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April 11, 2011


California Newsreel has released the results from two pioneering studies of the media needs of social justice stakeholders. These assessments demonstrate an innovative, collaborative media design paradigm intended to make activist media more accountable to its potential users. In this user-centered production prototype, stakeholders are surveyed using both quantitative and qualitative measures prior to the production - or even conception - of the actual media content.

The two reports reveal trends in media use by social justice educators and activists which have significant implications for documentary format, style and subject matter. They make a compelling case for the development and implementation of methodologies which can align activist media production more closely with the needs of activists.   

1. An Accountable, Stakeholder- Based Media Design Model

Throughout its forty-three year history, California Newsreel has been frustrated that the films available for it to distribute often don’t correspond with the most urgent needs of its stakeholders. This problem has only been exacerbated as more and more documentaries aim for television, festival, home video and now web audiences.

Newsreel decided to ask the primary users of its films--educators and community activists--what content and form of media they needed and then advocate for its production. It applied a five-step “user-centered” design prototype where media stakeholders and media makers collaborate in the design, production and distribution of activist media.

Newsreel first conducted an environmental scan of the potential stakeholders in two of its current areas of interest: early childhood health and development and racial justice activity. This included a media resource inventory of existing media content and capacity in those two fields. It next circulated a media needs assessment to representatives of organizations identified through the scan, querying them about their constituencies, subject matter priorities and format preferences. These findings were then deepened by one-on-one interviews with key informants, web metric analysis, focus groups and/or follow-up surveys.  Newsreel also recruited from each scan a design collaborative or stakeholder working group to advise the project from scripting, through production to community engagement. Finally, outside evaluators will conduct a longitudinal study of the projects’ long-term attitudinal and behavioral outcomes.

2. Implementation: Early Childhood Development and Racial Justice Media Needs

From June, 2010 until March, 2011 Newsreel applied this trial ascertainment protocol to its early childhood health and development project, American Birthright, and its 100 title African American Perspectives collection. American Birthright, a multi-media initiative to help make a nurturing childhood ecology the birthright of every American child, scanned 229 early childhood stakeholder organizations, distributed 140 survey instruments and conducted 84 hour-long interviews. The diverse missions, settings and objectives within this vast field called for a modular approach, not just a tentpole documentary but also shorter multi-media content units which could be combined and customized by users for their specific audience and objective. 70% of the respondents designated “America’s Prosperity Starts with America’s Children” as the “most effective”  frame for the project’s different content modules.

The African American Perspectives assessment was sent to college and university faculty and student affairs staff, high school teachers, video librarians and community activists who were high volume users of media on African American life and history. 311 questionnaires were completed and those findings further refined and verified through a second survey. Four topics emerged as clear production priorities: The Criminalization of Black Youth (59%), The Myth of the Post-Racial Society (55%), African American Education Fifty Years After Brown (54%) and The Role of Structural Racism in Growing Income Inequality (48%).

3. Findings: Trends in Social Justice Media Use

In both studies, there was surprising consensus among these organizational media users regarding documentary form and format.  85% of the combined respondents to the surveys still used DVDs at least part of the time; in fact, only 12% of total reported content usage was digitally delivered. 76%, however, anticipated this ratio would shift “substantially” over the next five years.

74% reported using excerpts (of under 10 minutes) from longer films but a majority also screened long-form documentaries (50 minutes or longer) on occasion. Institutions lag consumers in migrating to a digital platform because of the value attached to face-to-face learning and organizing, as well as the impact of current budget exigencies on deploying digital infrastructure.

Interestingly, 78% of the combined samplings named issue-driven documentaries as “most effective” in their work as compared to story- or character-driven films. 85% ranked “conceptual clarity” and “relevant subject matter” as “key factors” in determining what media they used, compared to  13% listing “filmmaking values” or “dramatic appeal", the qualities most admired by broadcasters, festival programmers and critics.

This data suggests that activists and educators are already integrating text, moving image and interactive content, although not yet on a trans-media platform. Increasingly, they expect the flexibility to change the length, order and format of the media they employ. There is a clear demand for documentaries which directly address and scrutinize the core concepts and values framing public policy debate.

Newsreel intends to share these findings with the makers and funders of social justice documentaries so they may inform their future production decisions. In addition, it hopes these still rudimentary studies will stimulate similar efforts which will help establish a body of evidence-based best practices in accountable social justice media design and production.

The full, 102 page American Birthright report is available at: www.americanbirthrightmedia.org.
For additional information contact: Larry Daressa, lgd@newsreel.org

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