Impact Outside of the Box: Assessing How Digital Video Can Engage and Influence Publics


 An irate Congresswoman stands before the United States House of Representatives. Striking the air, she bawls:

So why should any American citizen be kicked out of their homes in this cold weather? In Ohio it is going to be 10 or 20 below zero. Don’t leave your home . . . So I say to the American people, you be squatters in your own homes. Don’t you leave. In Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Illinois and all these other places our people are being treated like chattel . . .

Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) delivered this speech in mid-January 2009 but its appearance in Michael Moore’s film,“Capitalism: A Love Story” gave it renewed resonance. At the close of the film, Moore asks the audience: “Please join me. And, please . . . Speed it up.”

The issue is how. Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi muses, “I thought that was really strange and I had no idea what the hell he meant. How do I join Michael Moore in this movement?” (2009). The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis echoes this sentiment: “In the end, what is to be done? After watching Capitalism, it beats me” (2009). Katur’s speech lacks an explicit call to action for those who are not in danger of immediate eviction. While her speech may solicit the desire to act, most viewers are at a loss as to where to begin.

PBS’s Economy Widget, however, changes this dynamic. Part of the CPB-funded Digital Collaboration on the Economic Crisis, it aims to: a) aggregate relevant local and national coverage and b) stream this content in the widget’s window, providing “added context to each piece of content through specially curated links” (Haggerty 2009).

On its own, the Economy Widget solves the fundamental problem with broadcast television. If, after watching Rep. Marcy Kaptur appear on Bill Moyers Journal, I want to know more about the film she was featured in, I can easily find a link to Michael Moore’s appearance on Tavis Smiley. To see how Americans are dealing with foreclosure, I might be directed to KCPT’s “Weathering the Financial Storm.” If I don’t fully understand the economic collapse, I can scan the video offerings until I find Frontline’s “Inside the Meltdown.” Dan Haggerty, the project’s curator, thinks the widget will encourage people to “understand the connections between different pieces of news.”Scholars call this knowledge integration, the ability to connect disparate pieces of information.

Of course, the curated links point to more than just video. When integrated with two other Digital Collaboration projects, Newshour’s Patchwork Nation and Capitol News Connection’s Ask Your Lawmaker Widget, the true genius of the widget shines through. Patchwork Nation “features an interactive map and companion blog that pairs in-depth local stories with expansive visual data” (Haggerty 2009). The Ask Your Lawmaker Widget allows citizens to collectively ask their lawmakers questions (indirectly through CNC reporters). Consider this: I watch Kaptur’s speech again. But this time, instead of leaving the theater with an unrealized sense of indignation, I forward the video to friends of mine. I spend some time learning more about the facts that inform her invective. I use the Patchwork Nation map to find out information specific to my county. I am still indignant, but now I use the Ask Your Lawmaker Widget to take action. Same video. Different context. Different result.

The Economy Widget is emblematic of a shift in the delivery and consumption of video. But what is driving this shift? How this shift is changing the way political engagement is conceptualized? How are organizations and people are exploiting this shift? And lastly, what other shifts are on the horizon?

Read the entire report by downloading the PDF.

By Joshua Berg