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Students Research Documentary’s Potential for Activism

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Truth/False documentary film festival sign with large T and F
(L-to-R) CMSI director, Caty Borum Chattoo, with CMSI graduate fellows Michele Alexander and Chandler Green

American University Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) graduate fellows Chandler Green and Michele Alexander traveled to Columbia, Missouri with CMSI director Caty Borum Chattoo to attend the True/False Film Festival to watch the premiere of "Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2" and help answer the question: Can a film turn an audience into activists?  

The film documents Lindy Lou’s journey to face the emotional toll she and her fellow jurors bear after imposing the death penalty in a case 20 years earlier. Through extensive analysis of existing research, and conducting focus groups and surveys of audiences on site at True/False, CMSI, in collaboration with BRITDOC, a powerhouse UK- and NY-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting social issue documentaries, uncovered valuable insights about how Lindy Lou’s story could affect people’s perceptions of the death penalty and to help develop a social-impact strategy. 

Green and Alexander, both graduate strategic communication students in AU School of Communication, shared their experiences with CMSI Media that Matters Blog; excerpts below. 

Green says: 

“In the focus group, all respondents seemed to agree that while the film brought new perspective to the death penalty, this added layer of complexity did not change their opinion on capital punishment per se. This matches the general complexity of the issue, as we learned from existing public opinion data. In the surveys that viewers took before and after screenings, we saw similar trends. Of the responses we collected by Saturday, most did not appear to emerge as anti-death penalty advocates ready to take action; however, they did indicate that they now recognized the emotional toll it takes on jurors.”

“The biggest takeaway from my True/False research experience is acknowledging the power of a compelling character’s authentic story. Engaging audiences with a complex and nuanced subject like the death penalty is no easy task; and I don’t think anyone thought a sassy Southern grandma could accomplish such a feat. However, Lindy’s charm is indeed the pebble. She demonstrates how a single, unexpected story may cause the first ripples toward a new tide of social change.” Full post

Alexander reflects:

“After any type of advocacy or awareness event, there is always the question of “What’s next – how do we continue our efforts?” This question led to what became the highlight of my trip (in addition, of course, to Chandler persuading me to eat Zaxby’s). After three days of data collection, we joined an advocacy strategy session led by anti-death penalty grassroots activists from across Missouri. This group – which included faith leaders, Democrats, Republicans, lawyers, storytellers, professors, and more – wanted to hear our findings and use them to inform their advocacy strategy for the film. As researchers, it is rare that we get to step outside of the classroom and see our research get put into action. Thanks to Lindy Lou, I had the unique opportunity to see research I helped collect and analyze inform grassroots, anti-death penalty advocacy efforts that will be used throughout Missouri.” Full post