower than public TV's; its demographics for social documentaries also skew older and higher-income than average. Press coverage is also an important measure, not only to attract attention to the documentary but to the issue. For social documentaries designed for broadcast, industry measurements are both useful and appropriate. Their first window of release occurs within the one-to-many, "pseudo-public sphere" of mass media, where demographics and numbers are critical.
Reaching beyond the pseudo-public sphere means designing a strategic campaign, for community or civic engagement. Evaluation measures of this kind of work are far more challenging, although there are many guides to evaluation techniques for nonprofit projects of all kinds (Kellogg Foundation, 1998). The social documentary becomes a tool of the strategic process to be analyzed.
Another measure, however rough, of social value is the social diversity of both subject and maker - ethnic, gender, class, disability, regional and other social categories widely seen as "underserved" in mainstream media. Documentary filmmakers whose work appears on public television are assuredly more culturally and ethnically diverse than the larger pool of professional filmmakers. The existence of minority consortia and of the ITVS alone demonstrate a greater emphasis on diversity than in commercial TV. Leading and pioneering works of cultural history such as the African-American series Eyes on the Prize, the history of Chicano migrant workers' organizing, The Fight in the Fields, and Chinatown Files (see page 27) are evidence. No public data support this conclusion, however, since data collection on diversity is proprietary and not even public TV organizations share this data.
American social documentarians are able to draw on a legacy of courageous investigative, expository and verité creative work as they confront the challenge of engaging the American public on important social issues. They produce the leading edge of programming that challenges commercial construction of reality in the heart of mass media - television.
At OneWorld.net, Amnesty International has posted documentary footage of its visit to the Free Prisoner Association, a human rights group in Iraq. At Big Noise Media, anti-globalization activist filmmakers recount the history of the Zapatista movement in Storm from the Mountain. On Free Speech TV's free digital satellite channel, independent filmmaker Norman Cowie runs his critique of U.S. foreign policy, Scenes from An Endless War.
In dramatic contrast to the professional zone of mass media, "alternative media" creates an open, unstructured, gatekeeper-free environment for social documentaries. The current openness of the Internet is exploited to market new media, transmit it, and to engage viewers. This is "media production that challenges, at least implicitly, actual concentrations of media power" (Couldry & Curran, 2003). Alternative media have been seen, correctly, as expressions of people and cultures whose voices have been excluded from dominant media (Atton, 2002; Zimmermann, 2000), as important for their signaling of discontent and demand for justice as for their demand to express themselves. There is also a tradition among activists of celebrating do-it-yourself approaches to media making, for their saucy spirit of resistance (Halleck, 2002), a theme that has also been present in cultural studies. Although they sometimes claim to be creating alternative programs for general interest viewers or to reach decision makers, alternative mediamakers often serve and cultivate sub-communities, rather than the broad audiences that gatekept TV reaches.
The creation of alternative media has been a dynamic element of rights movements of the last three decades. Feminists from the early 1970s created formally-challenging, experimental work as well as videos for activists and informational-instructional videos on issues ranging from domestic violence to birthing care to workplace issues (Rich, 1998; Juhasz, 2001). The core audience for such work was other women. In the 1980s, AIDS activists created film and television for and with the growing movement demanding more social resources to address the public health crisis (Juhasz & Saalfield, 1995), and gay and lesbian subcultures featured work by and for these communities (Holmlund & Fuchs, 1997). Ethnic media have accompanied and fueled movements for full democratic participation by cultural minorities in the U.S., building communities and audiences simultaneously (Noriega, 2000; Klotman & Cutler, 1999). Artists and activists shared a passion to explore modes of expression that would break with mainstream commercial and televisual conventions, as well as content that reflected the new voices clamoring to be heard in the society (Boyle, 1997).
Traditional commercial media products and processes have been a prime target of alternative media. In fact, alternative media criticism has taken on its own name, of culture jamming (Klein, 2000). In this movement, 60s alternative culture activists and today's anti-globalization activists find common ground in resistance to corporate media culture (Shepard & Hayduk, 2002). At the same time, culture jammers are fascinated by the power of commercial media itself, and determined to subvert mass media claims to transparent realism.
Paper Tiger, an alternative media production group, developed a highly publicized profile that became emblematic of the oppositional spirit of "alternative" TV. The Paper Tiger TV Collective in New York City, born in the early 1980s, develops productions, conducts community screenings, and conducts training to raise awareness about the social implications and impact of media. Its productions typically are purely volunteer, with only the crudest of props and tools. A recent Paper Tiger production, Fenced Out, was part of an organizing effort to save the Christopher Street Piers, a rare place in New York City where young people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual youth congregated, from redevelopment. Another longstanding example - sustained for many years by University of Texas professors including Douglas Kellner - was the program "Alternative Views" on Austin public access cable TV. In Portland, Oregon, video collective Flying Focus's weekly half-hour cable access series, The Flying Focus Video Bus, includes subjects such as police brutality and critiques of mainstream media. Its lecture series includes Noam Chomsky on the Media & Democracy, Barbara Ehrenreich on War and Society, and Howard Zinn on Reclaiming the People's History. Its budget comes close to zero; volunteer passion is crucial. Besides running on the local public access television channel, the collective also distributes tapes by mail from a catalogue of more than 300 titles, and runs local lending libraries, catering to aspiring anti-corporate organizers.
Alternative media producers have ridden the crest of new technologies, often enabled by policies that mandate public use of them. For instance, the cable access movement that began in the 1960s (see next chapter) was a powerful spur to such work, because for the first time it created channels of access for a general public to the prized home screen of television. The cable access movement spurred grassroots and self-styled alternative production projects nationwide (Fuller, 1994). Satellite television's public channels, also created through citizen pressure, have also provided screens for alternative media. Finally, the Internet, created in a government research project, has mobilized new media activists.
The documentaries made within alternative media generally engage already-mobilized organizations and small groups. In 1991, Deep Dish TV (deepdish.igc.org), a volunteer organization that uses available satellite transponder space to upload programs to cable systems nationwide, distributed nationwide a series of programs in opposition to the Gulf War. These programs were used most often by groups already mobilized against the war or by organizations eager to hear that perspective. (During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Deep Dish activists considered launching an initiative but could not assemble resources in time.) Activists of all types have seized the video as a tool for their causes. For instance, James Ficklin, a producer working with anti-globalization activists and tree-sitters in the Northwest, describes his own activist videos as "educating the converted," providing arguments and information that bring enthusiasts into the movement. This is an approach detailed with extensive examples in Thomas Harding's The Video Activist Handbook (Harding, 2001).
With the growth of the Internet, countercultural work has followed. A "D.I.Y." (do-it-yourself) ethic has fueled enterprises that purvey alternative media, which exist thanks to the commitment of their founders, such as Guerrilla News Network (gnn.tv), People's Video Network (peoplesvideo.org), Video Activist Network (videoactivism.org), and the burgeoning blog phenomenon.
Hundreds of efforts draw from the Independent Media Centers (indymedia.org), or "indymedia," the astonishingly protean network of social activists using the Internet both to communicate and to organize. Indymedia centers have sprung up, now more than 125 of them in some 25 countries since its dawn in Seattle in late 1999, as a result of anti-globalization protests at a World Trade Organization meeting (Kidd, 2002). That movement drew on the expertise and contacts of older media activists including those involved in Paper Tiger, who shared an anarchic sensibility (Halleck, 2002b). As "evan," an indymedia activist, put it, "Indymedia draws its content and ideas from within active participants themselves. This is why we say 'be the media.' We are creating media labs, video editing rooms, radio stations, websites, community newspapers, and other media to be a space in which discourse can take place."
Indymedia sites have both made use of streamed media and also become retail sites for video. The Showdown in Seattle: Five Days that Shook the WTO, created by a coalition including Deep Dish, Paper Tiger, FreeSpeech TV, Whispered media, Changing America, and New York Free Media Alliance, was seen on television, streamed, and is used in anti-globalist organizing. 9-11, made in New York within a week of the attacks on the Twin Towers, is available in video and streamed media, via the FreeSpeech website.
Indymedia makers often espouse anti-professional, movement rhetoric, seeing their work as responding to and fueling social protest. For instance, Big Noise Productions' manifesto reads:
We are not filmmakers producing and distributing our work. We are rebels, crystallizating [sic] radical community and weaving a network of skin and images, of dreams and bone, of solidarity and connection against the isolation, alienation and cynicism of capitalist decomposition. We are tactical because our media is a part of movements, imbedded in a history of struggle. Tactical because we are provisional, plural, polyvocal. Tactical because it would be the worst kind of arrogance to believe that our media had some ahistorical power to change the world - its only life is inside of movements - and they will hang our images on the walls of their banks if our movements do not tear their banks down.
Thus, Big Noise measures its success on the basis of its service to a struggle against the powers maintaining the status quo.
