THE FOUNDATION FOR RESPONSIBLE MEDIA (FORMEDIA)
Formedia, a not-for-profit foundation, based at New Delhi, India, was set up in 2000 in public interest, towards the cause of high-quality creative content in the media and NGO sector. The experiential strength of Formedia is derived from its parent organisation, Spotfilms, a documentary film production house and an accredited news & features agency, that is over 30 years old.
The primary intention of Formedia is to encourage, promote and support the capacity building of professional media cadre and the development of media literacy in civil society. This is aimed at covering the gap between achieving the Millennium Development Goals and commensurate creative content for broadcast and non-broadcast outreach. It is also targeted for collaborating to increase cultural diversity in media content, especially in Europe.
Communication associated with important and critical issues has unfortunately been afflicted with the stigma of ‘development communication’. It is considered boring and does not reach the right platforms for wider dissemination. Similarly, representation of cultures is mostly seen from the perspective of the west and less from the viewpoint of the concerned south country cultures.
At the same time, there is a large community in the world sincerely concerned about globally-linked issues of human concern, who do not always get access to credible information. There are also many who are looking to see and hear the voice of the people around whom the issues revolve.
In between the two, the world of media is increasingly less inclined towards wider and truly diverse public interest and service. Formedia sees its place in exactly that space where issue-based communication has a human interest face instead of figures; where people who have interest can access information more easily; and the media is motivated to increase its interest in issues that concern larger sections of the world’s society instead of the privileged and also move away from purely sensationalist issues.
Within this broad framework, Formedia is keenly interested in Environment, Population, Health, Ethnic Communities, Women, Education and Culture. Experience has shown us that in developing countries, whatever the sector, the basic issues, questions, problems are the same. Marginalisation, lack of a voice, lack of access to services and facilities, poverty, all brim over as the primary over-riding facets of any sector. In culture, there is a huge gap due to representation and interpretation and insufficient exposure.
For this precise reason, we see the importance of developing new concepts of communication that are not stigmatised as ‘Development Communication’ and are not limited to sectors, as well as new formats of cultural expression aimed at the electronic media. Communication needs to be holistic, so that it engages with the general public and civil society and leads to debate and resolution. It is important that funders and communicators realise that other information that details programmes, schemes and their mechanisms should be relegated to the second phase of communication, after interest is evoked in an issue.
This is not an easy task. In an era of scientific models, even communication has been beset with models. While evidence-based models are critical for mass campaigns and awareness raising, the flaws of blindly following accepted norms are not being paid attention to. The biggest danger has been to almost completely forget the sensitive, real, candid human face of an issue. For an average reader / listener / viewer emotive appeal is critical. It is also the only tool that non-fiction media can use to compete with the world of fiction. There is also the persistent danger of making media content look like a pizza instead of carrying diverse, unique flavours.
Attitudinal change at various levels is required to arrive at the sensitive, real, candid and diverse. Formedia lays great emphasis on this aspect in context of the development and dissemination of non-fiction creative content. In the media and the NGO sector, there is a need for a completely new way of working right from the stage of research to accomplishing a task. Among decision-makers, there is a grave need to re-look at who should be the primary movers for content creation.
So what is the methodology that Formedia follows for its projects and what is the approach that guides that methodology? There are certain basic guidelines we follow to achieve the task in the most worthwhile manner possible. At the outset, we set out the specific objectives and aims for every event of a project. On the basis of the objective/s & aims, we develop parameters for the people who need to be associated with the event to make it successful. Then we follow certain steps to match those parameters / objectives /aims.
1. Looking for people away from known circuits
One of the biggest problems of working in India is the tendency to slip into known circuits of people-who-know-people. As a result, information and opportunities tend to circulate among those who already have it. No one can deny that there are a large number of skilled and committed people outside these circuits in India. These are people who want to do good work the right way but are marginalised. Often this is because they are out of the main metro cities and information about new opportunities, trends and requirements reach them rather late, if at all.
Formedia makes exceptional efforts to look for people, whether they are participants, advisors or trainers. In the age of Internet, this has become somewhat easier. Projects rarely allow the possibility of spending on nation-wide advertising but the Internet helps in overcoming this hurdle to quite an extent. Basic research leads to links of various community / expert groups who are now increasingly web-savvy. We use these forums to publicise our requirement and spread the word about the project. Often, the telephone needs to be used as an additional tool to establish a personal, human connection (especially with those who are not email-efficient). Telephone conversations, even long ones, are cheaper than travelling, and work quite well to start establishing a relationship with unknown people. At Formedia, we also use it as a tool to do grading of potential participants, since the conversations also play the role of interviews, which we can rarely afford at the national-level on small or medium projects.
