CMSI collaborative study on Civic Leadership Portrayals in Entertainment TV earns 2023 Webby Anthem Award

by Kimberly M. Reason

Last month, The Webby Awards recognized the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), MTV Entertainment Studios, Paramount Media Networks, and When We All Vote as winners of its 2023 Anthem Award (Silver) for Purpose & Mission-Driven Work for their collaborative study, Watching Out for Democracy: How Entertainment TV Portrays Civic Leadership and Civic Engagement in the United States

The Anthem Awards are a new prosocial award division of the Webby Awards juried by a high-profile group that includes #MeToo Movement founder Tarana Burke, comedian Wyatt Cynac, Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson, and humanitarian and actor Ashley Judd. The Watching Out for Democracy team was recognized in the Research Projects or Publications category for distributing informed research to educate, raise interest, knowledge and/or change perception or behavior around an education, art and culture cause.

Pictured from L-R: Charmion Kinder (Civic Leadership Stories Project); Caty Borum (Center for Media & Social Impact); Brianna Cayo Carter (MTV Entertainment); Charles D. King (MACRO); Scott Budnick, Anti-Recidivism Coalition; Wanda Sykes, producer and comedian; Adam Conover, (“The G Word with Adam Conover”); Will Jenkins (Civic Leadership Stories Project).

“We’re incredibly honored to be recognized with this prestigious award, and our collaboration with MTV and When We All Vote was so gratifying,” said Caty Borum, Executive Director of CMSI and Principal Investigator on the study. “The role of entertainment media is profound when we think about how we learn about – and practice – our civic responsibilities.” 

CMSI Executive Director Caty Borum enjoying a socially-distanced moment backstage with Michelle Obama, Founder and Co-Chair of When We All Vote, during the Culture of Democracy Summit at the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.

Completed in 2022, the Watching Out for Democracy study remains the first-of-its-kind research effort into how entertainment TV shows portray civic leadership and civic engagement in our culture. The project began with an unprecedented examination of more than 1,200 TV episodes from 141 top-rated cable, broadcast and streaming shows (scripted and unscripted) that were popular in 2020, a historic year that saw soaring levels of voter participation in the national election. The study asked and answered key questions, including: 

  • What do young (18-34-year-old) American audiences see and learn about civic roles and participation when they tune into their favorite entertainment TV shows? 
  • How is civic leadership—from elected officials and other public service leaders—portrayed? 
  • How do characters talk about and take civic action, from voting to volunteering to making change in their communities?

Research findings revealed a range of creative opportunities for integrating more authentic civic storylines in entertainment TV storylines. For example:

  • In the most-watched entertainment TV shows across platforms and genres, portrayals of civic participation (including civic conversations and actions by both civic professionals and everyday people) show up in only about one-third of episodes (29%).
  • Civic and elected leaders—those who are leaders in politics, public policy, government— are four times less likely to show up in entertainment tv than law enforcement and criminal justice professionals. 
  • About one-fifth (21%) of entertainment TV episodes portray ordinary people participating in civic life.

The team premiered these and other findings in a comprehensive report last June at the Culture of Democracy Summit organized by When We All Vote, featuring former First Lady and When We All Vote co-founder Michelle Obama as keynote speaker, among other civic and arts leaders. Ultimately, Watching Out for Democracy strives to identify opportunities for entertainment TV studios, producers and showrunners to pursue storylines and characters that portray the imagining and building of a healthy democracy animated by thriving and civically engaged communities.

“Many Americans first learn about voting and public service from entertainment TV,” said Vaughan Bagley, Director of ​​Social Impact at MTV Entertainment Studios at Paramount Global. “For this reason, it is our responsibility as content developers to ensure that those portrayals are as accurate as possible and depict the full breadth of what it means to be civically engaged.”

MTV Entertainment Studios, which nominated the team for this work, hopes Watching Out for Democracy can act as a catalyst for more civic storytelling across entertainment media networks that depicts the full picture of what it means to be a voter, an activist, a public servant, and an elected official. 

Under the direction of Principal Investigator Caty Borum and Lead Researcher Paula Weissman, the CMSI research team for this study included David Conrad-Pérez, Aras Coskuntuncel, Kimberly Reason, L Cedeño Miller, and Allegra Udell. CMSI’s Varsha Ramani served as operations director and publication manager. Olivia Klaus created the report design. 

Principal Investigator Caty Borum, Operations Director Varsha Ramani, Lead Researcher Paula Weissman, Communications Consultant Kimberly Reason, and Civic Leadership Stories Project Director Will Jenkins enjoy a team moment at the When We All Vote Culture of Democracy Summit.

The study was shaped and facilitated in collaboration with Will Jenkins, Charmion Kinder, and Jesse Moore of CMSI’s Civic Leadership Stories Project; members of the MTV Entertainment Studios Social Impact team, including Brianna Cayo Cotter, Erika Soto Lamb, and Vaughan Bagley; and leaders from the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization When We All Vote, including Stephanie Young and Jessica Blair.

More information on the Watching Out for Democracy research project, including detailed study findings, are available at



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