THE BLOG
09/29/2016 01:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How mass media can tap into human biology to advance the Sustainable Development Goals

2016-09-29-1475154625-2367437-_DSF3856.jpg
Discovery Learning Alliance/Patrick Toselli

Philo Farnsworth believed television would help bring about world peace. It hasn't quite worked out that way. Although he was one of the most important inventors of early television, he later bemoaned its content. But perhaps, like his "image dissector," Philo was onto something.

Recently, world leaders gathered in New York City for the 71st United Nations General Assembly. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - which lay out a path toward a more equitable and sustainable future - were at the top of the agenda.

What if we could harness the power of today's mass media - TV (on all types of screens), movies, radio, etc. - to advance the ambitious global agenda set forth in the SDGs?

Of the 1.9 billion young people in the world today, 1.7 billion of them live in the developing world. They are the future of business, art, medicine, science, and the planet we call home. And their thoughts, attitudes and actions are being shaped moment by moment by what they're watching on screens large and small. To Farnsworth's concern about content...what is being created and what is being consumed?

Media has the power to shape the conversations in our minds, our families, and our communities. To be clear, I'm not just talking about awareness-raising. That's important, but media can do more. Generally speaking, businesswomen in Tokyo know AIDS has devastated communities and stay-at-home dads in Chicago know clean water is an unmet need in much of the world. We can create and distribute media that can change the conversation, but also shift individual behavior and excite community action.

To be sure, this is already happening. There are exciting examples of media being used to make communities healthier, classrooms more dynamic and societies more just.

MTVShuga is a TV drama increasing responsible sexual behavior in several countries across Africa.

Satyamev Jayate is an Indian TV talk show that provides solutions to social issues like child sexual abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence.

Shamba Shape Up is a makeover-style reality show improving agricultural yields among small farmers in Kenya.

Two productions from Discovery Learning Alliance are making similar impacts:
Discovery + is a magazine-style talk show changing how girls, families and communities value girls' education in east and west Africa.

And this year, we made a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to write, produce, and distribute a scripted, feature film, The Lucky Specials, which will help audiences in southern Africa better understand and respond to tuberculosis, empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their health.

Why are these media initiatives and others proving effective? In part, it's because media taps into our biology. First, more than half of the brain is involved in vision; we remember better with visuals. Second, we're wired to retain more information when it connects to our emotions. It's no surprise then that humans have been sharing ideas through stories since we began to speak. We are born to share and absorb stories. It's literally in our DNA.

A few weeks ago at St. George's House at Windsor Castle, Discovery Learning Alliance gathered a small group of leaders who are using media for social impact. In the course of sharing ideas and learnings, several themes emerged to advance the effectiveness of social impact media:

1. Define the problem: This seems obvious, right? But too often, the solution precedes a deep understanding of the real problem. "We should produce a feature documentary about the plight of mountain gorillas so we can help save them." Great. But is a feature documentary and accompanying social media campaign going to save the species? Maybe, but formative research might reveal that the underlying problem could be habitat, law enforcement, poverty, demand for animal products, or all of the above. Media is more effective at creating impact when the root cause of a problem is clearly understood before solutions are developed.
2. Define the audience: This will quickly answer the paramount question: how do you reach that audience with that message? Maybe it's a feature doc for the festival circuit, or maybe it's a reality show for broadcast TV in Pakistan. It's also important to recognize that individuals do not exist in isolation - they are part of a broader system and community, and action must be motivated on a social as well as individual level.
3. Create an integrated approach: Integrate media and communications into the wider strategy. For example, Lapis Communications is doing this through the Roshan Afghan Premier League in Afghanistan, engaging the soccer league's audiences through broadcast, social, mobile and on-ground contact to address issues such as drugs, voting and education.
4. Evidence of impact abounds: Qualitative, quantitative, randomized control trials, focus groups from Johannesburg to Baltimore to Mumbai are showing the efficacy of behavior change communication, edu-tainment, and media for social impact.

There has never been a better time for media to change the world, particularly with the continued proliferation of smart phones and connectivity in the developing world and continued organic growth of free-to-air and pay-TV in emerging markets.

Governments, foundations, non-profits, and the private sector collectively can accomplish more in partnership through the power of visual storytelling to make the world a better place - from dramatic films to online reality shows. With more creative content, funding, shared investment, new business models, and a breaking down of geographic and sector barriers, we can advance the impact of these multi-platform approaches.

We may not realize Philo Farnsworth's full vision for television, but if we make the most of visual storytelling as a tool for development and social justice, we can take a giant leap toward meeting the SDGs.