2. Using local knowledge & information
Parallel to the identification of participants / experts / trainers, Formedia engages in a reconnaissance (recee) trip, especially if the project is directed for a specific region / state. We consider this an important element to the success of the project. It is important to have a minimal degree of first-hand understanding of the pulse of a community before attempting to work amidst them. In this process, we try to meet as large a number of people as possible. The benefits of this exercise are tremendous. Formedia has borrowed this practice from its parent organisation which handles large budget documentary films where the ground rule is zero-error because it can ill-afford it otherwise. Trained as professional journalists, the staff also draws the best information to earnestly investigate an issue.
The recee trip gives an insight into the local socio-cultural milieu that later helps us to make lesser mistakes in interaction while working in / with the local community. In the long-term, this gives us a lot of credibility, social acceptance and warmth, which makes many difficult tasks almost disappear due to pro-active local support.
The preliminary trip also helps us to re-orient or modify the content of the event on the basis of local feedback. Drawing up a plan stationed far away from the community is not always the appropriate one for them. The plan must have the possibility to be re-framed / adjusted as per detailed discussions during the recee trip. Doing this invariably helps to achieve a higher degree of success and sustainability.
The greatest benefit is to have an immediate understanding of the availability of local skills and resources. It proves to be enlightening both ways. Local wherewithal can either be over or under-estimated. It is worthwhile to know it in advance, so that the actual event has no hiccups at start-up. Formedia has successfully followed the practice of recee trips and seen the difference in results compared to other organisations that do not follow this practice. The interaction also results in local capacity-building due to co-operation in project related activities.
3. Using empirical data to confirm facts (historical, scientific, etc.)
A lot of information material is made available at the start of any project. Most of this information is useful and dependable, yet, at Formedia, we follow the journalistic norm of re-confirming the basics. Often, when some sectors grow, the essentials get lost over a period of time. For a proper understanding, it is important to peruse historical and scientific studies that have a broad canvas and are based on extensive research. Such empirical studies help to place the issue in the right perspective and give leads about the need-base and possible paths for resolution.
This kind of study gives Formedia a strong grounding on the concerned subject. Armed with substantial information, we are on a strong footing while dealing with experts and the bureaucracy. This helps to cross the barriers and gain a position of respect, which ultimately enables quicker and co-operative decision-making processes.
4. Bringing in international trainers who have high-level technical skills
Formedia places a premium on high technical expertise and multi-tasking. For communication to be truly successful, a strong foundation of technical skills is a pre-requisite. International trainers who have a vast, trans-continental experience are able to undertake teaching / training in a global context. This steers participants to new levels of performance and establishes international-level bench-marks for professionalism.
International trainers also bring global information that participants may not be aware of. It is common to believe that our problems are special and unique. Knowledge brought by international trainers shows that similar problems exist in other parts of the world. Participants invariably find this a dynamic point for debate and discussion. As a result, apart from the technical training, they imbibe views and gather information that helps them to see their problems from a fresh perspective.
5. Evolving out of experience
The combination of local information, empirical study, interaction with international trainers leads to a progression of thoughts. Formedia has found that it is worthwhile to allow some elements of a project to evolve from this process. While maintaining the framework of a project, it is possible to add dimensions that did not exist while conceiving a project . This strengthens the project and directly links it to specific local requirements.
By incorporating local requirements, local people / experts / participants develop a stronger identity with the project, which naturally builds a higher level of ownership and has a big impact on sustainability. Formedia has seen how the basic values / skills instilled during a project period continue to be in place after the project is over.
Using social science and subject experts as advisors
The role of social science experts is critical for the media. At the routine level, print / radio / television are well-equipped to deal with developmental issues for average readership. The scenario is different when it comes to training / workshops / seminars, etc. The inputs of social science experts can make a big difference to the approach and content of the project and lift it to a higher level of context regarding the issue.
