Thanks to the rise of social media (and the woes of mainstream media), the world is talking as never before. But more than ever, the world is getting its news from increasingly partisan sources.
Inevitably, the hot trend in “new philanthropy” is for nonprofit advocacy groups to try to break news—specifically, through the production of short, nonfiction documentaries and online video clips paid for by wealthy donors with an axe to grind, organized by PR-hungry nonprofit advocacy groups and produced by documentary filmmakers competing as never before simply to get funded.
Case in point: The Humane Society of the United States (http://www.hsus.org/), an animal rights nonprofit, famously drummed up more than one million hits to its otherwise sleepy Web site earlier this year after circulating video clips (http://hubpages.com/hub/USDA-Beef-Recall-Hallmark-Westland-Meat-Packing-beef-recalled) of its investigation into cattle abuse. The film, funded by the society’s marketing budget, showed slaughterhouse workers abusing sick cattle. The abused and ill animals were later produced, nonetheless, into food that ended up in school lunchrooms across the country—an action that filmmakers said endangered food safety. According to Michael Markarian, executive vice president of external affairs for the nonprofit, the film’s allegations were picked up by Reuters and CNN and eventually, the story led to the recall of 145 million pounds of ground beef, the removal of beef from school lunch menus, and eight congressional hearings on the issue of animal safety’s relationship to healthy food. Cruelty charges were also filed against meatworkers found abusing animals at the Hallmark/Westland Meatpacking Company in California. (http://www.westlandmeat.com/)
Markarian says the nonprofit plans to stage many more such investigations. “Big cuts in news journalism staff, in funding for investigative journalism and the rapid decline of newspapers is affecting advocacy and is having an impact on documentary filmmakers, as well,” he told a panel last month at the 2008 SILVERrDOCS international documentary film festival in suburban Washington, D.C. (http://silverdocs.com/)
“Obviously, the media is changing but the issues remain, so it’s falling more and more to advocacy groups to investigate and uncover what’s happening and play the role of the watchdog in society—which the media is playing less and less.”
To be sure, the “cause doc” trend is just getting started, and some nonprofit groups and philanthropists are joining forces to get such films funded and distributed as widely as possible. “A Powerful Noise” (http://www.apowerfulnoise.org/), a film that debuted last month about three activist women in three countries, is being co-sponsored by CARE (http://www.care.org) and Bono’s One Campaign—and also funded by feminist philanthropist Sheila C. Johnson. The film, created by filmmaker and ex-cable network executive Tom Cappello, was one of the dozens of cause docs screened at the recent Tribeca Film Festival and SilverDOCs. “I turned to film because after years of doing advocacy work and testifying before countless congressional committees, there’s no substitute for getting quick action than showing a film” Johnson told the social media blog, Cause Global (http://www.causeglobal.blogspot.com). Cappello, the filmmaker, adds: “We had the footage and heard that Sheila was looking to make a film about women activists around the world so CARE helped to bring us together and this was the result.”
Look out for much more cause doc advocacy to come, as nonprofit groups set up new arms to train fellow advocates to join them. This summer, the nonprofit, Witness, (http://www.witness.org), founded by rock musician Peter Gabriel, expands its new documentary film training site, called The HUB (http://hub.witness.org), and starts offering advocacy groups new ways to have greater impact and visibility in the world at large. “Ideally, this will be a platform eventually for filmmakers and news organizations to pull together,” says Sameer Padania, who has run The HUB since its debut last December. He says the purpose of the site is to “give people here and in the developing world a way to share and show the world things that haven’t been seen.” And last but not least? IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com) is another new Web site to encourage independent cause docs to be made. This site bills itself as a “social marketplace where filmmakers and fans connect to make independent film.”
Is this burst of citizen-produced video news a good thing? To be sure, information is power and the cause doc movement is putting Big Media back on its toes: In July, AOL/Time Warner is kicking off SNAG films (www.SnagFilms.com), a 2.0 version of AOL’s True Stories Web site (http://movies.aol.com/truestories) that AOL site executive Stephanie Sharis says will offer more than 200 feature-length documentaries, available free to users.
And that’s not all. msnbc.com just announced it would be creating MSNBC Films, which will finance feature-length documentaries in an effort to turn the cable news channel into more of a player in the feature world. Not to be outdone, CBS recently created a film unit that will deliver about 4-6 theatrical features a year, each budgeted at under $50 million—at least half of them to be documentary film about social issues.
But even the new citizen journalists are starting to ask the question: Is partisan media an entirely good thing? On his blog (http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog), Ethan Zuckerman, the cofounder of GlobalVoices.org, asks: “Should we expect that readers are aware that media has changed and that we should expect every voice to have strong, visible bias? Or does this point to a need to re-learn how to read both online and offline media to understand that we’ve got far more activist media and far less neutrality?”
It’s a good question, and so is another asked on the film festival circuit this summer: When does advocacy turn into propaganda? For his part, the Humane Society’s Markarian told a SilverDOCS forum on the subject that he wasn’t worried about it because “viewers know propaganda when they see it.”
But do they? If propaganda is really good, it feels like fact. Let’s just hope that traditional journalists, as well as the new citizen activists, keep asking the question.
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.