SFU's David Murphy on Video Design and Social Communication

Stephanie Harvard (SH): You teach an incredible breadth of classes at SFU. Can tell me a bit about your experience, and how you’ve developed these different areas of expertise?


David Murphy (DM): My background is in production, and it came from providing production capacity for a range of different courses, either through collaboration or by taking over those courses. The common thread through all the different communication courses that I teach is an applied component of media production. The output of those courses is the development of media to communicate the topics.


SH: One of the classes that you teach is Video Design and Social Communication. Can you tell me what is meant by social communication?


DM: This comes from a concept that came out of the tradition of media analysis, specifically around analysis of television and advertising. It's the idea that advertising and media communication are a social construction. It’s something that’s been developed in our society as a form of communication in itself. That specific course around the social construction of media messages has been around for about twenty years. The term comes from the origins of media analysis, which is looking at the social construction of various forms of media.


SH: What elements of video design are in focus when you're talking about social communication?


DM: The output of that course is specifically video. When we first started doing it, we were doing short information videos, then we started doing documentaries. Now, the social construction of video is short videos used for social media. We still do some of the techniques and some of the foundations that we developed in news broadcasts or documentary production, but those are focused more now towards a different form of delivery, because of social media. Videos tend to be a lot shorter, a lot more focused on key concepts, rather than longer explanations. This is where the social construction part comes in. In our society, we start to create meaning in our images, and we try to use that in our messaging.


SH: Do you see social media as imposing limits, or as creating opportunities for communication?


DM: With every development in media, opportunities and limits are created. It certainly creates limits. The attention span that is involved in social media production is very low. We look very closely at the statistics when we upload our videos. The one for video that’s really important is the average view duration. The AVD is how long people watch a video. When we first started using social media to distribute and broadcast our productions, we were still working in an older kind of television or film model, where you would have a twenty-minute video. But if you view the AVD, you see that nobody is watching the twenty minutes. They're watching the first three minutes and then they stop. So social media provides us a more accurate view of what people do with the media, and that informs the way we produce. There’s no point creating a twenty-minute video that is only going to be watched for three minutes. The way that we produce constantly is changing now too. People create new forms of meaning by using the social media, and we like to examine that and feed that back into our productions. We take forces that exist in society, and cultural movements in social media, and use that in our production. We use those energies to give us more insight into how people are actually using the social media. We’re not trying to change the way people do this- we’re trying to use how they're doing it to our advantage.


SH: Another area that you teach is Video Design and Risk Communication. Are there particular principals of risk communication that are important to be aware of?


DM: Absolutely. That has become a capstone course in our program. Risk communication and risk assessment and perception are well-studied fields that are based on probability. Risk is probability analysis in the social context. By using the combination of social context and probability assessments, we can get a pretty good idea what best decision-making practices should be. Risk analysis is the approach that decision-making bodies use to make very large decisions. Military, financial, healthcare, education, all of these large entities use a system of risk analysis in order to make decisions. We not only study how that works in the decision-making processes of those institutions, but we also try to use that assessment in our own decision-making. Figuring out what topics are relevant is part of that risk assessment.


SH: Figuring out what topics are relevant in what context?


DM: For example, look at a situation like bicycle safety in the city. If we say, 'let’s make all these bike lanes', and then the traffic becomes condensed, it causes a problem somewhere else. The risk assessment framework is a way of trying to pull in all the factors that are involved, so that we can make an assessment of our choices and a better judgment as to how to approach that topic. To make a really good risk communication video, you have to understand all sides of the subject and be able to calculate the downside risks in comparison to the upside risks. There’s always downside risks, so risk communication is a bit different than courses that are taught around advocacy. In advocacy, they're emphasizing one particular side of an issue, whereas risk assessment has a more objective perspective, using probability as a way to assess how much risk something is.


SH: Do you feel risk communication could give us some pointers for how to make good videos about scientific models?


