In the 20th century, television became America’s window to the world, shaping our beliefs and actions on voting, buying cereal, and picking up litter. It quickly became clear that the window must belong to more than a few commercial shot-callers—at least in a democracy. And so public broadcasting was born.
The public square has now swelled into a chaotic plaza—an extreme bazaar of entertainment, data, and conversation. Twitter hit half a billion tweets just the other day—in effect, half a billion windows. Yes, 10 companies own most of the Internet traffic. But unlike 20 years ago, when voices went unheard because of the prohibitive price of admission to the public square, voices today get lost because the price has plummeted to virtually nothing.
With (mostly) free access there has never been more connectivity, more mass collaboration, or more access and sharing of knowledge worldwide. Digital equals global. For enthusiasts, the Internet’s content and delivery devices represent the ultimate democratization of knowledge, even shared consciousness; for skeptics, they render us distracted, narcissistic addicts of the superfluous and celebrity.
Let’s face it, the media is a hall of mirrors for humanity. It can reflect some loathsome things about ourselves, but it can open, inspire, and connect us, too. So the question is this: If a lot of people talking doesn’t equate to hearing, much less digesting, the information we need to participate in the shared projects of solving our social problems, what then?
This is where public media steps in—as a gathering of citizens who focus on igniting civic discourse and independent thinking outside of the win-loss columns of commercial media and politics. Independent citizen filmmakers in particular find the in-depth, diverse, and nuanced stories that enrich people’s understanding of one another, and inspire insights and even epiphanies on what it means to be human and connected. Our job is to find those missing stories and to stoke consequential conversations about them through global outreach campaigns such as Why Poverty? and Women and Girls Lead.
We know that from TV to Twitter, radio to SMS text, media shape knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. A diverse body of research has shown how soap operas reduced birth rates in rural Brazil; how character-driven films reshaped stereotypes in cognitive studies; and how radio, participatory media, and PSAs have advanced family planning and other health behavior across Africa. Research from USC-Annenberg and elsewhere has shown how films with positive images of women and girls can promote changes in attitudes and behavior.
Media institutions such as American University’s Center for Social Media and the Fledgling Fund have documented an effective theory of social change model using documentary film and public engagement campaigns. The five-step model hinges on a strong character-driven film as the driver. This is critical: Neuroscience confirms that people remember facts and details when presented in stories, and a well-told story leads its audience on a journey from head to heart, fostering what psychologists’ term “narrative transport.” The next steps in the model raise understanding of social issues and create dialogue and partnerships with social movement actors (such as NGOS, community-based organizations, and public agencies) to move audiences from passive to active and to shift action from individual to collective, thus strengthening a social movement.
Public media partners in 70 countries came together last month to simulcast Why Poverty? programming to some 500 million viewers. (Millions more will stream all or part of the series for years to come via the Why Poverty? website) The collection of short- and long-form documentaries by award-winning filmmakers such as Alex Gibney and Jehane Noujaim dissect the problem through a series of secondary questions: How much inequality is too much? Are women better at getting out of poverty than men? Organizations like mine, Independent Television Service, will work with our partners to ensure their powerful storytelling lodges in hearts and minds from Cleveland to Cairo. We recently presented a Why Poverty? online film symposium on gender and poverty, focusing on the role women play in the economic vitality of their families, communities, and countries.
In the 21st century, this is the public square.