Big Noise's videos draw from international indymedia documentration to celebrate the spirit of anti-globalization demonstrators and describe them as an "anti-corporate" force for peace and justice. In Fourth World War, for instance, producers compiled images from indymedia groups around the world - Argentina, Palestine, Seattle, Genoa - to create a collage film with a music-video like track (contributed to by rappers and other popular music groups), melding images of protestors from different continents and layering images of Mexican indigenous peasants onto Seattle and Genoa demonstration footage. Narration, read by poet Suheir Hammad and musician Michael Franti, asserts that "the world has changed" and that "we" are joining protestors everywhere.
Indymedia producers have been far less open-handed with producers who are not part of their own networks and circle of belief. For instance, German investigative journalist Michael Busse made a film investigating the role of Italian police in instigating violence during the bloody 2001 anti-globalization demonstrations in Genoa, Italy. Storming the Summit, shown on German public service TV, draws on the work of dozens of amateurs who videotaped the events, often comparing several shots from different angles of the same incident. It harshly indicts the Italian police both for causing violence and failing to control it.
Busse found both Italian and German indymedia outlets impossible to work with (Busse, personal communication, November 15, 2003). Italian indymedia producers refused to let him reuse their original material (which, unlike that of consumer videotapes, was broadcast quality), and only wanted to let him use a half-hour work if he used it in its entirety. In Germany, he found indymedia producers reluctant to share documentation that could be used to show that protestors had acted violently, and they also cut out images that could be used to identify individuals. Finally Busse used Internet searches to find individuals outside indymedia networks who were willing to share their tapes. Thus, in this instance indymedia makers were concerned primarily to use their video storytelling to tell only their own version of the story.
Indymedia centers, with horizontal decisionmaking structures and openness to all volunteers, have become entry points to many new, and often young people. At the same time, indymedia sites have found themselves hamstrung by their own anarchy, as they have grown past the moment of the 1999 demonstration (Halleck, 2002b, p. 65). In 2002, indymedia sites worldwide found themselves attacked by anti-Semitic, racist and conspiratorial contributions. While some suspected a coordinated attack to discredit indymedia and the IMC Global Newswire collective made recommendations to protect indymedia sites from attack, local volunteers failed to implement any coordinated action.
Many projects join a rejection of mainstream commercial media, fascination with new technologies, and the Internet's capacity for interaction. DVRepublic.com, a project of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, mentors and encourages "socially concerned filmmakers of color to present their stories, ideas, and images on their own terms without seeking the permission, approval, or sanction of media gatekeepers." For instance, Tania Cuevas-Martinez and Lubna Khalid's Haters, the first finished work at DV Republic, chronicles racial profiling and hate crimes after Sep. 11, 2001. Calling itself a "liberated zone in cyberspace," DVRepublic uses the Web to promote and sample work that can be ordered in video. It also fosters a discussion list around the work, and activist links, for people who reject the "artistically exhausted and politically insidious" mainstream of American TV and film. Thus, the project hopes to generate a community of users who will also be consumers of its niche product and provide enough revenues to keep it alive.
Other work draws from the "digital storytelling movement," as the Center for Digital Storytelling (storycenter.org) in Berkeley, CA calls it. Community organizing efforts employ media to permit people to discover the stories in their lives, and thus build and strengthen relationships and their ability to act in their own communities and lives. People create small digital movies, audio files, slideshows and other media. Their stories may be about surviving child abuse, or about being young, gay and Latino, the life of one interracial family, or about organizing to resist racism in one community (digitaldocumentary.org). Third World Majority (cultureisaweapon.org) is one example of such a project, focused on people of color. "Even those within the industry recognize that mainstream media's trickle-down approach to storytelling poses important concerns about the legitimacy of the information, and compromises the notion of open, accessible, and balanced information," its website declares. The process itself acts as a forum "for communities to tell their own truths in their own voices." The stories are usually developed within workshops that also develop action agendas. Storylink.org, a project in development in 2003, intends to provide a common platform for digital storytellers of all kinds to view each others' stories, link to them, and create their own.
Although the anarchic, obstreperous voice of left critics of capitalism have been highly visible in alternative video and film, other ideologically-driven communities have seized their opportunities as well, and created national networks. Christian fundamentalists have developed extensive product lines and distribution networks. Books, audio and, to a lesser extent, video by Tim LaHaye on the Rapture have sold by the tens of millions, turning Tyndale Press into a publishing powerhouse. The highly publicized success of Al Quaeda's recruiting videos also demonstrates the power of ideologically-driven video with an institutional base.
Some alternative media have strategized how to use the strength of networks of communities of belief to reach beyond them, into public life. MoveOn.org, which uses the Internet to build "electronic advocacy groups" for liberal and left perspectives on public issues, has had unparalleled success with "viral marketing" - the rapid spread of information through friends-and-family-list emailing. Since its origins in the attempt to counter Republican attempts to impeach President Clinton, MoveOn has moved from a small, partisan organization to a voice of protest to be ignored by politicians at their peril. It provides its email recipients with information, something to do, and often somewhere to go to discuss or debate an issue; it has become a force of public opinion. MoveOn uses social documentaries to stir public debate. It claims to have distributed 100,000 DVDs of professional filmmaker Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War in a few weeks in October-November 2003; the distribution of these videotapes was intended to expand informed discussion of the war at election time. Thus, MoveOn's use of video not only creates community, but also fuels public discussion.
The networked, Internet-based independent media site OneWorld also directly confronts the challenge to reach "beyond the converted." It aspires to provide information to diverse audiences, and also to cultivate virtual communities of people committed to social justice. It has a management structure, editors, and criteria for membership. Its showcase for social documentary is also a moderated and managed public platform (see p. 32). OneWorld serves both a community and publics beyond it. For instance, in November 2003, OneWorld excerpted Portia Rankoane's A Red Ribbon around My House, a film on AIDS activism in South Africa made as part of the celebrated Steps to the Future series. It links the video with news about South African AIDS activism, and to an open discussion board.
The resources that alternative media can draw on depend both on their relationships with institutions (for instance, an evangelical church network or Democratic party fundraisers) and their ability to use viral marketing to win individuals' support. Budgets vary but they rarely reflect the real costs of the product. Resources for such work largely depend on the energy - usually youthful - of participants, occasionally boosted by foundation support. However, foundations can be stymied if structures are not reliable. For instance, foundations associated with RealNetworks initially backed indymedia in 1999, but were unable to sustain support because they could not identify leadership to receive and channel funds. Alternative media are often sustained by ever- new infusions of youthful energy. It is correspondingly difficult to have institutional memory, to develop skills, and to learn from mistakes.
Success is often equated, in alternative media, with survival (in this case, creation of a documentary) against the odds. There is also often, understandably for organizations running on enthusiasm, an emphasis on producers rather than on users. On the other hand, methods drawing on multiple measurement approaches are also being tried. OneWorld is developing an evaluation element to its work that includes not webhits and also audience surveys and focus groups, and that draws from development evaluation expertise; evaluation focus is on users.
In the ungated environment, networks grow along the lines of shared commitment and perspective. So a major challenge of most alternative media is reaching beyond a committed circle. That challenge is in the public's interest, and also in the interest of the committed themselves. In a network analysis of niche and alternative media and movements, Manuel Castells (1997) notes that media can reinforce group self-identity, at the cost of linking with others and fully participating in the emerging "network society." This is a familiar tension, and not one that new technologies resolve.
At regional media arts centers Appalshop, Mimi Pickering's Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song both celebrates a regional musical artist and recalls working-class life and union struggles. At Chicago's cable-access CAN-TV, an African-American couple make a series of African-American history programs. At a community computing center in Saint Julie Asian Center in Lowell, MA, Asian immigrants use computing resources to assemble Powerpoint slide shows for overseas members of their family, and the Center makes videos to add to English language classes.
In media arts centers, cable access centers, community computing and technology centers, and media programs associated with nonprofits, new speakers - young people, members of ethnic minorities, the poor, disabled and emerging community members - have been able to make their own media. There are now thousands of local centers across the nation, where community members are creating their own video and digital media work, showing it to each other, uploading and exchanging it with users worldwide. The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture has hundreds of members nationwide, a mix of individuals and community media centers whether stand-alone or based in other organizations such as museums and service organizations.
While media arts centers grow out of film, cable access out of cable TV, and community technology centers out of computing, they increasingly overlap missions and even share resources and strategies. They often work with social service organizations, universities and colleges and religious organizations. These community media spaces are marked by their nonpartisan nature and their localism, welcoming and recruiting a wide variety of nonprofessionals to participate in their programs. Typically, community media stalwarts have a deep commitment to social justice, and see themselves as providing electronic commons or vehicles to expand diversity of expression, or as a service that amplifies and enriches civil society as a whole. Leaders commonly believe that the process of making a film or video can be as important as any final result. Media literacy, group interaction, public discussion, and skills acquisition are often goals as important to those who manage these production and distribution platforms as the finished expression.