DM: Yeah, absolutely. What we find more and more is the risk communication framework is foundational to the operation of our society. The really big decision-making processes are based on things like modelling and probability. It will come down to, what’s the probability of this risk? And it’ll be a number, like, "is it 0.6? We can live with 0.6, but we can't live with 0.7". Those kinds of thresholds are the basis of decision-making. This is all very tricky, especially around communication, because when we start talking about objectivity, or about absolute truths, it becomes more of a debate. The actual words are very important, and the message itself is where a lot of that gets negotiated.


The added level of complexity is the concept of perception. In risk communication, perception is understood as the correlation between how a population perceives a risk and how risky that hazard actually is. This an amazing sociological phenomenon. Understanding this is key to messaging, because it goes way beyond an information model. An information model is 'we tell people the facts, then they’ll be informed'. But we know behaviour doesn’t work that way; behaviour works in a very uncorrelated way to that information. For example, too much information gives the opposite effect. People turn it off and they stop listening.


The risk framework helps us understand the way we can expect a population to react to a message. You can't just tell someone something is risky, or you should stop doing that. If that was the case then we could just say, 'okay, everybody stop smoking!' But there’s all these other factors involved. Risk communication and assessment is a framework for trying to incorporate all those factors. This is an imperfect process, but given the tools available, this is our best practice, this basic framework that is being used globally as a decision-making process.


SH: For those who want to inform their video design with [risk communication] principles, where is a good starting point?


DM: In the early 2000s, this area was considered in the field of social marketing, and the idea of using marketing techniques to change social practices. There’s a textbook called Social Marketing – Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes? by [Gerard] Hastings. That is a great textbook for sort of laying down some of the framework for this approach. The problem with risk communication is that it gets very complicated and there’s a whole lot of different areas that it can go down. It’s about figuring out the chances of something happening and then trying to map out all the pluses and minuses that come out of that.


For example, we did this tick video, warning kids to be aware of ticks when they're in the forest. The first versions of the video basically scared the kids out of the forest – they didn’t want to go into the forest. So the downside risk is that kids don’t get out in nature and they don’t get fresh air and they don’t get exercise and they have a bad association with nature. Those are terrible things. Those are way greater risks than the risk of the ticks. There’s never one side to a risk calculation. We social isolate to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but certain aspects of the population are going to suffer greatly because of this, economically or educationally, or from other health effects too. So risk calculations have to be ongoing all the time in order to come up with the best decision-making.


SH: Is it possible to say what makes a good educational video?


DM: I mean, I have an opinion what makes a good educational video. I'm still trying to make that video, but basically a good educational video disappears as a medium. If you're watching a video and you're thinking about the video, it hasn’t disappeared. Video production has all these aesthetic and artistic possibilities, and it’s very difficult to work in that medium and not be seduced by these aesthetics. Aesthetic is very important to educational videos, but not in the way that it is for most of our video consumption, because it detracts from the educational outcomes.


What’s really important in video for education is that the information is delivered quickly. We’re at the point now where we’re thinking about how to make eight-second videos. That’s a very different approach aesthetically than how video was developed, as it was from cinema and television and entertainment. If we know we’re being educated, we don’t want an aesthetic overhead. We want to get the information and move on to something else. So that definitely changed the way we produce now. To get to that high-impact information level, we’ve had to change our practice quite a bit.


SH: I've often heard that communication strategies should be informed by the target audience. Is that fair to say?


DM: Absolutely. Our practice in video communication is narrowing down the message and narrowing down the population. You want to say as focused a message as possible to as focused a population as possible. You can see by video-watching practices how you want to divide that population up. If you're working with a group of people who have regularly used TikTok for the last year or so, they have a different video-watching practice than a population that doesn’t know what TikTok is. That has to factor in, and that’s more of the issue than demographics, although demographics do get us closer to this. It’s video-watching practices that define a population.


SH: What is a good way to proceed if, as a video developer, you don’t have a good idea of your target audience? Is there ever a context where you try to proceed with a video for everybody?


