Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Some Stories Matter More Than Others...

Citizen Four is certainly one of those stories.  

The Guardian's interview with Laura Poitras following the film's BAFTA win this week is well-worth reading.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Heading to Sundance Jan 22-31, 2015

Getting ready for the annual excursion to Park City.  Excited to see great new films, meet Sundance Doc Film Program grantees, and connect with friends old and new.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What is in a number? Thinking about the Participant Index and the recent New York Times article announcing its launch

The New York Times published an article announcing the Participant Index, framing it as a way to determine ‘"Why One Film Inspires Activism and Others Falter"
The Index should be great news for those concerned with, and working in, social impact media. We need tools and measurements to help shape our work, and to report back to funders and supporters. 
But, the idea that a film that scores high or low on the Participant Index (which has clearly been well-researched and carefully constructed) seems to presume that the impact of a film can be measured via one small group of internet-savvy Americans within a relatively short-time frame.  If so, then it risks failing to capture the beautiful complexity of storytelling and social change.  
Yes, there is a utility to mapping the pattern of human response to different types of media, such an index is a welcome addition to the field of media impact assessment.  We need easy to use and affordable ways to capture audience response across multiple platforms and levels of engagement. If the Participant Index provides a shared framework so that lots of folks can reference the same set of numbers, then it is truly a service to the entire field of media makers, social justice organizations and funders working together to advance positive social change. A kind of Nielsen rating for social change media is awfully appealing, it reflects a valid desire for simple, easy to share and understand assessment tools.
But let's not confuse media impact in the form of audience response––especially the highly measurable clicks, shares, likes and even donations–– with long-term impact and real social change.   Measuring the impact of social change media requires multiple tools, often customized to the issue, the type of change that is sought, and the intended audience of change-makers (which may not be the general film-going public.)    
What is lost when the both storytellers and the social sector start working towards quarterly results reporting, echoing mega-corporations earnings reports?  Will outcome measurement trump nuanced understanding of the human experience?  Facing the reality that social change is often excruciatingly slow, will media impact funders focus resources where we they can most easily score high, and achieve a big short-term impact?
For example, Jehane Nouajaim’s The Square captures a specific set of people at a moment in time akin to our own 4th of July.  The long-term impact of the Arab spring is impossible to know, and the white men that signed the Declaration of Independence could not have foreseen the diverse and enduring American democracy of today. More pointedly the film resists judgment tied to social action here in the US: there are few obvious social actions to take in support of democracy and human rights in Egypt.  The majority of Americans don't know Mubarek from Morsi, so simply seeing the film has a value in terms of raising global awareness.  If those viewers were to share their interest via social media, all the better.  But the most important audience for the film is on the streets of Egypt, are they included in the survey? 
Comparing a film about food, about which the vast majority of Americans make daily choices, with The Square, seems a precarious framework. Obviously film subjects that affect us personally are more likely to elicit a response. We know intuitively that stories that affect us emotionally are more likely to generate an action.
To add to the complexity, consider that media both reflects and affects social change.  Consider the following scenario: a wrongly convicted man avoids the death penalty and is set free. That's a victory for human rights.  The action reflects years of work on the part organizations such as the Innocence Project that advocated for change.  That organization and its allies have contributed to social change.   If the story goes unreported, it still happened.   When a film such as Deadline (Chevigny and Johnson, 2004) is shown on national television and raises awareness about shortcomings in our judicial system and the reality of capital punishment, that's media impact.  The film may have empowered activists and advocates that lead to improvements in the justice system, that would be be major media impact and social change. 
In looking at media impact and social impact, we must acknowledge that stories which elicit an audience response in the short term are not necessarily those that will lead to the most significant impact.  Let’s be careful not to focus resources on short-term gains in lieu of long-term tough challenges. 
If indeed the Participant Index accurately reflect audience response to audiovisual media, and it is widely available, it will prove a valuable tool. 
But in the end, we need to recognize that the impact of films such asThe Square may not be felt for decades.  A single numerical figure does not reflect the value of a cultural artifact that may inspire others who dream of democracy, and one that will help ensure that history is not forgotten.