Helen De Michiel, an independent filmmaker and the executive director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, describes the work of these organizations as "public media," which she defines as pedagogical, "through which we can consciously learn about how to participate in democracy and civilization." Public media culture, she writes,
lives close to the ground - in and around clusters, networks, and alliances of individuals in communities around the country....its art resides not only in the creation of media products (film, video, audio, or new digital hybrids) but in the design of organizational structures that attract and grow a diversity of expression not permitted elsewhere. It makes technological tools accessible and transparent enough for anyone to explore as it examines what those tools can accomplish and why they are used. And it is figuring out new ways to encourage citizens to become active participants in the process of media expression and dialogue...as creators of the very terms of that social and creative engagement (De Michiel, 2002, 5-6).
These projects of community media all evolved from simply providing technical resources to building relationships for public media practices. They share a commitment to community development, knowing well that cultural enterprises feed community social and economic health (Dwyer & Frankel, 2002; Stern & Seifert, 2001).
Media arts centers, where community residents and schoolchildren can learn mediamaking skills, exhibit their work, and meet other mediamakers, were born in the Great Society era with enthusiasm for more portable and easier-to-use film and video technologies. Originally born in a joint project between the then-new National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, they were for years afterwards supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as local government and private funders.
Cable access channels are another important community media resource, which began with the twin goals of providing channel access and equipment access. They can now be found on many of the nation's cable systems, especially in the larger cities, although it sometimes has taken years of organizing to get them. The Alliance for Community Media (alliancecm.org), the cable access center membership group, estimates there are 1,500 public access operations in the U.S., with about a million hours of programming produced annually. A generation of '60s activists, empowered with a seemingly arcane law requiring cable operators to obtain leases for using rights of way, won clauses for such channels and money to support them in cable company contracts, or franchises, made with localities. The assumption that simply providing access would result in production and exchange of ideas has evolved into realization that relationships need to be cultivated, both with individuals and institutions. Training and mentoring are critical. They have by and large developed far past the initial mandate to provide "first come first serve" access to individual citizens. Most have a kind of program service, with entrenched incumbents, and even syndication - for instance the Youth Channel. (Kucharski, 1999; ross, 1999; Manley, 2002)
Community technology centers began as places to overcome the "digital divide," and stressed skills acquisition in computing, usually focusing on individuals. They developed with the help of local, state and federal funds for skills acquisition and economic development (Sullivan, 2003), and have taken root as projects within many organizations, as well as being standalone centers.
At media arts centers, often the first population of users was often white, middle class professional aspirants and artists. Media arts center directors reached past that core group by forming partnerships with social service organizations, organizing programs such as youth media and prison media, and by providing links to entry-job related skills. Media arts centers use a variety of models. The Scribe Media Center in Philadelphia targets social change-oriented nonprofits and provides mentoring (see p. 42). The results typically are used by the organizations themselves, though they also can get some local airtime. But not always. Appalshop (appalshop.org) in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a legatee of the original National Endowment for the Arts and American Film Institute project to start media arts centers in 1969, produces broadcast- and theatrical-quality video in conjunction with local Appalachian residents. Appalshop provides technical, artistic and professional expertise and controls the programming; the results showcase regional culture to both regional and national broad audiences. A third model is provided by the Media Working Group, originating in Cincinnati, Ohio. It acts as a loose collaborative of regional artists, who use the organization to lower administrative costs and as a platform to launch their own projects of social engagement. Results include teaching programs, regional broadcast programming, and a web-based training program in new media for grassroots artists. Yet another model is Minneapolis' IFP-North, a legatee of the pioneering Film in the Cities program of the 1970s (which was one of the most successful grassroots-oriented skills programs in the country until its implosion in the early 1990s). It balances the missions of serving the professionalization needs of emerging filmmakers and encouraging grassroots expression.
Cable access staffers are acutely aware of the need to reconcile competing demands on the fixed capacities of their channels. They have long struggled with how to facilitate free expression without becoming a mouthpiece for one ideology. For instance the Ku Klux Klan during the 1980s took advantage of cable access to encourage local organizing via a nationally available video to be presented by local groups. This strategy is still encouraged by national organizations of all kinds. For instance the Christian religious video production house Eden Communications offers its videos free to anyone who will sponsor them on their local cable access channel, and Deep Dish also seeks new cable access outlets via local activists. Cable access has traditionally welcomed all new speakers, and encouraged more speech to engage these speakers.
Cable access centers usually aspire both to train new mediamakers and also to permit viewer access to new points of view and information. Paula Manley identifies four kinds of production that serve social action, produced at access centers: the voices and views of marginalized populations; nonprofit and grassroots groups; civic involvement productions; and organizing (Manley, 2003). Barbara Popovic, head of the extraordinarily successful Chicago public access CAN TV (cantv.org), argues that access channel programming provides a crucial information lifeline. "People do get excited about getting jobs, legal advice, math education for their kids, and health care assistance via television," she noted. "Right now, the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago is live on CAN TV21 answering questions about AIDS in the workplace. That was preceded by a program about medicare benefits, and will be followed by a program with immigration experts answering immigration questions. These lifeline services have a presence on CAN TV every day." The result, she noted, is passionate citizen support. An access-hostile bill in the state legislature, for instance, was defeated on the floor, because of citizen testimony - including that of a uniformed policeman bringing forward a petition.
The success of CAN TV reflects common wisdom in community media - that community relationships depend on institutional relationships, often with nonprofits that tap into communities. CAN TV has connected, by its estimates, with 2,500 of the 8,000 area nonprofits. Mentoring and training strategies that emphasize ongoing relationships are key. Palo Alto, CA's Mid Peninsula Community Media Center also builds enduring relationships. The center has trained staffers or volunteers from 45 community groups in storytelling. As Manley notes, groups such as the Community Breast Health Project, the Junior League and the Clara-Mateo Homeless Alliance are paired with a videographer/editor to produce six short segments over the course of a year. These segments air on a regular program, Community Journal. Groups report both that they get good publicity and that they are able to use the pieces as stand-alones in advocacy and recruitment. And Denver Community Television's "Your Message Here..." campaign, with the Colorado Association of Nonprofit Organizations, trains members of groups such as A Su Salud (To Your Health), United Way, and the MLK Day Celebration Committee to prepare organizational videos and computer-based media, as well as to do event coverage and studio interviews for cablecast.
Digital media creation tools, added to the Internet, have turned CTCs into nodes on communications networks that create new, virtual communities and "public spaces" (Schuler, 1996). Meanwhile, many institutions ranging from religious organizations to housing projects to youth groups have built digital media into their workshops and after-school programs. For instance, at Saint Julie Asian Center in Lowell, MA, Asian immigrants use computing resources to assemble slide shows for overseas members of their family, and the Center makes videos to add to English language classes (Davies et al., 2003; Sullivan, 2003). Unlike the mass media model that cable TV uses, CTCs bring a conversational, interactive mode to media making.
Community media centers face common challenges, across technical platforms and mission statements. A 2002 survey of media arts organizations nationwide revealed general urgent concern over resources and mission, at the same time that new opportunities were identified. Participants in the survey noted that their school-service programs were disappearing with declining school budgets. New technologies were shaking up basic missions. Ad hoc efforts, fueled by accessible technologies, soaked up volunteer time and energy and often could lead to burnout. And of course they all faced declining taxpayer dollars or indirect benefits from them. (Manley, 2002)
Media arts centers have encountered hard times from the later 1990s, with economic downturn, decline of taxpayer funds including from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacArthur Foundation's decision to stop funding such centers, and with the stresses of generational shift as baby boomer-era leaders step down. Some have undergone financial crisis (New Orleans' NOVAC), others have disappeared, and some have grown and taken on new tasks. For instance, the Bay Area Video Coalition has become a source for preservation of video, a paying business and one that benefits nonprofits with affordable services and does workforce development.
Cable access centers are hampered by problems in the structure, and by the political vagaries of franchising. The centers are fueled by volunteer enthusiasm, fraught with continuity problems because of scarce resources, and often are the product of skills acquisition projects. There is often an entrenched core of producers, on the other hand, who lay claim to equipment, schedule slots, and staff time, and can discourage new participants. The "first come, first served," "video soapbox" model of access cable of the enacting legislation in 1984 has been stretched by many programmers to permit some scheduling, but it is still hard to know what will be on when, on many cable access channels. Access cable's budgets are imperiled, with a recent court ruling that that high-speed Internet services did not need to be counted in cable franchise revenues; this has vastly reduced income to some cable access operations.