DM: Well, I don’t think the for-everybody video is a good strategy. I think it does take understanding of the culture of your audience. Social communication is not a one-way communication, it’s a dialogue. You have to understand practices around viewing. Like, I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and an eighty-six-year-old mother. When we look at videos online together, it’s a completely different practice. Trying to make a video that works for both of them is not impossible, but it’s very, very difficult. I would say, stratify your approach to at least a few levels of communication, so that it is geared towards existing viewing practices.


SH: In your field, what strategies are used to improve the product over time?


DM: We’re always building in an assessment component to production. The assessment component always gets left to the last, and it’s the least developed. Because the medium itself changes– looking at a video that comes from the nineties, just the look of it alone identifies its age, and people will react to it in that way. There’s a shelf-life to this medium, which is why, aesthetically, we’re always emphasizing, 'don’t use the latest techniques', because it will just look like, 'oh, that’s so 2020'. The general principals of basic text and basic backgrounds seem to last a little bit longer. What I think is really important, to the iterative development of communication in this medium, is deeper understanding of the culture of your audience. Which is why it is important that the audience is more specified than a general population.


The way social media is being consumed these days is less of a model where experts produce an information video and then it’s delivered to a population, and more of a model that it’s a YouTuber or an Instagram person, who is more of a character, someone that people can relate to and go back and forth from. So you are generating all the time and taking feedback and ideas from that population, and trying to incorporate that into your next production. Which is more of the model I see for iterative improvement over time, rather than this idea of, 'the population responded in this way, so we’re now going to produce this way'. It’s quicker than that. It’s more the way YouTubers adapt to trends, rather than, you know, best practices in film-making.


SH: So what kinds of information about the audience is a person collecting in this rapid process?


DM: Well, you need to know their culture, their language, how they speak, words they use, the work they do. What CBC has done all through its history is get a bunch of older executives making decisions about what they think young people like. Young people sniff that out right away and don’t trust it. If you can build trust with your audience, that is one of the key factors for changing people’s risk perception. What we’re moving towards is the comments on the YouTube channel, or something like that, where you can get a sense of what the population culture is. The other thing is using people who are in that culture as informants to help you understand language, approaches, different values, things like that.


We use the KABB model, which is the Knowledge, Attitudes, Beliefs and Behaviours, the factors that you want to try to understand of a population. So, you know, how much do they know about this topic, what is their attitude towards it, how do their beliefs relate to this, and finally, the cherry on top, can we actually change behaviour?


Because most media interventions have the objective to somehow change behaviour, to reduce a risk in the population.


SH: What about the situation where the motivation for the video is to change beliefs rather than behaviour- for example, to increase trust in scientists?


DM: That’s a great objective, and that’s exactly the approach that we would advocate. Think of it as trust-building. Trust is built over time. Building trust is probably more important than the delivery of information. Once you have trust, then information is actually rather easy to deliver. I mean, medical students trust their professors, right? So professors can deliver information rather quickly, students will patiently watch it, listen to it, because of that trust. General population is a very difficult group to gain trust with, because there are so many different attitudes and beliefs out there.


But population is key to how you frame the questions. The whole purpose of the information and how you deliver it would be contingent upon understanding culture. I keep coming back to culture, because it’s a very elusive concept that is under-developed in health science, over-developed in communication. We spend a lot of time on culture, but we don’t spend enough time on evaluating risks. I think health science and health communication have got a lot to offer, but they need to communicate with each other more.


SH: What can scientists learn from artists? Do you think it’s useful to distinguish between artists and scientists?


DM: I think it’s when art and science are working together that the most profound and impactive creations are made. The artist that works purely aesthetically and doesn’t concern themselves with the scientific-social issues doesn’t go deep. The scientist who is aware of a health phenomenon, but doesn’t look at the cultures of the population and take things like aesthetics seriously, loses the chance to communicate deeply. Those two together are of paramount importance.

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