News channels are bringing us bleak stories. From terrorism to train derailments, from earthquakes to economic downturns, we have come to associate television, radio, print and social media with messengers of bad news. Moreover, movies, TV series, virtual games and social media are too often assaulting us with violence or numbing us with platitudes. But much as it is tempting to blame the media for a messy and careless world, if we use it creatively and constructively, we can bring about meaningful change.
Indeed, the media are not intrinsically “bad.” Technology is value-agnostic. The values come from those using the media, creating and curating content, and distributing it. When used with positive, intelligent intentions, media can deliver real benefits and even fundamental social change.
Take the issue of women’s empowerment—a noble cause. All around the world women and girls are struggling to find their voices, achieve parity, break through social barriers, and overcome isolation, violence, lack of education, and poverty. Media can create the platforms to put those issues on the table—to stimulate debate, create connections, and advance change. Rather than depicting women as helpless victims, we need to be creative about revealing their agency and letting them tell their own stories.
Fictional media stories present one way to confront taboos and open new perspectives on ingrained convictions. Dramatic productions that mimic life but don’t chronicle it allow us to raise tough issues like violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights, and other challenges to women’s rights and gender-equality, and to encourage attitudinal shifts if not outright behavioral changes. We have seen the effectiveness of dramatic plays that reflect racism or violence, movies that address religious conflicts, and radio programs where women are the protagonists in the stories of their lives and that of their communities.
Edutainment enacts stories that closely relate to real life, where fictional characters experience the same worries and joys, concerns and excitement, pressures and encouragements as the listeners; thus, actors can lead the captive audience through a learning process towards positive outcomes by resorting to constructive reasoning and action.
In the Arab world, one of the hottest propositions is a radio fiction series with the title “Worth 100 Men” (“Be 100 Ragl” in Arabic) on the role of women in society, which was broadcast on 10 different radio stations in 9 countries across the Middle East and North Africa in 2014. Produced by an Egyptian media company, it used an enticing female fictional hero played by a well-known actress—top level casting and music—to drive home the message that women matter for society’s progress and prosperity, and must be respected as equals. Audiences engaged actively with it and it created open spaces and dialogue, on mainstream and social media, and in real-live settings, such as cultural centers. A second season, which will use animation and audio-visual distribution channels in presently under preparation.
Taking a step back from the perplexing hard news and from –often sterile– thematic debates and, instead, initiating a non-confrontational dialogue about women’s rights and their role in society through a media tale that reaches millions is showing to be a constructive way to move in a positive direction. This experience – and other similar ones – have demonstrated that the connecting power of media, their entertaining enticement coupled with their capacity to inform and educate can be leveraged to promote social advancements.
Borgstedt is founder and chairman of the Womanity Foundation and Vischer is executive director of the Womanity Foundation, which works to accelerate progress for women and their communities. www.womanity.org