As computers have become cheaper and more common, as software solutions have increasingly supplanted hardware approaches, and as email has become more ubiquitous, federal and state funding has shrunk for CTCs. Some have shifted mandates, some have closed, and some have taken on new challenges (Sullivan, 2003). Those challenges can be stressful. Mediamaking was not part of the original mission of most CTCs, so adding it changes jobs and even organizational mission. The people who dedicated themselves to teaching computing skills may not want to create streaming media; different people may want to use the new services; and getting the new equipment may strain scarce resources (Davies, et al, 2003). In Lowell, MA, the Lowell Telecommunications Corporation, swamped by people wanting to "learn computers" and with a staff eager to engage in activities with a social output, began training others to run their own public computing facilities - within the YMCA and youth organizations, for instance. The LTC staff then became expert support staff for content creation. Its Commonwealth Broadband Collaborative lets many partners share information and participate in virtual events, via broadband Internet.
Meanwhile, new possibilities for community media open up with digitalization's vast expansion of television stations' channel capacity. The digital channel capacities of public television are currently zones of experiment in meeting a community's media needs (Penn State Public Broadcasting, n.d. ). A Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, MN, the station has sought out nonprofit partners to fill program space on its Minnesota Channel (currently only six hours a week, but slated to expand to a round-the-clock channel). Nonprofits bear production costs, while the station offers production expertise, channel capacity and promotion. Organizations concerned with public health, low-income housing, refugee and immigrant services have produced programming; the station hopes to raise funds to encourage less-well-funded nonprofits to participate. At the PBS annual meeting in June 2003, PBS president Pat Mitchell singled out the Minnesota Channel as a model for developing public TV's digital channels nationally. If the current divide between public TV and community media persists, though, public TV stations could set themselves up as expensive but professionally-equipped rivals to community media.
Youth media has been an arena of growth for all three kinds of community media, as a result of local government concern for youth, easy-to-use equipment and foundation investment from the mid-1990s (soros.org/youth). An early effort, Educational Video Center (evc.org) in New York, which caters to troubled high school students in New York, set forth a vision that has infused much later work. EVC cofounder Steve Goodman argued that, in the tradition of radical educator Paulo Freire, "media education has a central role to play in the revitalization of school in as intellectually rigorous and democratic practice...Putting the power to create media in the hands of youth shifts the relations further from consuming culture to producing and reflecting on it." He further argued that the students' productions provoked community involvement, fostering "an authentic public dialogue that transcends the moral and economic imperatives of the market culture" (Goodman, 1993, 48-49).
Supporters of youth media have seen it as a way to increase youth job skills, self-esteem, and socialization, and also to increase understanding about youth via youth perspectives (Casselle, 2002). As a recent study (Campbell et al., n.d. ) notes, several other goals infuse youth media efforts: career development, academic improvement, self-esteem and media literacy. Two general camps emerge: those projects using youth media for a tool for the growth and development of the makers, and those producing youth media for wider audiences. Many programs claim to accomplish both strategies. However, it can be hard to aim equally both for process goals such as skills transfer and product quality.
Community media centers often have strong youth media projects. For instance, in Davis, CA, the local cable access channel coordinated a project for 16-22 year old young people to get job skills, and make and show their work on the channel and in community screenings followed by discussions. Young people found themselves leading public, cross-cultural discussions about such hot topics as racism, sexual orientation, and body image. In Lowell, MA, the Lowell Telecommunications Corporation worked with a youth organization, United Teen Equality Center, to create issue-oriented PSAs, documentation, and organizational support videos, as well as websites and photo slideshows.
Youth media has supportive and distribution networks. Such programming has now been syndicated both on cable access and the satellite DISH network since 2000, in the Youth Channel, coordinated by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (New York public access) and affiliated with community media in Seattle, Atlanta, Denver and Grand Rapids, MI. Besides television screenings, Youth Channel also coordinates community-based screenings and interactive discussions. The organization Listen Up! (pbs.org/merrow/listenup) supports the field, with programs to improve skills and production quality, as well as program management. Ymdi.org, a site launched by MediaRights.org, provides a directory of youth media organizations, and streaming of some youth media work.
How is success measured in such enterprises? Primarily by participation. Cable access centers measure how many hours of programming are made by participating members, and how many local organizations use the service. Assessing whether social goals have been achieved is far harder, and particularly hard when a wide spread of social goals is claimed. Youth media programs have come under close scrutiny; NAMAC's Youth Media Initiative may develop common standards for evaluation in a field that often has depended on anecdote.
There is enduring tension in community media between emphasis on the process (express yourself, learn skills, document, create the impetus for a cross-cultural experience) and product goals (create a work appropriate for a defined audience). Finished products may be intended across a spectrum of possible audiences. At one pole are the friends and family of the maker, and at the other is a broad viewing audience whose alternative is the NBC affiliate.
Millions of hours of video are created each year through community media platforms with budgets that range from near-zero to near-professional depending on outside resources (see Figure 7, p. 51). They leave a light mark on most television viewers, though - except when the subject touches their own communities and lives. The wonder is not that community media do not compete with high-budget entertainment, but that they play so significant a role given their resources. Budgets for cable access, media arts and community technology centers are bare bones, for work that involves hundreds of producers and many thousands of viewers and community participants. Promotion - a staple even of public television programming - is almost unheard of in community media.
Meanwhile, community media projects engage both communities and publics. Managers of such centers confront directly the challenges of bridging beliefs. They wrestle with the intersection of individual skills acquisition and social communications networks. They work with many of the organizations that make up the cultural networks of a town or city. They act as public spaces and experiments in democratic communication.
The short film Silence and Complicity, produced by The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP) and the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights (CLADEM), documents gross violations of women's rights in Peruvian public health clinics, and it changed Peruvian public health policy. The Alliance for Justice sponsors a documentary to launch its annual First Monday events, in which law students are encouraged to take on pro bono work. In 1997, Barbara Kopple and Kristi Jacobson made a film for the Alliance, With Liberty and Justice for All, which got national publicity, was excerpted on ABC news, and resulted in freeing a man. At nonprofit organization Scenarios USA, high schoolers make short films about the terms of their lives and simultaneously get reproductive and life skills information that is otherwise either hard to get or even banned. In the 2003 Scenarios U.S.A.-produced Lipstick, a script eventually directed by Michael Apted, a young woman announces she is a lesbian with a controversial public kiss.
Nonprofits are important sponsors of social documentaries. The independent sector in the U.S. is an outstanding feature of the social landscape, accounting for about 6 percent of U.S. organizations and of the national income. The number of nonprofits has tripled over the last 25 years (Weitzman, Jalandoni, Lampkin, & Pollak, 2002).
For nonprofits, a documentary is part of a campaign, and the look, the outlet, the design depend on the way it is used in the campaign. Just as corporations have come to depend on video presentations accompanying an annual report and government press conferences integrate audiovisual material, so in the independent sector video and film have been integrated into social activism. Nonprofit strategies have run the gamut from TV network broadcast to screenings in living rooms.
The camcorder turns out to be a powerful tool to document and then publicize abuse (Wintonick, 2002). WITNESS (witness.org), an organization that uses video and the Web in service of human rights, collaborated with a Filipino peasant land rights group, training them in the use of camcorders. (Its simple instruction manual is used by human rights activists worldwide (Lawyers' Committee on Human Rights, 2000). Peasants were able to document the attacks that resulted in deaths of two of their members. International protest ensued using a professionally-made WITNESS video based on the documentation, Web information and links. The Philippines national government finally agreed to investigate the case. WITNESS' Operation Fine Girl, about rape as a weapon of war in Sierra Leone, was adopted as a training tool by local police and by the judiciary.
Many other human rights groups also use video for documentation and publicity, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Monritor Institute. Amazon Watch (amazonwatch.org) trains indigenous people in the use of such video and other communications tools in service of strategies to defend their lands; uses range from small group showings to web-based streaming. The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which uses video in its activism, has produced a how-to guide for activists (Molloy, 1999).
Low-cost docs have been effective to gain publicity in social-issue campaigns. In the mid-'90s, The Chicago Video Project, working with a mother's organization in decrepit public housing, made video news releases showing the appalling conditions. Local news stations both ran the footage and interviewed the mothers, and the Chicago Housing Authority took immediate action to repair the housing. When the Fair and Clean Energy Coalition (a hundred local organizations) led a campaign on the impact of electricity deregulation, it created, with help from local cable access, an organizing video, For People or Profit? The organization's speakers bureau then used the video to inform and involve small businesses and neighborhood, civic and church groups in energy issues, and also cablecast it. A Denver activist theater group, El Centro Su Teatro, aided by facilities at Denver Community Television, made a video record of a play, No Hablo English Only, which it then used in organizing and publicity in its effort to block a challenge to bilingualism in the schools (bilingualism was preserved).
