A Social Change Research and Strategy Field Trip to the True/False Film Festival: On Making Ripples in the Pond

by Michele Alexander

I typically consider myself pretty firm in my beliefs. But, capital punishment? Mark me as undecided. The death penalty was not an issue I gave much thought to and when I did, I was neither strictly for, nor against, it. That was until my role as one of the graduate fellows here at the AU School of Communication’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) brought me to Columbia, Missouri for the annual True/Life Film Festival and the premiere of the documentary, Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2.

Prof. Chattoo, Chandler, and I strike a pose in front of the True/False sign!

My AU School of Communication graduate school colleague and fellow researcher, Chandler Green describes the documentary’s “star” perfectly: Lindy is “not your typical anti-death penalty liberal. She’s a gun-toting, tell-it-like-it-is Mississippi grandma with undeniable charisma” – and a fantastic sense of humor. It was her role as a jurist on a death penalty trial more than 20 years ago that brought Chandler, our CMSI director, Caty Borum Chattoo, and I to Missouri. The UK- and NYC-based nonprofit BRITDOC wanted to find out if filmmaker Florent Vassault’s documentary about Lindy could change people’s hearts and minds about the death penalty, and we were there, on behalf of CMSI, to gather this profound research.

After Chandler was done teasing me about tornados (I am legitimately terrified of them and this was my one concern about going to Missouri), we found our fearless leaders from BRITDOC and geared up for a whirlwind three days of audience surveys, a local focus group, and lots of data analysis. Prior to our departure from D.C., we spent weeks gathering existing research and public opinion data – both at the national and state level – to help inform our approach. And, now we were ready for action. Once the surveys were in and the focus group notes were typed up, we were prepared to find out: What did people think of Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2? Could this film be used as a new communications and advocacy tool by anti-death penalty activists?

So, what did our research-in-the-field field trip teach us – and the community leaders with whom we were working? Here are my three key takeaways from our short time in Columbia:

  1. Lindy Lou Has a Fan Club! To me, the most exciting finding was that Chandler and I were not the only Lindy Lou fangirls at True/False. Regardless of their pro-, anti-, or undecided death penalty stances, audiences across the board liked Lindy. To be precise, more than eight out of ten viewers liked her. Each time Lindy came out for the post-screening Q&A session, she was greeted with standing ovations, cheers, and people waiting in line to meet her after the Q&A’s conclusion (one person even asked for her autograph!). This may seem trivial, but I assure you it is not. In social-impact storytelling, a likeable, credible character is critical for audience engagement; in fancy social-science language, it’s a key component of narrative persuasion – called involvement – and it plays an invaluable role. And better still, Lindy was not only liked by audiences, she was seen as credible, believable, and informative, further adding to her impact.
  1. Grey, Confusing, and Complex. The focus group and survey findings showed that Lindy’s story offers a new, previously untold perspective to the death penalty debate: The death penalty’s emotional toll on the jurors. But, our findings also showed that capital punishment is not a black-and-white, clear-cut issue for most people. It is complex and confusing. As such, this film may not necessarily inspire people to protest the use of the death penalty. However, it does spark new topics of discussions around the issue, which, in itself, can be the start to social change. For instance, did Lindy’s story challenge my view of the death penalty? According to our research, definitely. Like our respondents, I had never thought about its impact on jurors, and, both before and after my trip, the film sparked new discussions about the death penalty between me and my fiancé, my family, and my friends. Am I still undecided about the issue? Yes, and I likely always will be, but Lindy’s story will also always stay with me and help inform my opinion on the issue.
  1. Research into Action. 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.

Lindy’s biggest fans! From left to right: Prof. Chattoo, Chandler, Lindy, and me.

Overall, for me, being part of this experience further solidifies the role research plays in advocacy and social change efforts, at the grassroots level and beyond. At the end of the film, Lindy says, “If you throw a little pebble in a big pond, and the ripples from that pebble – it spreads…We’re the little pebbles. And we’re just putting information, and thoughts, and ideas, just a pebble at a time, but it’s going to ripple out.” Lindy’s views on the impact her anti-death penalty advocacy has mirror how I see the impact of research: Each time we gather data and share our findings on a new social change research topic, we’re creating new ripples in the advocacy space. And these ripples will spread and help facilitate change, whether it’s related to the death penalty or another social justice topic.


Research, Social Change, Storytelling and Lindy Lou: The Surprising Insights CMSI Learned in Mizzou