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The Unlikely Combination of Comedy and Civics

by Caty Borum Chattoo
November 14, 2018

This interview with Caty Borum Chattoo, the Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) and Executive in Residence at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., was conducted and condensed by frank news.

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I've worked professionally for a number of years to engage people in serious social issues that matter. Over the years, that work has ranged from a research-based strategic communication approach to efforts focused on narrative and creativity, particularly documentary storytelling and comedy. At this point in my career, my work is deeply focused on understanding the role of creativity and culture in social change – in public engagement and civic practice. Over the years, I’ve worked on topics including environmental justice, H.I.V., reproductive health, global poverty, global development, maternal health, and others.

What I started to notice over the years of doing this work is that, while of course these serious issues require a serious approach, we also need to embrace entertaining and emotional routes to encouraging people to engage with tough topics.

Sometimes I think we risk only talking to ourselves when we believe that things like fact sheets and policy briefs are the only ways that culture progresses to become a more equitable and just place.

With this in mind, my efforts most recently have focused explicitly on the role of creativity, mediated storytelling, documentary storytelling, and comedy. I'll talk about both of those separately. I place creativity and story and culture at the center of efforts for social change because I believe so strongly that if we don't let some light and optimism and entertainment and fun into these issues, we're just going to continue to only talk to people who are already believers, people who already care, people who are already doing things.

We're just not going to move forward if we don't find other ways to communicate about serious social challenges.

Do you think one can avoid screaming into the echo chamber? We are so in control of what we see it's inherently isolating. I do the scroll and see celebrities posting about civic engagement and I always pause and wonder who they're talking to.

I deeply appreciate that question. Part of my own journey about that question began when I looked at my own work. I was doing serious documentary work about some issues and serious strategic communication campaigns to get people to engage in issues like reproductive health and drug use. I sat back and said, "I am really worried that I am now only talking to people like myself," and “like myself” can mean a lot of different things about our own echo chambers. I could say similar educational background, similar perspective within a coastal city, similar socio-economic class, similar race, gender, age.

So, maybe I'm just talking to people who already agree with me. I wanted to dig much deeper. With that guiding question, I am interested in understanding more about how can we engage people who are not already thinking about these issues that matter or perhaps are thinking about these issues in ways that are damaging or harmful. How can we engage people differently?

When we look at documentaries about social issues, they are deep. This are not explanatory talking head documentaries, not true crime documentaries, but documentaries that deeply look at social issues. Generally speaking, those are character-driven narratives, which means they're really telling a human story about one person or several people as a way to illustrate how they're living their lives dealing with x-issue. So x-issue an environmental justice issue or racism or some other form of discrimination.

What we know about storytelling from a research perspective is that when we experience stories, we can be transported into them. We have an emotional experience with those stories, we identify and connect with characters. When we're deeply experiencing a human narrative that's told beautifully, and artfully, and creatively with music and editing and pacing, we have an opportunity to reach people in their emotional selves, which is incredibly important for persuasion and adoption of ideas.

Over the last decade and a half or so, there's been a big movement and an entire professional ecology that's built up around the idea of groups that drive civic practice and community engagement using documentary at the forefront of that work. My forthcoming documentary book is focused on this work and its influence. My book is telling the stories of the movies and the civic engagement groups that work with documentaries at the heart of them. For example, these groups and filmmakers seek out NGOs and organizations and community groups and business groups and leaders who are already thinking about or dealing with an issue in a way from all different vantage points, and this fabric strengthens their movement-building, if you will, with the use of storytelling.

Number two, the preaching beyond the choir question. Many times you reach people differently with this kind of storytelling. We can bypass some of these divides that we have. That's one thing. Storytelling lives as a really particular way that can help us transcend some of what we think of as tribal differences.

Comedy is this unique cultural place where we can meet and find laughter and commonality. There's so much research about comedy that shows what happens when we experience characters that aren't like us. For example, there is research that talks about gay and lesbian characters on television and people who have the least interaction with gay and lesbian characters in real life are the most moved by comedy portrayals that portray them as human.

Comedy is important for social justice engagement as well because when comedians talk about social issues in their work, through sketch, or scripted work, or through satire, or through standup, they invite us in to have a moment of lightness and optimism. There are so many social justice topics where we've communicated almost exclusively based on what I call dire, hopeless, impossible odds for success

When we do that repetitively, we definitely raise the alarm. We raise awareness with the public. But we might be encouraging public disengagement. We might be encouraging people to not be involved in civic practice because it seems so impossible to deal with these issues at all.