Organization-created documentaries have has been powerful tools to recruit, organize, and maintain relationships with membership - and even to provide a revenue stream. Unions such as the Service Employees International Union now use video as an on-the-fly recruiting device. For instance, as some employees sign cards calling for a vote for a union, organizers visit them and tape their testimony. They then take that video to the home of another employee, showing them a colleague's endorsement. Advocating Change Together, a St. Paul-based self-advocacy organization to empower people with disabilities - especially mental disabilities - to claim their civil and human rights, began to produce training and educational tapes on issues of concern to its constituency. Five years later, it found that web-based marketing combined with promotion at conferences resulted in sales making up half its annual budget.
Communities have discovered that a homegrown documentary can help to build relationships that foster development. In Participatory Video (1991), Jackie Shaw and Clive Robertson describe how the disabled, women, youth and elders have used video produced in small groups to promote mutual understanding, therapeutic goals and community development. The Orton Family Foundation spurs such work by offering grants and a how-to guide (Orton, Speigel & Gale, 2001) to communities to make their own videos. The 2,000 residents of Bangor, Michigan, which has a large African-American and Latino population, made a video that involved interviews, oral histories and a survey of their community's assets and goals. The unassuming video contributed to persuading state and federal agencies, and some private sources, to contribute more than a million dollars toward the town's development.
Many nonprofits that work with young people make media. For instance, the Global Action Project emerged out of an international youth leadership organization and now works closely with the Refugee Resettlement Program of the International Rescue Committee. Through its Voices and Visions program, it trains refugee youth, and has made dozens of videos. The videos then form the basis of group discussions in peer workshops about identity, trauma and heritage. Scenarios USA (see p. 60) produces professional-quality short films, teaming young people with Hollywood pros and landing cablecasts, while inserting controversial issues into school curriculum. The Community Arts Partnership Institute, based in Chicago (capinstitute.org), runs programs in seven cities, where universities and community organizations team up to produce arts programs for young people, in areas including digital media, web design and video.
Nonprofits also weave film and video into more elaborate strategic communications campaigns. In 2002 two Christian environmental coalitions conducted a campaign focusing on fuel-efficient cars. "What would Jesus drive?" (answer: not an SUV). A 30-second, low-cost video spot and a print ad won national media attention on NBC, NPR and major newspapers. The Kaiser Family Foundation has long been recognized for its expertise in inserting its public health messages into mainstream media. It has a standing financial relationship with MTV to highlight youth reproductive issues. KFF subsidized the finishing of Blood Lines, a.k.a. It Could Happen to You, a video made by two HIV+ teenagers about their attitudes and fears. When shown on MTV, it garnered millions of viewers and thousands of call-ins and web hits for more information. Other KFF initiatives have involved high-end production of public service announcements and creation of video news releases that echo subjects touched on in the popular TV drama E.R.
The American Architecture Foundation, which exists to help people "understand the importance of architecture in their lives," commissioned from professionals several thoughtful, hour-long public affairs documentaries on community development issues featuring architecture within the solution - urban blight, community renovation, citizen participation in urban development. These documentaries have been used both in broadcast, with outreach strategies, and in community engagement, more than satisfying the goal of the AAF to widen public awareness of its issues.
When the public health advocacy group Infact wanted to create a tool to support its boycott of Kraft, part of its anti-tobacco campaign targeting Kraft's parent Philip Morris, it turned to two leftist, advocacy filmmakers, Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson. They produced Making a Killing: Philip Morris, Kraft and Global Tobacco Addiction, which went on to screen in festivals, three local public TV stations in the U.S., in three developing countries, and was used in clips on network news. As well, Infact activists have extensively used it in organizing, and copies were given to all U.S. members of Congress, and to World Health Assembly delegates. Both the reputation and experience of the filmmakers contributed to the success of the nonprofit's strategy.
Nonprofits often need professional filmmakers, especially for events where organizations need to impress funders or officials. Small independent firms in major cities specialize in independent-sector work. Robin Smith, the head of Video/Action (vaf.org) in Washington, D.C., notes that her work is not only producing videos for a wide range of nonprofit clients, but helping them match their goals with appropriate use of video. The New York-based C4C Productions (c4c.org) facilitates participatory video for community development and women's empowerment with nonprofits and governments. Another model is that of Storycorps (storycorps.org), which uses a core staff of film professionals to recruit volunteers from the professional community to assist in making nonprofit productions. Working with experienced filmmakers becomes critical when nonprofits want to include broadcast among the strategic options.
The importance to nonprofits of professional support is brought home by a study performed by Azimuth Media. The company, which has produced TV programming for the Center for Defense Information for many years, is considering starting a Center for Progressive Media, a Washington, D.C.-area community media center focused on nonprofits. It identified thousands of potential clients for a nonprofit media center, and in interviews with dozens of them found great support for media production help (Sugg, 2002).
There is still a communication gap between independent filmmakers and nonprofit organizations. Many independent filmmakers have social concerns that match those of organizations, although they may not establish a relationship. Organization staffers often lack awareness of the realities of mass media, and of the professional skills required to execute media. Some organizations directly address the need to build stronger bridges between media professionals and nonprofit organizations. MediaRights.org provides databases identifying social issue documentaries and their makers, linking makers and users to appropriate subjects, and also describing strategies for successful use. Comminit.org ambitiously and creatively links international and community development professionals with communications strategies for making, use and evaluation, and has established a vigorous discussion environment. In Canada, devmedia.org promotes communication among professionals working for participatory communication.
Costs of production vary dramatically with the project and strategy (see Figure 7, p. 51). A $12,000 investment resulted in a major international human rights victory for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, while the Alliance for Justice regularly counts on a $100,000 cost for a short, 15-20 video produced by professional filmmakers for its annual conference. The Kaiser Family Foundation allocated an annual $3 million budget to promote its issues within MTV programming. Where the resources for nonprofit production come from reflect the funding strategies of the nonprofits. For environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund, membership donations are key to funding all their endeavors. Indeed, membership revenues and entrepreneurial projects provide the majority of funding for the independent sector generally. However, private foundations are also extremely important in funding nonprofit media via funding for organizations and projects.
Nonprofits are often highly motivated to track results of media facilitation of their goals and projects, unlike mediamakers themselves (who want to make the next movie) or community media center staffers (who are busy helping the next user). The effectiveness of nonprofits' videos and films can often be assessed more easily than is a TV program designed for a general audience, or a work produced through community media, because they are so often designed to be instrumental. They can be measured directly against the campaign goals, and they can draw on rich evaluation literature not only in the U.S. but in the development community (Gray-Felder & Deane, 1998).
When nonprofits make or commission media, they act in their parochial interest, recognizing a tool to advance their own agendas, one that can return many times their investment in contributions. At the same time, sponsored social documentaries often contribute voices and perspectives to public life, when the project is so intended. Silence and Complicity - the title itself is significant - was designed to make public scandalous and shameful abuse of women by medical practitioners in public health clinics. The Scenarios projects require students to take home educational information on sexual health and to engage their own families in discussion, and they encourage entire communities around the school to participate in the professional filming, thus opening a mini-public sphere within the home and neighborhood.
The study of social documentary making and use fits within a larger body of study: media and public life. What media practices, media policies, and cultural habits promote public behaviors, public cultures, public life? Colleges and universities have a unique role to play in shaping the future of social documentary, because they perform interlocked functions: skills training, passing on historical knowledge, creating new knowledge, preserving knowledge and archiving work. Programs are beginning to focus on social documentary practices, and could do so more and better.
Communications could be the academic discipline that houses the study of public media, with social documentary as one creative example. It is a field still establishing its shape. The field of communications - the study of the processes and products of communications in mediated societies - is recent, having been launched with World War II, and it has fraught relations with power itself. Its founders had close relations with government, and were driven by research on propaganda and persuasion. Mass media stakeholders and public relations specialists are interested parties in much research. It draws upon sociology, political science and other social science for its research techniques. "Critical communications" approaches such as political economy and cultural studies shelter left academics, while neoclassical economics and political science and sociologically influenced areas such as organizational communication often draw researchers from the ideological center and right.
In the study of social documentary, academic arenas of study in communication include production (how to make film, video and emerging media), media studies (how to understand the role of media in society), and media effects (how to analyze and measure the consequences of media expression on individuals and groups). The fields have grown without much relationship to each other. A focus on social documentary that draws from all of them would advance both scholarship and practice.
In production, film programs have developed at the university level only since the 1960s, and continue to struggle for acceptance within higher education. They are usually graduate-level production programs. They offer longer training, some background in history and theory, and more connections to potential future employers than the many commercial workshops (Block, 2001, 2002, 2003).
In university film programs, even among those with a documentary focus (Block, 2001, 2003), there is little evidence in the formal curriculum of the social passions driving current experimentation with the medium. The topic of film and video as a tool for advocacy and social action largely takes place within a historical discussion, for instance of propaganda or of the development of cinema verité or other historical movements. Discussion of the online environment and new technologies is often referenced, but without an exploration of the social potential (Patricia Zimmerman, personal communication, July 27, 2002; Kristine Samuelson, personal communication, December 12, 2002; Anneke Metz, personal communication, December 12, 2002).