Subject experts are different from the social science experts, since they are experts on a particular issue, who bring a wealth of knowledge with them. At Formedia, we see a larger role for subject experts, who are positioned almost continuously through the process. Their role is to monitor the interpretation of local interviews, representation of the issue, correct / acceptable language (which can be critical as in the case of HIV & AIDS), and overall validity of concepts reflected in the media products. We find that over a period of time, subject experts actually become highly media literate and are able to contribute in more ways within their system after a project is over.
6. Putting emphasis on research
In India, print / radio / television and NGOs have nearly lost the tradition of detailed research before and during a project. Formedia believes this could be one of the primary reasons why many projects are not as successful as they should be. Research is and should be intrinsic to any work that engages with the public domain. It is the only way to avoid mistakes of representation and interpretation.
The presence of social science and subject experts is one way that Formedia makes participants understand the importance of research. Apart from this, in training programmes, time is always allocated for research and maintaining information in a systematic manner. Participants find this surprising at the beginning, since they have usually not followed such practice before. By the end, they are very grateful to have been introduced to such detailing of research apart from the technical training they receive.
7. Enabling exposure to lesser known Indian & non-Indian experiences
India itself is a large country and ofcourse the world is a huge place. There is a plethora of initiatives that remain unknown to many professionals and even experts. Formedia believes every project should be an opportunity to give exposure to lesser known initiatives in India and abroad that have potential for replication or adaptation.
This exposure is also a way to expand the base for success because each individual / organisation can learn from the experience of others. Exposure also gives room for thought and evolving one’s own perspectives and views about approaches and methodologies. This is the point where individuals / organisations can and do make the shift from stagnation to growth
. 8. Creating programmes that have practical / demonstration elements
Theory and talk-oriented workshops and training programmes have a low-level of output and long-term sustainability. Formedia puts a lot emphasis on hardcore practical training or demonstration, depending on the project and target-group. This creates the right environment for tackling the nuances and smaller details that can easily be overlooked in talk-based sessions.
The practical / demonstration element also allows for personal one-to-one sessions, because each individual has unique problems or questions to deal with in their sphere of work. Direct engagement allows space for intensive discussions that are fulfilling and leads to substantial levels of quality output, since they are with high-level trainers.
9. Making projects concrete-media-output-oriented
Whenever possible, Formedia endeavours to design projects that are oriented to concrete media output, either as prototypes for replication or actual print / broadcast-worthy material. This has its own impact on the project since all stakeholders know they have to achieve a tangible goal.
There is an increasing paucity of innovative storytelling and representation techniques in a world that is experiencing media and technology overkill. Development of media product prototypes is still not a well-known trend but it is a need that Formedia considers very important. Different genres, formats, sectors need to evolve new representation techniques that can be adapted and modified in varied situations. A process of this kind also gives exposure to existing formats from which participants / stakeholders can learn and evolve their own styles.
10. Including informal elements that create long-lasting group bonding
In the ultimate context, the success of a project / programme depends on how much bonding is created. This would be the only path to ensure networking and sustained interaction in the future after the project / programme is over. Formedia has its own unique style of creating bonds.
It is an informal and personal style that engages warmly with each and every person involved in the process. The interaction does not end with the project nor do the inputs. Post-project, Formedia continues to motivate and encourage collaboration between participants, depending on the circumstances of the time. All those who have been associated with Formedia are confident that we are just a phone-call away for any queries or advice they may need at any time. We feel this is a greater signal of our success than the completion of a project.
11. Monitoring ourselves
The process of feedback is the most important element at every stage. Detailed feedback forms are provided at the end of each event. These are not just for marking the quality of the event. They have questions regarding requirements and needs that need to be filled and what people are anticipating for the future. The information from each set of feedback forms has been utilised to do course correction at each stage of a project.
Keeping in mind these factors, what does Formedia look for in terms of projects / regions / partners? Many of the above-mentioned factors, in fact, dictate the choices.
Formedia needs to be engaged with partners who have an affinity for the same value-systems as enunciated above. The partners should be able to offer expertise and skills that Formedia does not have, otherwise their role would be redundant or result in a clash of style
One of the major concerns is the tendency of western partners to come in on a pre-conceived notion of superiority. This can lead to a lot of stress, especially when it comes to issues of finance. Formedia finds this a difficult terrain to handle and is constantly looking for partners who do not have this failing. Thankfully, it is possible to find them, if one tries hard enough. True global citizenship is a small but strong fraternity and Formedia prefers to belong and work in that space.
