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Up for Debate: What Role Does the Media Play in Accelerating Social Progress?

This month, 8 feature length films and 30 short films were created by award-winning film makers for the "Why Poverty?" global media event in order to spark dialogue and debate about poverty worldwide. They will air throughout November via more than 70 national broadcasters reaching 500 million people. For example, one such feature film is titled Rafea: Solar Mama, which spotlights the work of Barefoot College in India as they train impoverished women from around the world to become solar engineers. In concert with this event, we asked some of the world's leading media authorities--Gates Foundation, Participant Media, MTV International, WITNESS, Search for Common Ground, and the African Media Initiative--if and how the media can accelerate social progress around the world.

Debate Media Partner: Forbes.com

 
 

Eyeballs and Impact: Are we measuring the right things if we care about social progress?

Daniel Green

Head of Strategic Partnerships, Communications, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

 
 
 

How Storytelling Can Effect Change

How Storytelling Can Effect Change

November 26, 2012

Article Highlights:

  • Non-governmental organizations, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofits should embrace storytelling to serve their missions.
  • It is important to include the audience in the broader notion of storytelling—what people do when they are inspired is important to track and report. As much as we like to create empathy, seeing others jump in and take action is what will drive greater involvement.
  • By making “telling” a key part of the “doing,” the public will be moved to understand, feel, and act.

Storytelling can play a significant role in accelerating social progress.

Our work at Participant Media demonstrates how storytelling can advance social action. Waiting for “Superman”, for example, dramatically brought the crises of our education system into the zeitgeist. The film impacted not only the people who saw it, but also those who saw the film’s wide media coverage, which included the cover of TIME, multiple Oprah shows, and a full week of NBC and MSNBC programming devoted to its “Education Nation” series.

Non-governmental organizations, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofits should embrace storytelling to serve their missions. Some organizations already do, but usually only for fundraising. They have yet to fully explore how gripping people in an engaging narrative can be a powerful way to effect change.

Even our lesser-known films are successful at impacting social change. Countdown To Zero helped advance the discussion around the New START treaty. This reduced the nuclear weapon stockpiles of Russia and the U.S. for the first time in 20 years.

The Cove was a small film that led to a very large community actively committed to preventing dolphin slaughter. Since the release of the film, a much larger number of activists, mainly non-Japanese, have visited Taiji to protest or film the dolphin hunts.

“Even our lesser-known films are successful at impacting social change. Countdown To Zero helped advance the discussion around the New START treaty. This reduced the nuclear weapon stockpiles of Russia and the U.S. for the first time in 20 years.”

We have also learned that the story doesn’t stop when the credits roll. Our objective is to get the audience fully involved with the issues by providing them with ways to connect and act.  Food, Inc., for example, continues to engage audiences long after its release in theaters and on DVD. This is because the community that has formed around the film—over 500,000 followers on Facebook—is actively engaged in food-related issues on a daily basis. Our research also shows that this audience wants to exchange information with its community. This kind of sharing is especially prevalent among active and engaged millennials, who find role models more compelling than spokespeople. They want to hear from people actually making the change, not from an intermediary describing it.

It is important to include the audience in the broader notion of storytelling—what people do when they are inspired is important to track and report. As much as we like to create empathy, seeing others jump in and take action is what will drive greater involvement.

This is what separates us from other entertainment companies. Media presents us with a choice, best illustrated by the following quote from Edward R. Murrow:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

Murrow’s admonition applies to all media. The challenge is to use media as an instrument to help solve our problems, not just as a distraction from the important issues we face. Could storytelling be the ultimate weapon in the battle against ignorance, intolerance and indifference? Murrow’s answer would be: “Our future will be what we make of it. It is our fate to choose.”

Nonprofits and social entrepreneurs are doing incredibly important work. But the impact of that work can be amplified by using it to inform and inspire others.

By making “telling” a key part of the “doing,” the public will be moved to understand, feel, and act.

 
 
 

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