Production programs remain focused typically on a general introduction to skills.4 Work with nonprofits or in the context of activism such as human rights is rarely broached in curricula of production programs, outside the terms of budget writing and client relations.5 Formal curricula often do not reveal what is actually taught, however. Within many programs, and sometimes under titles that do not represent the content, individuals have been successfully teaching traditions of advocacy, activism, and grassroots participation in media. For instance, Creative Filmmaking from the Inside Out: Five Keys to the Art of Making Inspired Movies and Television, (Dannenbaum, 2003), written by film production teachers at the University of Southern California committed to expanding opportunity and diversity in production, approaches activist media practices through the window of creativity.
Professional academic programs also weave social documentary practices into professional training, whether formally or by mentorship. At the Stanford University documentary program, a small and select group studies with faculty who have devoted their own creative lives to social documentaries. At the University of California, Berkeley, journalism students can specialize in journalistically-oriented social documentary production. At the University of Texas at Austin and at Temple University, many faculty themselves produce social documentaries; at American University in Washington, D.C., students can take a course, "Social Documentary," which emphasizes work with nonprofits; at Chicago's Columbia College, students can take a course, "Documentary and Social Change."
Several new university programs tailored to the interests of media makers with a social action agenda consolidate and sharpen focus on these practices. Hunter College's Interactive Media Arts MFA program, designed by Stuart Ewen and other colleagues with a leftist perspective, specifically focuses on media for social change. The goal of the program is to "educate twenty-first century pamphleteers, people capable of conceptualizing, creating and distributing innovative nonfiction expression, using contemporary media technologies, thus elevating the quality of public awareness and to enlivening the possibility of public interaction." It draws analytically on the resources of the critical studies offerings already in place in the communications program.
A second example is the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where academic activists Reebee Garafolo and Fred Johnson have designed an undergraduate degree in Community Media and Technology. The degree, launched in 2003, is designed specifically with a career focus, for students interested in working in cable access centers, nonprofits and community technology centers. It combines media studies, media production, and computing and networking skills. Both these programs are oriented toward working-class students with social action agendas.
The third example is the Community Studies Master's Program in Social Documentation at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which was in the final stages of approval in 2003. Students "translate academic interpretations of social life into useful, educational and professional-level products in one or more of several media, museum settings and/or public history collections, which will have an impact on the social world." The goal of the program is "to train college graduates in critical thinking and the use of visual, audio and print media, as well as historic presentations, in the documentation of problematic and underrepresented areas of community life." The Community Studies program offers courses including Introduction to Video Activism and Video Production of the Social Documentary.
The teaching of "alternative media" practices, including small-scale video and online media, has a history, worth noting because it demonstrates (among other things) the importance of the academy. Several key people presently teaching courses focusing on such practices, such as Marty Lucas (Hunter), Tami Gold (Hunter), Doe Mayer (University of Southern California), and Fred Johnson (now at University of Massachusetts, Boston), among others, were trained by George Stoney, who teaches at New York University. Stoney's career covers more than seven decades of work as a filmmaker and media activist, including a stint in Canada in the 1960s creating the Challenge for Change program that used filmmaking as a tool of community expression and a long and continuing role as a leader in the public access movement (Abrash, Jackson, & Mertes, 1999). Historian, archivist, and teacher Erik Barnouw, who died in 2001, was another mentor to many concerned with the transmission of creative use of media for social change. He and Stoney met younger generations at the annual Flaherty Film Seminars, which have been held from the 1950s onward in celebration of documentary work (Zimmermann & Bradley, 1998).
Media studies has many branches. Social documentaries are referred to in core texts of film studies. In other subfields such as cultural studies and communications, the stress has traditionally been on commercial products and practices. Film studies focused, until the 1980s, more in narrative, commercial cinema and on avant-garde art than on documentary work with a social edge.
The last decade has seen a blossoming of scholarship on documentary, alternative and advocacy practices, within the general umbrella of film studies. This has been seen within the annual Visible Evidence conference on documentary practice, and in scholarly books series such as the University of Minnesota Visible Evidence series and the Wide Angle series at Temple University Press. Analysis of film as a practice of aggressively partisan alternative media and of dissident art practices is more common, though, than discussion of film and video within nonprofit institutional contexts, or as part of public information practices.
There has also been a flourishing of theoretical and mapping work done on alternative media in media studies. The work of John Downing on radical media in the U.S., originally issued in 1984, generated a generation of scholarship - some members of which generation contributed to the revised edition (Downing, 2001). International examples of alternative media have spurred a vigorous discussion drawing on political philosophy and cultural studies (Rodríguez, 2001; Atton, 2002). Critical analysis with an emphasis on cultural production - specifically on the analysis of the infrastructure, policy, and institutional contexts that make expression possible - is also growing (Couldry, 2000).
There is a rich and deep social science tradition on individual and social media effects (Jensen, 2002). The most powerful analytical techniques to analyze social documentary are those of scholars in the liberal arts: anthropologists (participant observation), historians (detailed analysis of records and historical process, including oral histories), political philosophers (application of democratic theories to practice) and literary theorists (textual analysis, semiotic analysis). The extended anecdote thus becomes case study, ethnographic report and analytic essay (Aufderheide, 2000; Matewa, 2002; LaSpada, 1992; Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod, & Larkin, 2002). Until recently, films have been difficult to study as texts, discouraging some researchers. Some scholars fear that film and video may not be regarded as serious subject matter in their core disciplines. Those who focus on that work academically are often outliers in the disciplines.
Social documentary practices raise basic questions of the right and ability to express oneself, to share information, and find information, and to tell the stories that form culture. It is a practice that could interest communications researchers across ideological lines, as a subject of a cultural production analysis. Cultural production analysis considers the historical roots and sociological context of expression. Analyses that weave together the histories of institutional opportunities and practices, artistic initiatives, texts, reception and impact can ground understanding even of evanescent expressions. Such studies can cross disciplinary boundaries and permit both practitioners and scholars to understand the social contexts for creativity, and creative stimuli for social participation and public life. Studies that focus on institutional decisionmaking, for instance in public television, in community media centers, in foundations, in government agencies, can similarly shed light on the link between culture and community.
There is richer material than ever before in the field of social documentary for study of social effects. Debate over the significance of such work, however, needs to be brought out into a wider public, perhaps starting with the academic public, and away from the obligatory good news delivered to funders and boards of directors. After all, what may merely be irritating to a board of directors - a run-in with a city official over the free speech rights of a community media center user, for example - may also be vivid evidence of the importance of a service or expression in a community. International comparisons and contrasts would provide a wealth of data within many aspects of the field. Such work can, most importantly, provide the context that permits students, scholars, practitioners and users to see social documentary (among other practices) as part of public culture.
The future for social documentaries will be shaped in part by fast-changing business conditions, responding to new opportunities, and by the policies that promote or constrain them. The coming changes will make the promotion, marketing, and the strategic campaign ever more important for social documentarians. It will also put new and unprecedented challenges before anyone who wants to reach not only audiences but publics - people who share an understanding in common about what problems everyone shares.
The television business has been morphing, with accelerating speed, from a business anchored to time-slots to one tailored around viewer selection. Cable companies think that most of their customers will have personal video recorders, which store digital copies of programs until you're ready for them, within a few years. Video on demand is taking off, including on public TV. Viewers will be able to select social documentaries they really want easily instead of remembering when to switch to PBS - if they can find out about what they want.
The video business is moving from rentals of physical tapes to virtual - through video-on-demand and possibly even downloading (much of it currently illegal, but perhaps not for long). The all-you-can-eat model provided by Netflix (pay $20 a month to rent as many DVDs as you like by mail) is becoming popular. That threatens the old rent-a-tape model (which never worked for documentarians anyway, since they were never in video stores), and it creates expectations that make potential customers frustrated with the high-cost educational video businesses. If the model can include social documentaries (Netflix has a small collection, which is renting well), then many more renters can experiment at very low risk with something new - including social documentaries - and documentarians can find a new consumer market.
The technical and legal machinery to lock up digitized video so that it can't be Napsterized is settling into place. Both programs and equipment are being rigged so that viewers can't copy and resend the programs, with what is being called digital rights management (DRM). That security may encourage big media companies to use the efficiencies of the digital era more. But it also means they can put more restrictions on use than ever before.
The broad general audience once produced by network TV has been broken into multiple demographics for a multi-channel era, and is scattering further with the multiplication of other screens (computers, personal digital assistants, phones). At the same time, the media noise level - "data smog" - (Shenk, 1997) has been raised for all of us. All of us now have more media than we can possibly use, coming at us from more sources than ever before - requiring us to do exhausting checks to find out whether we want to trust the sending party. Everyone is looking to weed out the hustlers and the irrelevance. We want control.