Formedia prefers to work in areas where less substantial work has been done in the past. That is as much applicable to the place (region) as it is to the content of the project. In this sense, it is pioneering initiatives we like to engage with. Below are highlights of some Formedia activities that are being / have been implemented in partnership with other organisations
Formedia as an implementing organisation, in partnership with lead partner Internews Europe and Deutsche Welle Akademie, Germany, started a two-year project “MEDIAIDS” in January 2005. The thrust in the second year of the project was on northeast India. The project was co- funded by the European Union-India under the Economic Cross Cultural Programme and DFID-PMO, India.
The following comments about the “MEDIAIDS” project have been recorded in the mid-term monitoring report of the European Commission monitor from Brussels, who visited FORMEDIA:
“Efficiency of implementation to date:
The partner visited FORMEDIA during the monitoring mission which is largely responsible for implementation of activities as most of them take place in India.
From their part, the project seemed to be managed adequately, with the staff at FORMEDIA motivated and able to perform the responsibilities set by the project. The monitoring mission could confirm that finance and use of resources is transparent…
“Effectiveness to date.
“The making of the news features and PSAs helped bring together people from different backgrounds and cultures to create a common message that in a way helped create some bonding that will serve as a cohesion factor for the network the intervention is trying to create. Additionally, the material produced not only seems relevant and adequate for its target audience, but also viewed favourably by those who are actively involved in AIDS/HIV information dissemination”.
FORMEDIA and ZELIG
Foundation For Responsible Media and ZeLIG School for Documentary, Television and New Media, Bolzano, Italy, signed an agreement of collaboration in 2006, to strengthen collaboration for non-fiction content on social issues between Europe and India:
- To foster the talent of professionals and up-and-coming film-makers in the non-fiction sector in Europe and India
- To share information about trainers and training experiences
- To widen the scope and possibilities of our two organisations with the aim of broadening the base and outreach of the ESODOC initiative in the future.
Under this initiative, a final year student of ZeLIG completed a four-month internship at Formedia in September 2006.
From 2004-2007, Neelima Mathur, chief co-ordinator and Trustee of Formedia worked as a regular trainer at ESODOC, the European Social Documentary Workshop, conducted by the ZeLIG School of Documentary, Television and New Media, under the on-going EU-Media Plus programme.
CHANGING INDIA PROJECT
STEPS for the Future was a successful HIV / AIDS media project in Africa supported by a widespread consortium of television networks and funding agencies including BBC, ARTE France and Germany, TV2 Denmark, YLE Finland, SBC, South Africa, Danish Film Institute and SIDA among others . Further, STEPS International was set up to carry such efforts ahead around the world with support from Commissioning Editors.
Later, STEPS India evolved as a network in January 2006. Formedia is the nodal agency in India, to facilitate and conduct training workshops for independent Indian documentary film makers. Several Indian film makers are currently developing and producing films under a series entitled “Changing India”.
STEPS INDIA PROJECT
The workshop activity included film screenings, working on proposal development accompanied by discussions that were quite philosophical. The results of the workshop succeeded in finalising short films for the international ‘WhyDemocracy’ series and making plans for screening of the WhyDemocracy films in special sessions in four different places in India and Nepal. The last day was dedicated for brainstorming on how to proceed with the next initiative, ‘Tell It Better’.
TELL IT BETTER PROJECT
Though no study has been conducted as yet, it is common knowledge that large sums of money are spent on making documentaries in the NGO sector in India. Most of the films largely lie unutilised, with a maximum exposure of a screening at some event. Television networks are not keen to pick these films because the storytelling is more propagandist than human interest oriented. ‘Tell It Better’ is focussing on NGO film-makers and film-making to tell stories differently. The project is funded by the VIKES Media Communication Foundation in Finland and also supported by the embassy of Finland in New Delhi. Eight film-makers have been given professional support by two senior editors and two films in this process will now be offered to television networks for broadcast.
The above-mentioned partnerships, developed by FORMEDIA in a short span of time, have lasted well. There is more interest and funding coming forth from the same funders who have been satisfied with the outputs, applied methodologies, innovative training programmes, time-bound efficiency and commitment.
FORMEDIA is and has been open to ideas and works in tandem with its partners towards common goals in a competitive knowledge society. We welcome more partnerships.