Over the past several years, there has been growing attention focused on understanding and measuring the impact of social issue documentary films. This conversation has been driven by institutions in the U.S. and U.K., such The Fledgling Fund, BRITDOC Foundation, the Center for Media and Social Impact, ITVS, BAVC and the Harmony Institute. Dozens of reports and case studies have been published that assess the nature of the impact that feature-length documentaries can have on an issue, best practices for achieving impact, and tools for measuring it.

Since social documentarians and video4change practitioners often start with similar goals in mind (building social movements, reframing mainstream media narratives, changing policy), we wanted to examine some of these reports and start a conversation about how the different approaches to impact they outline could be applied in the context of video4change work, including participatory, short-form and citizen media initiatives. This is the first installment of an ongoing series we’re calling “Dimensions of Impact.”

The Fledgling Fund – “Assessing Creative Media’s Social Impact” (2009)

In this report the Fledgling Fund, a U.S.-based foundation that has been funding social justice documentary since 2005, makes the case that film can be “a catalyst to change minds, encourage viewers to alter entrenched behaviors, and start, inform or re-energize social movements.” They argue that instead of thinking about promoting and distributing their films, social issue filmmakers should be focused on outreach and community engagement. 

But what exactly does that mean? The report outlines a variety of tactics that can be used in film-driven outreach campaigns, including TV and print advertising, the use of digital and consumer-driven media, repurposing footage, social issue partnership development, celebrity involvement, facilitated discussions, an educational strategy, penetration into new venues, and clear calls to action. 

So in order for documentaries to have impact, filmmakers need to think about more than telling a good story and getting out in the world as widely as possible. The story is just the starting point for a longer process that involves setting clear goals, defining a plan and timeline, building partnerships and gathering resources.

Fledgling created a graphic representation of what they consider to be the “dimensions of impact,” which begins with a compelling story that ripples out through awareness and engagement to a stronger movement and social change.

How would this graphic look in the context of different video4change practices? What makes a story “compelling” and how can the process of telling a story on video become part of the impact that a project makes? Do video4change makers approach distribution, outreach and community engagement differently than traditional documentary filmmakers?

Fledgling suggests a range of measures specific to each dimension of impact. For instances, a compelling story is validated by acceptance to festivals, broadcast on television, awards and reviews. Awareness is measured by factors such as audience size and diversity. Engagement is reflected in viewers’ participation, whether through social networking sites, facilitated dialogues, Take Action campaigns or other forms. Evidence that a film is a creating a stronger movement is found in the number of organizations utilizing the film, collaboration between partner organizations, screenings with policy makers and mentions in policy discussions. Finally, social change – what Fledgling labels the “Ultimate Goal” of issue-driven documentary – can be measured by looking at factors like policy change, behavioral change and shifts in public dialogue.

While the first four dimensions seem relatively straightforward to measure, there are still huge challenges to making direct causal links between a single piece of media, like a documentary film, and outcomes like policy change or behavioral change. Causation is particularly hard to determine when many of the films featured as case studies were bolstered by well-funded outreach campaigns that included a variety of messaging and organizing strategies. And often these campaigns are connected to social movements that may have existed for years prior to the film’s release.

Ultimately though, the report makes the case that a documentary film can be effective centerpieces of broader campaigns, serving as a catalyst that “starts, informs or re-energizes social movements.” Can we apply this same dimensions and measures of impact to video4change work? How does the model change when we’re creating a collection of short-form advocacy videos, or incorporating a more participatory process of video making? 

If you have any thoughts or experiences relevant to these questions, please share them in the comments! In future posts, we’ll explore this field more and dive into some of the other media impact studies that have been published since Fledgling’s first report.