Lecture by Annenberg School Alumna Caty Borum Chattoo

The Role of Documentary & Entertainment Storytelling for Social Change: Intersecting Contemporary Practice and Scholarship
24 Feb 2017 -
12:00pm to 1:00pm
Annenberg School for Communication, Room 500
ASC Only

It’s been called the “Blackfish Effect.” Less than two years after the 2013 Sundance Film Festival premiere of a small documentary that scathingly indicted the treatment of captive orca whales at SeaWorld, the company’s stock price plummeted by 60 percent and sales declined dramatically. Southwest Airlines and Virgin Airlines, two of Seaworld’s major corporate sponsors, pulled their support. Performing acts cancelled appearances, citing the film, Blackfish, and demanding change. Lawmakers proposed research commissions and new legislation. In response to a steady drumbeat of criticism, layered against a strategic grassroots distribution strategy, the Blackfish Effect continued as SeaWorld announced an end to its captive orca program in March 2016.

How did a small-budget independent documentary film bring a billion-dollar business to its knees? What are the explanatory contributions from other traditions of media research and practice, such as entertainment-education, grassroots networks social movements and social marketing? How have digital-era conditions converged to create a new golden era for storytelling that aims to foster social change? How can lessons be applied to other media efforts to fuel social change in daunting challenges?

My talk will address these questions and more, from the vantage point of a diverse social-change communication and media production career – and contemporary opportunities for collaboration and contribution for hybrid scholar-practitioners – that intersects documentary storytelling, entertainment-education, and communication scholarship. The focus looks intentionally at the contemporary opportunities that exist between professional practice (and production), strategy and research. I will discuss a new project, Rise Up Media & Social Change project, that works in entertainment storytelling and comedy for social change in partnership with Univision, Fusion and The Onion, along with other related explorations.


About Caty Borum Chattoo

Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), an innovation lab and research center at American University that creates, showcases and studies media designed for social change; and Executive in Residence at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C. She is an award-winning documentary film/TV producer and communication strategist working at the intersection of social-change communication, documentary and entertainment storytelling.

Borum Chattoo’s social-change storytelling, strategy and research work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, NPR, Businessweek, The Huffington Post, and PBS MediaShift, and her social justice documentaries have aired internationally and nationally on Netflix, the Sundance Channel, Pivot, NDTV (India), PBS World, Link TV, KCET, DirectTV and theaterically. She has produced two documentary feature films (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The After Party), a TV documentary and transmedia series funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Stand Up Planet), a multi-part documentary TV series focused on global poverty (ViewChange), a seven-part environmental justice documentary TV series (Sierra Club Chronicles), and PSA campaigns designed for social change on issues ranging from global poverty to climate change to HIV. She is currently in production for Mixed, a forthcoming documentary about bi-racial children and families 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia (1967), which ended the federal ban on interracial marriage in the United States. In 2016, she created and launched Story Movements, a new initiative and convening focused on story-led movements for social justice, funded by the John T. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies and The Fledgling Fund.  

Her social-change strategy, production and research work has been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the John T. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Participant Media, Univision/Fusion, The Walt Disney Company, Atlantic Philanthropies, Fledgling Fund, Independent Television Service (ITVS), Odyssey Networks, Working Films, Link Media, KCETLink, AFL-CIO, ICLEI USA (Local Governments for Sustainability), USAID’s Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program (MCHIP), NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and more.

Previously, she was senior vice president in the social marketing practice group at FleishmanHillard International Communications in Washington, D.C., where she served on the senior leadership team for a national White House teen anti-drug campaign that won the communication industry’s highest honor, the Silver Anvil for Public Service. In Los Angeles, she was a longtime collaborator with legendary TV producer and philanthropist/activist Norman Lear as a founding director of Declare Yourself, a national youth civic engagement organization, where she directed public opinion research and digital strategy for an effort that garnered more than two million new young voters in 2004; and special projects director & senior producer at the USC Norman Lear Center, a research and public policy center that examines the social impact of entertainment on society. She also served as the program officer in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Entertainment Media & Public Health program, where she managed research-based HIV-awareness partnership programs, TV specials and PSA campaigns with MTV and BET; project director at the Center for Media Education; and fellow in civic journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Borum Chattoo holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania (The Annenberg School for Communication), and a B.A. in Communication Studies (summa cum laude, In Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from Virginia Tech. She has completed coursework toward the MFA in Film Production from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.



Seating is limited to the room capacity of 60 . Non-ASC Faculty or Students, please email Debra Williams  to attend. Thank you.

This event may be photographed and/or video recorded for archival, educational, and related promotional purposes. We also video stream many of these video recordings through the Annenberg web site. By attending or participating in this event, you are giving your consent to be photographed and/or video recorded and you are waiving any and all claims regarding the use of your image by the Annenberg School for Communication. The Annenberg School for Communication, at its discretion, may provide a copy of the photos/footage upon written request.