CMSI 2019 Year in Review


2019 was a very, very busy and exciting year for us at the Center for Media & Social Impact! 

We created new partnerships with Comedy Central, Hip Hop Caucus, Color of Change and IllumiNative for our comedy and social justice work; gratefully received new grants from Pop Culture Collaborative, McNulty Foundation, Funders for Housing and Opportunity, Open Society Foundations, and more; continued our civic storytelling research and convening work supported by the MacArthur Foundation; published research about the influence and portrayal of social issues in news and entertainment; hosted an incredible line-up of speakers and participants at our sold-out national Story Movements conference; and we launched, with our partner Moore + Associates, the Yes, And Laughter Lab, a first-of-its-kind creative incubator for comedy that hilariously interrogates social justice topics. We published in peer-reviewed journals and provided public-facing research, published books and gave talks around the world.

So many of you were involved as collaborators, supporters, friends, and thought-partners, and we thank you for the meaning you bring to our work. 

Here’s our quick CMSI Year in Review and links to the work of our team and faculty fellows. In 2020, look out for information on new grants, new research, new events and collaborations and lots more on comedy and social justice and civic storytelling for social justice. Happy New Year — and New Decade — to you all!


CMSI was proud, along with 20 other leaders in the documentary field, to endorse the Crediting Guidelines issued by the Documentary Producers Alliance. 

Faculty Fellow Aram Sinnreich published an article on Music, Copyright, and Technology: A Dialectic in Five Moments in the International Journal of Communication.

Executive Director Caty Borum Chattoo and collaborator Will Jenkins published an article in Media, Culture & Society: From Reel Life to Real Social Change: The Role of Contemporary Social-issue Documentary in U.S. Public Policy.


Lauren Feldman and Caty Borum Chattoo were recognized as top-three finalists (out of 72 peer-reviewed articles) for the frank 2019 Prize for Research in Public Interest Communications for their peer-reviewed article: Comedy as a Route to Social Change: The Effects of Satire and News on Persuasion about Syrian Refugees. 

Hear Caty’s talk in the section “Seven Minutes in Heaven with a Scientist” at #frank2019

Henry Jenkins and Colin Maclay’s podcast How Do You Like It So Far, uses pop culture to take soundings of a society in transition, exploring intersections with civic imagination and engagement, and social and political change. They launched Season 3 with an interview on Taking risks: comedy as a tool for social justice, with Caty Borum Chattoo.  


Story Movements, our flagship biennial convening focused on civic storytelling and social justice, sold out this year! Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, our national convening brought together leading philanthropists, media organizations, filmmaking groups, and social justice organizations, including the Sundance Institute, Firelight Media, The Peabody Awards and Peabody Media Center, Tribeca Film Institute, POV on PBS, PBS’ Frontline, Color of Change, Define American, Center for American Progress, Tribeca Enterprises, Maryland Public Television, Ford Foundation and many more. Look for Story Movements next in 2021. 

Photographs from the event are here. 

All speaker videos are here.

CMSI partnered with The Center for Environmental Filmmaking, led by our Faculty Fellow Maggie Burnette Stogner, for the 2019 Eco-Comedy Film Competition on the theme of climate change, as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival. CMSI Comedian-in-Residence Bethany Hall, served as a finalist judge, alongside Keith Haskal, a producer for Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. See all the winning entries here and also note the submission deadlines for 2020! 

Henry Jenkins spoke with Caty Borum Chattoo on the theme of Participatory Politics in the Age of Crisis, inviting her to participate in a public dialogue about Shaping New Civic Fabric: Reflections on the Role of Creativity & Culture in Social Justice. 

CMSI research was featured in the UCLA Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment’s (SIE)’s report The State of SIE.

CMSI was featured in a panel discussion at SXSW 2019 on Trump Around the World of Comedy. 

Caty Borum Chattoo was invited to speak at the first global Comedy for Change convening, hosted in Mexico City by the Open Society Foundations. 

CMSI Senior Research Fellow Patricia Aufderheide reflected on documentary, technology and their intersection at SXSW 2019 for an article titled SXSW: Performance, Experience, Immersion, published in the International Documentary Association’s Documentary magazine.


At the 2019 Skoll World Forum, CMSI was invited to discuss the power that comedy has to highlight social issues and drive behavior change in Not Just for Laughs: How Comedy Sparks Change. 

CMSI released a public report on Comedy as Creative Dissent in Latin America, authored by former CMSI Post-doctoral Fellow Amy Henderson Riley.

Aram Sinnreich co-authored an article on The Carrier Wave Principle in the International Journal of Communication


Aram Sinnreich’s book, The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property, was released by Yale University Press

CMSI Post-doctoral Fellow David Conrad won the International Communication Association (ICA)’s top doctoral dissertation award for his work: Misguided Benevolence: How ‘Moments of Need’ Came to Motivate American Journalism

Caty Borum Chattoo was appointed to the Peabody Awards’  inaugural East Coast Board of Advisors.

Missed the Tribeca Film Fest? Not to worry! Patricia Aufderheide captured the “wild carnival of commerce and creativity” for Documentary magazine.


CMSI and Moore + Associates, in partnership with Comedy Central, launched the inaugural Yes, And…Laughter Lab, a new initiative designed to lift up exciting new comedy for social change (sometimes we affectionately call it “YALL”). The #LaughterLab brought together comedy folks, entertainment executives, and social justice leaders who came to hear comedians present six comedy projects, selected from 500 applications, each using humor to engage in social commentary and to inspire social change.