Patricia Finneran
9 July 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Digital Data Dings vs. Engaging in Stories

Pondering Dopamine vs. Oxytocin
The New York Times recently reported on the effects of constant interaction with computers and digital media that it may be affecting our ability to focus.  “The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored” www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html?pagewanted=all&
On the other side we have Oxytocin, which some scientists, notably neuroscientist and economist Dr. Paul Zak,  have linked to love and a feeling of empathy.  His studies show that a compelling story leads to a the release of Oxytocin, and when we feel something and are more likely to care about and remember it.  His March 2014 presentation at SXSW with ad agency exec from Innocean looked at how individuals responded to brands vs. people and why they sometimes seem to display more love for brands than people.   The research goes back to story -- when the brand was embedded into a story, the subjects connected with the brand.  
Taking these two disparate and popular neuroscience claims we can hypothesize that  as individuals in modern society, we are exposed to ever-more digital stimuli in the form of ‘media’ and in dire need of good stories.
In order to feel truly connected to the world, we need stories that generate empathy for individuals beyond our immediate circle. But how often do we stop our twitter feed and email pings long enough to actually read, watch or listen to a long-form story?
In the absence of dopamine people report feeling bored: without digital media stimulation input they don’t know what to do with themselves.   As children, if my sister and I ever said ‘I’m bored,” my Dad would respond: “You can not be bored.  You are young.  Go do something.”  And, he meant it.  We went out and played, we built tree houses and invented inhabitants, made stuff up.   If a person is free to take action and is bored, there is something wrong. Maybe they’ve lost connection to their own inner life, forgotten how to stop and process information, make sense of it or more pointedly, question it.  They have temporarily (one hopes) lost the ability to be creative with their time.
Children are naturally, spectacularly creative, and they are notoriously easily bored when they are stuck in the backseat on long car rides, stuck in shopping malls on sunny days, or restaurants on a Saturday evening.   Children in the developed world quickly get bored when denied digital media stimulation.  So parents give them the iPad, and they play with it.  But games are about response, not invention.   They do not for the most part allow for full-scale creativity -- the kind of stuff we did like building a tree house inhabited by characters played by us but with different names and personalities.   The kind of play that involves mind and body and make-believe.
Will children brought up on iPads and consistent digital stimuli find themselves unable to connect with their own inner lives, addicted to stimulation?  As video games replace story, what happens to empathy?
Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together explores the effects of media technology on individuals and communities.  Her chapter ‘Don’t Call” explains that  contemporary adolescents are averse to talking on the phone, essentially it is too engaging and risky compared to the texting, instant message and Facebook (email does not really fall into the equation.)  
I came of age before the world wide web, it evolved as I entered the workplace.   For anyone over 40, computers were work first, social second.  For children today, I wonder how are they going to separate work from play, business from pleasure when it all comes at them in screens of varying sizes?   
My work involves creating impact––a.k.a. social change––with media.  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to engage audiences in stories that matter.  Social media connections and click-thrus are a large part of how we measure engagement.  The question for storytellers and journalists whose work is essential element to an open society, as well as folks like me charged with connecting content to communities, is how to balance stimulus and involvement?  The old challenge was simple yet challenging, how to create a compelling headline that would warrant reading the story.
Now, neuroscience points to a dynamic between the dopamine inducing digital dings and the ability of a good story to trigger release of Oxytocin.   The dopamine rush may be addictive and the Oxytocin requires time, attention and real engagement, the most precious of human resources.
Patricia Finneran
March 17, 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Story Matters - an introduction

January 2014

Dear Friends,

Happy 2014!  This is my first(!) blog post under my new STORY MATTERS banner, which works at the intersection of documentary storytelling and social change.  From my office in New York––or wherever I happen to be––I develop strategy, raising funds, create programs and curate partnerships that maximize the efficacy of film as a tool to advance positive social change.   

Since I officially departed Sundance in late 2012, I have stayed closely involved with Sundance via its partnership with BRITDOC Foundation on The Good Pitch which expanded from London and New York to Chicago, Buenos Aires and Taipei, and next month Mumbai.   

Following the successful US launch and tour of   The Revolutionary Optimists by Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen, we are set to launch MAP YOUR WORLD  Map Your World.  This transmedia platform for youth to track, map and create change in their communities that was inspired by and co-developed with the film's subjects.  We're working with the Global Peace Film Festival  to roll it out in 2014.  (Nicole and I, along with creative strategist Wendy Levy will be at Sundance in various capacities.)

 It has become clear that an increased focus on the power of story to advance social change means we need better tools to evaluate the impact of our work. I've been consulting with the Harmony Institute on Impact Space - a terrific new platform that provides data visualization of media impact. 

Early in 2013, I was privileged to work on the outreach campaign for How To Survive A Plague , which is now being distributed free to hundreds of NGO's and schools, along with Viewers Guide exploring the power of creative activism which I co-edited. 

And finally, a shout out to the Impact Producers Group,   especially Jennifer MacArthur and Brenda Coughlin for organizing this passionate group of storytellers and change-makers on the vanguard of making the media that matters make an impact that matters.

Warm regards,


Patricia Finneran