How can media help spur social action?

Consuming news is often a passive experience; we read or hear stories and then go about our day without taking any action. There’s a growing number of professionals who want to change that. The University of Florida is leading this charge with its work in “public interest communications” — media that acts as a force for good in society.

Last week, the University of Florida held its second “frank” conference, named after the late Frank Karel, a pioneer in public interest communications. ivoh had a chance to attend the event and hear from speakers such as filmmaker Whitney Dow, Storyful founder Mark Little, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn, and blogger/author Jenny Lawson.

We were especially drawn to a talk by Chad Boettcher (pictured above), who is executive vice president of social action and advocacy at Participant Media. During his talk, he said there are three key components of media that drives social action: change, proximity, and empathy…


Boettcher highlighted Participant Media’s “Ivory Tower” documentary about the rising cost of college tuition. In its research, Participant Media found that more than half of viewers said the film “changed their life.” Media that changes people in one way or another typically compels them to take action.


Boettcher played a clip from Participant Media’s “Contagion” movie, which is about a deadly virus that takes over society. Though fictional, the movie shows just how quickly one’s day-to-day life could be damaged. Participant Media’s research suggests that media that reveals how an issue could affect people’s day-to-day lives often motivates them to take action, Boettcher said.


“When you put the viewer in the shoes of someone else, they act,” Boettcher said. He pointed to Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign as an example of media that generates empathy. Stats on the impact of “Like a Girl’” show that people who watched the ad shared it with others and also tried to change other people’s mind on the issues at play, Boettcher said.

Empathy has become a bigger focus in media lately. Here are some related stories that recently caught our attention:


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