Creating Technology for Social Change

My Failed Civic Media Project

The week of 11/28, we discussed Failed Civic Media projects with Benjamin Mako Hill. We discussed why some projects fail, what could have prevented them from failing, why some projects succeed, and what we can learn from both failure and success. At the time of this lecture I didn’t think I had participated in any civic media projects that had failed. Then I took a look back to the dreaded years: high school.

When I was in high school, I was very involved in student broadcast journalism. Our show, The Newsdesk, was broadcast on a channel maintained by the school board and local city government, TPS-14. I decided to pursue an individual project aside from anchoring and writing for The Newsdesk in my senior year of high school. I wanted to make a documentary. I think my documentary is a great example of a small-scale civic media project that failed, although at the time I had no idea what “civic media” was.

I chose an issue particularly salient in any high school, binge drinking. My high school had developed a pretty bad problem with alcohol in the schools and kids coming to athletic events intoxicated. This was something I was upset by and also wanted to understand the reasoning behind it.
I wanted to make students see the potential consequences; academic and health wise, of coming to school and athletic events drunk. I didn’t want to do this by being preachy. I interviewed students about their experiences with parties, parents providing alcohol, peer pressure, and why students chose to act as they did. My overall goal, besides raising awareness, was to create more rules at my school for the checking of water bottles (which were being used to conceal vodka and other hard liquor during the school day) and for breathalyzers at school dances and athletic games. This goal of policy change was the “civic” part of my documentary.

What was Good about the Project?

By the end of two months, I had completed a 15 minute long “documentary” with 8 student interviews. I was very proud of what I had accomplished. It had interesting information specific to my high school’s drinking culture. It discussed important health and safety tips, as well as causes for concern. It got the Parent Teacher Association and the SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) club talking about the next steps of action. And most importantly, administrators did toughen restrictions on water bottles in school, although this action may not have been a direct response to my film.

Why it Failed

I had never participated in anything remotely close to “activist journalism” before, so I went into this project with no idea of how to organize a documentary. I had video production skills, but didn’t understand the intricacies of making the right cuts, choosing the most interesting quotes, and making the order of a story flow that it has interest to the viewer.

I distributed it to the PTA, and it was viewed by the SADD club (which I was a member of) followed by a Q&A with me. Distribution to the PTA and SADD was probably my first mistake. This was like preaching to the choir. The parents and students involved in this club already cared about this issue, and didn’t need their minds changed about implementing safety policies. I should have distributed the documentary directly to the administration and other student activities like athletics teams and clubs so I could have gained broader viewership. Another reason it was not as successful as I had liked was because I did not know how to upload the film to YouTube. I wish I had known this at the time. I also thought it was going to be shown on TPS-14, but it was deemed to be “too controversial” by for broadcast on the channel because of the illegal activities discussed.

I also do not have the capabilities of distributing the film now, because the VHS tape got lost (major fail). So all may be lost, but I was able to learn a lot about myself and my school’s culture in the process. I was personally invested in the project, and by the end, it didn’t matter who had seen my project. I was happy that I had made something I cared about. I ended up writing my college admissions essays for the Common App about the positive and negative aspects of undertaking this project.

So, my documentary about binge drinking in Topeka, KS may not have been a large civic media project, and there were absolutely no consequences of failure, but I did learn from this experience. I’ve reflected on what needed to be improved technically and applied that to experiences since then at my current job (editing videos for Wellesley College) and for numerous internships in the TV industry.