For this book I'm writing with my co-author, Lauren Feldman, we focus on comedy and social justice. A lot of what we're writing and thinking about is what happens when social justice groups, civic engagement groups, choose to work with comedy and why did they choose to do it. They do it to open up conversations to topics, to find areas of commonality, and to find areas for hope and optimism and a different kind of emotional response to issues. Comedy is a great cultural unifier and allows us to communicate about social issues that are pretty serious in a different way. But of course, comedy isn't for everything.

What do you view as the baseline responsibilities of the public?

In a really broad sense, the idea is of the public sphere is an underpinning to how democracy functions ideally. The idea is that we have these institutions of power and generally speaking, the most potent institutions of power are state power, or the government, and economic power, or the corporate/business sector. In the midst of that is the role of the people. The role of the people and the role of public discourse, our access to information, our ability to talk with one another, our ability in a public space to talk and deliberate and negotiate social challenges as both an activity we do with one another as citizens, and as people who are practicing civics. That's important. And the voices of the people in that regard are also a check on those very potent forms of institutional power.

If we understand that, then we think of ourselves as publics, not just consumers. We're not just people that are buying things. We're not just people that are passive recipients of information.

We're people as publics – we can be engaged in working with one another for the public good. For common good: getting a stop sign on your street for example. It’s one of the classic examples of this idea, but of course it becomes much more nuanced when we consider more complex social challenges.

So, I would say at a really, really basic level of civic understanding is truly the idea that we are publics with some real power to make collective change.

Our ability to have civil discourse with one another is really important. I would say that is a very basic minimum.

It sounds so obvious, but we're in a moment where we're not even doing that very well. We're not even communicating with one another about our shared values. I think that's incredibly important as a certain basic minimum is just simply the reminder that we're not passive, we're not helpless, but that we must communicate with one another in order to solve our common challenges.

What role does education have in explaining civics and civic responsibility?

I love that question. At the risk of sounding like a real old-school person here, I think it's key. I think it is absolutely fundamental. We must, must, have strong civic practice and civic rights being taught in school.

Even this idea of the public sphere, the role of publics, all of that is actually really meaningful. The digital media age is deeply controlled advertising and brands and we could travel down this slippery slope to imagine that we are simply consumers – that we're just here to buy things and to accept information from brands.

I think civic education has to be taught in schools in a really strong way. The importance and the history of voting and frankly the importance and history of protest. Our country was created from protest. I think that kind of pride and responsibility, communal responsibility in civic practice is needed. But also, the tactical details of how to engage in behaviors like voting also needs to be taught. Let me give you an example.

In 2004, I was working for the TV producer and philanthropist Norman Lear. Norman Lear is also known as the guy who founded People For the American Way and has been a great and vocal supporter of civil engagement, particularly civic engagement for young people, for years.

I was working for Norman at the time as part of a youth civic engagement organization that he founded in 2002 called Declare Yourself. As a backdrop, young people as a cohort are historically are the least likely to register and least likely to vote. Rather than assume that young people were not voting or were going to vote if they cared enough about the issue, we facilitated research that revealed we the most important reason they were not voting, at that time, was because they did not know how to actually register in the first place. In a well-meaning social change effort, if we had created a whole campaign that was focused on motivating young people about issues along, we would have failed. The objective was to register young people to vote.

What we learned, back to your question, was that they actually didn't understand the mechanics of voter registration. By the way, voter registration. Super complicated. Because it differs state by state, as you know. The deadlines differ, whether you can do paper or online differs. If you can do it at the DMV or some other place differs by state. They're turning 18 when they finish high school. They need to learn this in school when they're 16.

That's profoundly important and goes back to the role of education that needs to be involved... education that needs to help young people learn about the institutions of democracy and civic practice. They need to learn about the philosophy of why it matters and how democracy works. They need to learn the tactical realities of how to actually do these things: how to vote, how to be involved in public comment periods, and regulatory actions and so on.

Yes, I think education is incredibly important. I don't think it just starts in middle school and high school, I think we need to do it in college which many of us do.

Research also shows that when young people vote for the first time at 18, they're much more likely to be lifelong voters. Getting them early is really important.

I work with young people, and I love young people. I teach college students and graduate students, and I hear their perspectives all the time. They know so much more about so many things than we Gen-Xers did at their age. But we are not absolved of our responsibility as their educators. We still have to teach how civic practice works and how to do it.