Roundtable Sessions: "Sender and Receiver Issues"
Does Green Always Mean Go?
This session, chaired by Thomas Tufte (Denmark), grappled with issues of encoding and decoding in EE messages. Participants discussed how to ensure that audiences receive intended meanings. Pre-testing of messages, inclusion of relevant materials, and message modification were raised as potential ways to overcome the problem.
The Color Green
Red means stop and green means go... or does it? Panelist Sara Zaker (Bangladesh) pointed out that in her country green could also symbolize jealousy. "We can't afford to send out messages that will not be received in the right spirit," said Zaker. During a campaign to minimize human consumption of water containing unsafe levels of arsenic in rural Bangladesh, there was debate about whether labeling water sources as red and green would transmit the intended message. Zaker related another example, explaining how Bangladeshis started killing black cats after a safer-sex campaign used a black cat as a symbol of AIDS.
Encoding and Decoding
When considering encoding and decoding issues, we should consider "sending the right message at the right time to the right people and through the right channel" said participant Sophia Chaudhury (Bangladesh). One cannot predict how an audience will interpret messages sent. Session participants agreed that Chaudhury's guideline could be one way of minimizing misinterpretation in the decoding process.
Complex campaigns could also raise issues of encoding and decoding. Panelist Margarita Gurdian (Nicaragua) talked about a multi-channel water and sanitation communication project implemented nationally, regionally, and locally in the country after the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. People had lost their will to live after the death of loved ones, and because of that were very sensitive to any kind of messages referring to that dreadful event. So positive framing and interpretation of messages was crucial. The message was "hope," and emotional as well as rational appeals were used to support such routine behaviors as hand washing and using latrines.
Including Relevant and Current Material
Panelist Ana Laura Escobedo (Mexico) explained that inclusion of relevant and current materials is crucial to a project's effectiveness. In one telenovela broadcast by her network, politics was used as a backdrop. "Sometimes yesterday's top news is in today's program," said Escobedo. In a country with a tense political situation and a historically "untouchable" president, this particular telenovela introduced the innovative concept of creating a character, Mr. X, to depict and criticize the expresident's activities.
Participant Garth Japhet (South Africa) listed pre-testing as another key to the reduction of unintended messages. This process is the key to identifying the difference between entertainment and EE, noted Japhet, referring to his opinion that intended EE programs that are not guided by proper research, cannot be called EE, but are no more than mere entertainment programs.
Unintended Consequences Not Necessarily Negative
While there is concern about how messages are interpreted, and about unintended consequences that arise as a result of hidden messages, the latter may not necessarily be negative. Participant Minou Fuglesang (Sweden) pointed out that "we're drifting to simplification" when we say that globalization is cultural imperialism. In her study of how Kenyan women in the town of Lamu interpret Indian soap operas, she demonstrated that outside programming could lead to constructive messages about life in different parts of the world. The results of this study, said Fuglesang, demonstrate that "women can be empowered by romantic telenovelas."
Key: Keep Modifying Messages
Participant Daniel Kabira (USA) summarized the essence of sender-receiver issues to the group: "We're dealing with complex and changing societies, and the key is to modify our messages as society changes. We invest so much time on the design of a message with little attention given to feedback. We need more investment in formative research, monitoring and evaluation impact."