Filtering is the future. Not just the spam software, but filters like your personal video recorder. Filters like video on demand, which liberates you from time-based TV. Filters like satellite radio, which liberates you from time-based radio. Filters like your browser preferences, which can let you treat the Internet like the buttons on your car radio. Filters like Google and Yahoo.
This prospect, however comforting at an individual level, brings with it alarming social implications. When you have to relentlessly out-shout, out-brand, out-gimmick competitors for your customer's attention - when branding is a crucial shortcut to trust - advantages accrue even faster than before to those with the biggest promotional and advertising budgets (like Time Warner), those with the biggest existing reputations for quality (like the New York Times), and those with the most sensational products (like Fox). The middle ground between the biggest names and the welter of small ones gets eroded. Among other things, it's much harder to challenge elite media's grip on policymakers' agendas. Also, filters can be active little agenda-setters of their own. The menu services for digital TV have been hot commodities on Wall Street for this reason. Control them, and you channel users' choices.
Big media are also looking to digital technology and the law to control user choices in a digital-download era. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act criminalizes any action that breaks an owner's anti-copying code. It goes along with industry development of digital locks in software and in hardware, so that all users in all circumstances are treated like paying customers. That preempts fair use, a legal right of copying in place for hundreds of years, and it also shuts down other user rights, such as loaning your kid a CD you love, or showing a documentary segment to a friend. It cripples peer-to-peer networks, which could otherwise become a low-cost delivery system.
The digital-download era really arrived with broadband Internet, which comes with controls that the old, slow Internet never had. Most services limit customers' upload time and amount, and have invested in software that gives priority to the company's own products and programs. The phone and cable companies have also been slow to get broadband to customers, and to make it affordable - probably hoping to stall until they can get a solid business model in place. Meanwhile, a cheap, unregulated way to build out networks on the Internet is growing rapidly at the grassroots: wi-fi (for "wireless fidelity"), or use of open, unlicensed spectrum to connect to the Internet.
Wi-fi, where users buy their own small, radio-like sender/receivers and connect via the same kind of spectrum that baby monitors work on, could become more than a way for the upscale mobile professional to get email at Starbucks or, as it is today, a way for many rural people to get broadband when the cable company won't string the wires. As researchers at the New America Foundation have shown, it could become the basis for a low-cost, citizen-built, unregulated digital communications network - one that could deliver social documentaries direct to the home. But the federal government would have to take back gigantic chunks of spectrum (or airwaves) now assigned users like the broadcasters to really advantage of the possibilities. Needless to say, none of the current spectrum-holders want to give any back. (Johnston & Snider, 2003)
For social documentarians and other media makers who address themselves to publics and not just audiences, the environment creates both opportunities and agendas. Aggregating audience - which in many cases now means creating or nurturing or sustaining community - is a basic challenge. The "viral marketing" so typical of digital communication can quickly expand community, once it forms. To build, identity (or to use corporate terminology, branding) is critical, and identity is more than the ability to smugly denounce or disrupt. It builds not only on ideas but relationships and habits and culture. This effort can build new publics for democratic participation.
Building publics requires public spaces, and that is why the zones that now exist - public broadcasting, cable access, public satellite TV channels, local communications networks, and community media workshop spaces - are even more important than ever before. They provide unique opportunities, surrounded by the savage and sensationalist search for audiences in the commercial sector, to nurture public communication. They are places where makers can do more than show work. They can demonstrate that media are tools of a democratic process, an open society, and a vital culture.
To ensure that the rapid changes in the business environment benefit voices contributing to public life, it will not be enough to trust to technology. Broadband Internet, digital projection in theaters, digital TV channels, wireless networks, digital video recorders and other emerging technologies will open up opportunities and also create new problems. They will not help make those opportunities available democratically. Gatekeepers who charge too much and exclude too many, shortage of space and time to show work, and high costs of connecting to users are not just features of today's technology but results of yesterday's policymaking.
You can see the direct relationships between media policies and opportunities to make and see social documentaries today, from the following three perspectives: the production process, the resource base, and user access.
As new opportunities and technologies emerge, policies need to shift with them. Whenever that happens, stakeholders show up at politicians' doors; today's winners are usually first in line. This process will go on to establish the terms for tomorrow's media. Federal communications policy is key to certain areas, such as broadcasting, cable and Internet policies (Markle Foundation , 2003). In some cases, for instance standards setting, or the health of international public TV systems that provide precious secondary revenue to filmmakers, international treaties and policymaking bodies are important. Local and state governments also play important roles, particularly in cable access and community technology centers. Cultural policy is critical in creating scholarships, grants and awards that defray the costs of expression (Bawden, 2002). And policies internal to organizations are also of great importance at a time when strategic planning is necessary to adapt to rapid change in the business environment. Communities of creators and users are critical advocates for policies that can promote the work they do and use (McCarthy & Ondaatje, 2002).
The political landscape on which policy is played out is constantly shifting, but some issues rise above the political tactics of the day. These concerns can be seen from the viewpoint of the social actors, specifically: Creators, Institutions, and Users.
Will social documentarians in the future find financial support for their work?
Creators depend on many resources, often embedded within institutions. They also draw on cultural policies that create endowments and councils for the arts and humanities, at a local, state and national level. Federal appropriations are perpetually embattled for the national institutions, and local and state institutions suffer from the withdrawal of federal funds to the entire sector. No amount of collaboration and entrepreneurial skill or training substitutes for the creative mandate offered by cultural agencies. Furthermore, federal and state-level agencies not only typically provide key development funds but also leverage many more dollars for creators. They also create legitimacy for projects that they fund. And ultimately, the community benefits economically, politically and culturally from such investment (Stern, 2001).
Will such creators (and users!) suffer censorship, either from political or business pressures?
The Patriot Act of 2001 permits unprecedented government surveillance of communication without revealing such surveillance to the subject. This creates powerful reasons for a speaker to self-censor, in order not to call attention to oneself, and powerful reasons for a potential viewer or user to avoid the appearance of interest. Thus, the Patriot Act is an alarming challenge to diversity of viewpoints and self-expression.
As well, certain new technologies pose a threat to creativity. Digital rights management (DRM) is increasingly the way that corporate media intend to control access to their products, and DRM is being designed to curtail the rights of all users. In Internet transmission, increasingly broadband providers are privileging their own content on their systems, and in so doing discouraging the development of alternatives to their products. New technologies need to be employed in ways that don't kill creativity at the source (Lessig, 2001).
Will such creators be able to defend their interests as creators and as workers?
Creators of all kinds have great difficulty defending their interests as workers because they are usually isolated. Unions have also found filmmakers, writers and artists difficult to find and organize. Labor laws have been particularly unfriendly to individual creators of intellectual property. Efforts by the Communication Workers and United Auto Workers among others to organize artists of all kinds have been heartening, and the new Creators Federation, which works for anti-trust exemptions that would permit creators to organize, is also encouraging. Creators' service organizations such as the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (aivf.org), International Documentary Association (documentary.org), Commuity Technology Centers Network (ctcnet.org), and National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (namac.org), also need to become powerful voices both for creators and users in policy.
Will public television receive support and demand to fulfill a unique public mandate, a multichannel entertainment television and "personal TV" change viewer habits?
Public television, which is extremely decentralized, finds its audiences fractured and shrinking, as the institution itself faces a profound question of mission. In a multi-channel, multi-screen world, public television is no longer the only purveyor of upscale historical dramas or nature documentaries or even children's programs. But it still can and does play a role as a platform for public engagement and representation. This role can shape an identity to address the disappearing audience. An excellent laboratory for that challenge to find a truly public identity already exists: The Independent Television Service, which produces programming for underserved audiences. The longstanding social documentary series, P.O.V., which has pioneered many outreach strategies (Hirsch, 2000), is also an inspiring example.
Public TV faces an immediate challenge that forces the question of how to define its public qualities: the expansion of digital channels. What will be on those channels, and how will it justify or command public investment and commitment? Will those channels be designed in collaboration with independent makers, community partners and other stakeholders in the public?
Will public television's digital channels reach all of American viewers?
Cable companies now carry public TV channels because they are required by law to do so. They are not required to carry the digital channels that public TV, like other broadcasters, will have in the near future. Direct broadcast satellites sometimes place public TV channels on transponder space that requires separate dishes to receive. Currently some public TV stations are experimenting with Twin Cities Public TV's model of community programming, in which nonprofits team up with TPT and foot some of the costs for programs featuring their efforts. Will public TV's experiments with public programming for a digital era get a chance to evolve? Or will these experiments be killed at the outset by TV companies that don't see anything in it for them, and so just won't carry the digital signal?
Will the local media now generated by cable access survive political battles and new technologies?
