In the second installment of our “Dimensions of Impact” series, we look at reports on the impact of social documentaries written by the Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) at American University. Founded by Patricia Aufderheide, the center describes itself as an “innovation lab and research hub” focused primarily on independent, documentary and public media. In addition to their reports on media impact, they’ve done some great work on the principles of Fair Use and the future of public media.

“Social Issue Documentary: The Evolution of Public Engagement” (2009)
Similar to the Fledgling Fund’s “Assessing Creative Media’s Social Impact,” this report looks at three case studies of strategic outreach campaigns centered on social issue documentary features. It also begins to define how digital technologies and a multiplatform media environment are making possible a new breed of public media that is accessible, participatory and inclusive – what CMSI calls “Public Media 2.0.” Author Barbara Abrash makes the case that documentary outreach campaigns create laboratories for the public media of the future by creating new tools and networks for civic engagement.

For each of the three case studies, the report lists the “circuits of circulation” through which the film (or the message of the film) traveled. These include traditional venues for social documentary, such as festival and community screenings, TV broadcasts, DVDs and educational distribution. But they also include a variety of non-traditional outlets like social media channels, maps and locative media, art exhibitions, professional conferences and policymaking venues. 

This expanded array of distribution channels are made possible by a “fragile but effective support network” that includes distributors, service organizations, festivals, broadcasters, funders and nonprofit organizations, all of which contribute to the “Public Media 2.0” ecosystem. Beyond its traditional of educating and informing the public, Public Media 2.0 aims to “enable publics to recognize and understand the problems they share, to know each other, and to act.” In other words, the “circuits of circulation” for documentary can also be circuits of social problem-solving and collective action. 

From the perspective of video4change practitioners, one of the most interesting case studies in the report focuses on the outreach campaign for State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism, a feature documentary by Pamela Yates about the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In addition to festival, broadcast and DVD distribution, the filmmakers brought a Quechua language version of the film to Andean communities that had suffered human rights abuses under former President Alberto Fujimori. They also built a Quechua-language website and equipped villages with Flip video cameras to record and upload their testimonies as the Fujimori trial began. This is an excellent example of how a feature documentary can embrace participatory approaches during distribution and give communities an effective tool for social action. 

This CMSI report and the Fledgling Fund’s “Assessing Creative Media’s Social Impact” both focus heavily on the importance of working with nonprofit and community partners to design and execute strategic outreach campaigns for documentary films. However, CMSI goes a step further by treating such campaigns as signals of a new form of public media in which feature documentaries are one form of social change media among many, and traditional channels of distribution like festivals and broadcasts are just a few of the possible “circuits of circulation” that a film can take. As the campaign for State of Fear demonstrates, these circuits can involve both “top down” distribution and “bottom up” approaches that can give audiences and underrepresented communities a voice in public debate. 

What kinds of “circuits of circulation” are currently available for video4change work? How do these differ from feature documentaries and how can we create new ones? Where does video4change work fit into the larger ecosystem of “Public Media 2.0,” particularly in countries that don’t have a tradition of public broadcasting? Most importantly, how can we isolate the impact of social change video (whether documentary film or video4change) within an increasingly complex media ecosystem?

In future posts, we’ll examine some more recent reports that begin to tackle these questions, by looking at the design of media and social issue campaigns, as well as new opportunities and technologies for impact measurement.