Can we use laughs to change hearts and minds? Obviously we think so. Caty Borum Chattoo gave an invited talk at award-winning social change communications agency Spitfire Strategies. Here are five big takeaways. 

Under the creative direction of CMSI Comedian-in-Residence Bethany Hall, our new Comedy ThinkTanks initiative brings together comedians and social justice organizations to co-create new comedy. CMSI partnered with IllumiNative, a new nonprofit initiative designed to increase the visibility of – and challenge the negative narrative about – Native Nations and peoples in American society. Ten remarkable Native and non-Native professional comedians and thought leaders banded together for five days in Oklahoma to translate IllumiNative’s research into ideas for comedy to disrupt invisibility, smash stereotypes and change the narrative about Native people.


Faculty Fellow Filippo Trevisan published Who’s Winning the Democratic Debates? Here’s what Google Trends Can’t Tell You, in The Washington Post

Bethany Hall and Caty Borum Chattoo were invited to The Opportunity Agenda’s 9th Creative Change retreat at Sundance. The theme for the retreat was Dream Beyond. 

Patricia Aufderheide wrote about fair use work in a global production environment in her article Negotiating Copyright Exceptions across Borders for Documentary magazine


CMSI partnered with The Doc Society’s Climate Story Lab for a climate-change-themed Comedy ThinkTank. Read Doc Society’s report here. 

Filippo Trevisan published Using the Internet to Mobilize Marginalized Groups: People with Disabilities and Digital Campaign Strategies in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election in the International Journal of Communication.


Did you know that in 40 of the most-watched TV programs, 45% of characters experiencing homelessness didn’t even get to speak?

To know more about how the media shapes our understanding of homelessness, read our report Homelessness & Housing Security in U.S. Culture: How Popular Culture & News Depict an American Challenge, research funded by the Funders for Housing and Opportunity, a consortium of 14 foundations. The report was authored by David Conrad, along with AU Ph.D. student Aras Coskuntuncel and University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. student Lori Young.

How can cities make local stories more visible, and invite residents to participate? The DC Storytelling System, a project led by CMSI Faculty Fellow Benjamin Stokes, is experimenting with a storytelling system that links a Smithsonian exhibition to five DC public libraries and a custom truck. Instead of a “best” story, they are studying how civic stories can circulate across networks and institutions.



Maggie Burnette Stogner and Caty Borum Chattoo joined their American University School of Communication colleagues, Rick Stack and Russell Williams, to talk about Media Changemakers and Social Justice at the All-American Weekend. 

Caty Borum Chattoo served on the jury to select The Doc Society’s 2019 DocImpact 5, which recognizes documentary films that demonstrate excellence in filmmaking as well as creating significant and measurable social impact.

Faculty Fellow Leena Jayaswal was interviewed for a podcast on Asian American stories called A/Decibel, in which she spoke about her and Caty’s film Mixed. The film offers a new lens into race and the lives of the first generation of mixed-race kids and families to be counted in the U.S. Census and was recently awarded a grant from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). 

Patricia Aufderheide published Documentary Filmmaking and US Public TV’s Independent Television Service, 1989–2017 in the Journal of Film and Video.


Caty moderated a session titled Inside Jokes about the uses, boundaries and limits of humor at the International Women’s Forum World Leadership Conference in Toronto. 

CMSI was a proud collaborator with Hip Hop Caucus, a national, non-profit organization that promotes civic engagement for young U.S. voters using hip-hop music and culture – on the live and filmed climate justice comedy show, Ain’t your Mama’s Heat Wave, co-created through our Comedy ThinkTanks initiative that pairs comedy with social justice. Stay tuned for more about this amazing project in 2020! 

Caty Borum Chattoo spoke about Social Critique and Civic Imagination: The Power of Comedy in Contemporary Social Justice at “Creativity & Innovation for Social Healing & Restorative Justice”, a university-wide colloquium. 

Leena Jayaswal co-curated a photography exhibition, Lost/Found: Explorations in Photographic Time and Space at The Studio Gallery in Washington DC. Read the review in The Washington Post.  


To top off our year: We’ve been talking about comedy’s role in social change for a long time, but now there’s a book that brings it all together. A Comedian and An Activist Walk Into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice, written by Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman of Rutgers University, premieres on March 24, 2020. The book is available for pre-order at a 30% discount from the University of California Press (use this code at checkout: 17M6662).

Faculty Fellow Ericka Menchen-Trevino contributed to the publication of a paper In Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Social Media and Society, about a tool that makes bot research easier for more social scientists and journalists interested in researching differences between conversations on Twitter

Patricia Aufderheide documented the 2019 meeting of the International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam in this article for Documentary magazine: IDFA 2019: Telling Truths and Meeting Friends, and she also examined the career of Julia Reichert for Film Quarterly and followed the trajectory of her oeuvre which intertwines social commitment and aesthetic concern. 


Stay tuned for more in 2020. For now, we wish you a beautiful holiday break and a very happy end of the year as we roll up our sleeves for an exciting new decade ahead.

With gratitude,
Team CMSI (Caty, Varsha, David and Bethany)


Edgy Interactive at IDFA’s DocLab 2019