Cable access faces perpetual political threats, because it is poised between local governments - which often find access' open speech platforms discomfiting - and cable companies, which typically dislike any channel that they do not control. Now, cable access faces new challenges, as cable companies refigure their accounting - with permission from the courts and the FCC - to exclude all broadband Internet-related revenues from franchise fees. When those fees are excluded, funds for cable access plummet (Manley, 2003).
Will local nonprofit computing permit a next generation of creators to cross the "digital divide"?
Community technology centers are now watching the end of the first "digital divide" era in which access to computers was rare (Sullivan, 2003). They are facing new internal-mandate challenges, including questions of whether and how to incorporate production of digital media into their missions. At the same time, federal support for "digital divide" issues has evaporated, and community development funds have not been targeted to local community communications technology. Federal funds for the Technology Opportunities Program have dwindled to a tiny demonstration budget, and are continuously under assault.
Will universities and academic and professional associations build an intellectual home for social documentary and other public media projects and expressions?
Emerging programs in socially-engaged media production are invigorating experiments in the production arena. We need also to develop the intellectual scaffolding that explains the importance of public media practices to rising practitioners, scholars and business majors alike.
Will potential users of social documentary be able to find and use content conveniently and in a timely manner?
Potential users today often simply don't know that relevant media exist, or that they can get media they want for the right price and at the right time. Sometimes it really doesn't exist, sometimes it's too expensive, and sometimes it's too late. Programs to address this lack on today's Internet, for instance MediaRights.org, are glimmers of what might come. New business models - all-you-can-eat rental, video on demand, use of low-cost overnight time on cable channels to transmit socially-relevant programs - need market trials and publicizing. We should learn more from librarians about what their patrons want and how they find it. Digital asset management software and technology that permits better automated searching generally is on the horizon, and should be available to the public as well as to media companies.
Will new services be developed in ways that permit ordinary citizens to create as well as to view films and videos?
As today's Internet evolves, it could become a delivery system for niche-market, targeted and nonprofit media. But many current policies constrain any new experiments in alternative media networks.
Both telephone companies and cable companies have stalled on the blue-sky promises of on-demand video, competition for phone service, and competitive provision of television programming. For them, peer-to-peer communication of the kind pioneered by Gnutella, Kazaa and others is just a headache; for public media makers and programmers, it could be a solution.
Highly concentrated and vertically integrated media - already the rule in broadcasting - has gotten further encouragement. The FCC has relaxed concentration of ownership and cross-ownership rules in broadcasting, following the Telecommunications Act of 1996's deregulation of ownership (Aufderheide, 1999). The expansion of terrestrial channels, and the proliferation of networks, has done nothing to increase access to socially engaged media of any kind. In fact, competition for viewers has been a justification to shrink public interest obligations of broadcasters to almost nothing.
Concentration of ownership has made some problems worse. In radio, where radical deregulation greatly concentrated ownership in 1996, studies show that concentration has led to standardization of content and decline of access to material at the creative margins (DiCola & Thomson, 2002). Efforts to roll back big media - which began in Congress immediately after the June 2003 FCC ruling relaxing ownership rules and which has coalesced around the organization Free Press (mediareform.net) need to go hand in hand with other efforts, including the demand for public interest investment by the already huge media firms.
Tomorrow could bring much more accessible, affordable communications networks, capable of transmitting moving images, if policymakers help make it happen at the level of:
• The Network: The Internet's original design, which featured simple, commonly shared protocols to transfer and deliver digital information, has become a thicket of privatized networks with gates. The open-source movement, in which computer programmers design basic platforms that are shared communally, offers opportunities to create new open spaces.
• The Packages: Media data packages themselves are becoming tightly wrapped, sealed boxes, using encryption that locks their contents to all but those who have been given the key. Taking heed from the experience of the music industry, film and video businesses have been working hard to lock up their goods and get hardware manufacturers to help them. The FCC's approval of a "broadcast flag" technology standard, which controls copying and reusing of broadcast programming, encourages this preemptive approach. Congress' creation of laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes copying of encrypted media illegal, also encourages preemptive lock-out. The courts' consistent support of media owners in extending copyright and using preemptive "shrink-wrap" licenses further supports it (Vaidhyanathan, 2001).
• The Pipes: Monopolistic or dominant suppliers have an interest in controlling and limiting the choices that consumers make, and their interests in the current business model are not served by permitting their customers to become content rivals. Current cable broadband providers demonstrate this by limiting speeds at which their users can send material, by using software that controls the download speeds of their own and of competitors' material, and that can limit the amount of material that users can upload. So far, federal regulators and courts have permitted them to do this. Phone companies, which offer the broadband DSL service, are looking at the cable model with approval. Competitive access to current broadband, either in phones or cable, was rejected at a federal level in Congress, courts and regulatory agencies, after a long and messy decisionmaking process (Pociask, 2002); a recent appeals court decision brought a reprieve for open broadband supporters, but it remains an embattled policy argument. Broadband adoption has slowed dramatically (Aufderheide, 2002).
New alternatives could bloom with different use of spectrum, or the airwaves. Spectrum allocation policy - the government's agreement to let particular owners have monopoly control over a particular zone of the airwaves - keeps broadcasting in a holding pattern, locking it into reserved spectrum, and maintaining each license-holder in the role of monopoly provider over its reserved chunk of spectrum. Open spectrum would transform this reality and make possible a "commons" in spectrum. Individuals and groups alike could access spectrum without the intervention of a phone or cable company.
Social documentarians, programmers, community media builders, and others working for media in public life have allies in the search for policy that creates opportunities for all. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org) and Public Knowledge (publicknowledge.org) have been leaders on copyright and digital rights management issues. The Center for Digital Democracy (democraticmedia.org) works on openness of broadband Internet. The Media Access Project (mediaaccess.org) has both worked against concentration of ownership and for open new technologies such as low power radio. New America Foundation has closely analyzed the options for changes in spectrum policy (newamerica.net). Creative Commons (creativecommons.org) has developed a licensing scheme to permit artists to provide limited public access to their works. Moreover, these organizations and others concerned with policy work with each other and with clients who make and use media for public life, themselves creating a public network of knowledge and action.
If social documentaries are woven into the ordinary discourse of democracy, it will be because people create the pathways for that to happen. There are bonds to be built between nonprofits, educators, community media centers, and professional mediamakers. There is knowledge to be gathered, and shared. And there are technologies to foster for the public good.
Opportunities that emerge from the practices surveyed here include:
• Develop academic programs in public media, which combine production, humanistic and social scientific analysis.
• Develop public virtual archives, with both makers and users.
• Develop publishing programs that can showcase both analytical and creative work.
• Develop promotion and publicity toolkits, support teams and businesses for social documentaries.
• Publicize existing awards for social documentary and develop targeted awards.
• Cultivate constituencies of creators and users, to include social documentary in public culture.
• Strengthen the ability of service organizations to inform and represent constituencies on policy.
• Fortify relationships between nonprofits in media arts and nonprofits in the independent sector, to form collaborations for policy advocacy.
• Develop and take advantage of expertise in new technologies of communication and production, to promote their use as tools of public knowledge and action.
• Support a public mandate for public TV in a digital era.
• Strengthen the identity of community media, museums, and media arts organizations as platforms for public culture.
• Support creative collaborations between commercial and noncommercial media and between commercial media and nonprofits.
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1 This report is largely limited to U.S. production, in order to ground it in specific contexts. The U.S. environment is highly distinctive, in several ways. The U.S. population is highly literate and many individuals and institutions are technologically enabled. U.S. public TV, crucial to social documentary, has a unique decentralized and private structure, unlike most other nationalized public service TV systems. U.S. society has an unparalleled number and range of nonprofit organizations, which also fuel documentary. Commercial media culture colors expectations for all work, including noncommercial work. While some social documentary work from abroad works well within the U.S. - for instance the Scenarios model (see p. 60) - other highly successful creative social documentary approaches used in developing countries are less applicable.
2 These and other examples below are drawn from my curating experience at the Council on Foundations Film and Video Festival, which maintains a website and database of the films at fundfilms.org.
3 The consortia are Native American Public telecommunications (nativetelecom.org), National Asian American Telecommunications Association (naatanet.org), National Black Programming Consortium (nbpc.tv), Latino Public Broadcasting (lpbp.org), and Pacific Islanders in Communications (piccom.org).
4 A scan was conducted at the Center for Social Media in April-May 2002, with followup in November 2002, with the participation of James Burch and Agnes Varnum. They and their colleagues in the Visual Media program of the School of Communication at American University looked at the web-posted curriculum of 20 MFA programs around the country, selected through the website of the University Film and Video Association. This scan revealed no course title directly referencing this subject matter in production programs.
5 In a series of focus groups conducted at American University (August 29, 2002; November 14, 2002; March 11, 2003), 18 filmmakers working with nonprofits and nonprofit organization project directors typically did not find students aware of the issues in the kind of work they did.
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.