Role of mass media in social norm change: Lessons Learnt from The Change Starts at home Intervention


As someone who has worked in the field of Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) for almost 15 years, I am an ardent believer in the power of media for transformative change. Across the many projects that I have worked over the years, I have seen media programming inspire collective action and youth activism, elevate voices, bring the marginalized into the center of discussions and create grassroots movements of change. More recently, as social norms have become increasingly recognized as key to long term and sustainable change, media has again been highlighted as a key tool in influencing social norms. But is it enough just to have a mass media component of a social norms change program? What is it specifically about media that can influence social norms change and how can we design meaningful programming that can be truly transformative?

Reflecting on recent experiences of working on an SBCC intervention (Change Starts at Home) that sought to address the social and gender norms that perpetuate intimate partner violence in Nepal, I have put together the following thoughts and lessons learned about the role, benefits and limitations of media in social norms change. (To note – this project focused mainly on the use of radio, and therefore most of these points are related to the use of radio specifically)

Media is definitely an ally of social norm change. Through media programming, particularly radio drama, it is possible to develop characters that explore new norms, debunk fears around sanctions, highlight role models, and tell the stories of positive deviants. People can see themselves in the characters and storylines, gain courage through the idea that others like them have stepped outside of certain expected roles or behaviors and see how their own lives might play out if they were to do the same.

Characters must be believable to win people’s trust. To do this, they must reflect the realities of the listeners. We got feedback from our predominantly rural listeners that their lives were nothing like the urban couples featured in the early interview segment of the radio program and therefore anything we wanted to highlight or inspire was lost – they are different from us and therefore whatever they do is bound to be different from what we do. It was only when we shifted to featuring couples from our own groups or from the particular areas our audiences came from that this section began to resonate and influence listeners.

Characters can and should be flawed, it was not the ideal couple that people remembered and referenced in minute detail, but the husband who struggled with alcohol, the wife who stayed silent about abuse. These were the characters that our listeners told us had impacted them most.

Programming needs to be iterative and adaptive, set up a continuous dialogue with your listeners so that you know which characters and storylines are connecting, what your listeners want more of and what they are ready for. By listening to our audiences, our assumptions, for example, that talking explicitly about sex early on in the programming would be unacceptable, were challenged and we were able to push the boundaries of what we thought our listeners were ready for. This resulted in having a listener feedback-driven scene, set in a bedroom, in which the couple discussed sexual consent, desire, and intimacy.

You know you are succeeding when reality and fiction are blurred. There is a term known as behaviorally orientated parasocial interaction when the listeners experience the lives of characters vicariously and are able to relate the storylines to their own experience. One of our greatest achievements was hearing that listeners had tried to find the fictional hotel in our drama as they wanted to meet with and speak to our principal characters.

When it comes to norms and behavior change, listening is not enough – discussion is the key. Mass media programming that resonates can instigate internal processing and questioning, which is a key first step. However, as highlighted in a recent paper examining diffusion on the SASA! Intervention, internal processing is only the first step and argumentation, dialogue and social interaction are where change really happens. As such, mass media alone is often not enough and community mobilization or outreach components are key. In Change, we set up listening and discussion groups where we gave space for couples to discuss and reflect on existing norms with others in the group. Take home tasks were also utilized to support the continuation of dialogues with family members, peers, colleagues and neighbors outside the group.

Media programming takes time to reach and resonate with listeners. The levels of audience numbers, regular listenership and trust amongst listeners that is required for social norms change to occur. In our 9 month intervention, we worked intensively with our listener groups, but it was clear that 9 months was not enough at the community level to get the regular, committed listenership that we wanted. At a minimum donors should be funding 2 years of media programming if they are hoping for it to catalyze social norms change at the community level.

Social network analysis can give another level of understanding of how norms might diffuse through a community and how to leverage social interactions via the media. By using research approaches such as network analysis to understand a communities tremendous diversity and daily interactions, it is possible to meticulously plan a media dissemination strategy to maximize interactions with trusted sources, ensure those who are connectors in a community are allies of the programming and even include characters in the drama that model those people in the community we want to diffuse norms.

Gemma Ferguson works for Equal Access International as a Senior Technical Manager. The intervention Change Starts at Home, was one of 10 innovation grants supported by the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women programme.



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