Good TV

New course will use television as a tool for change

Roberta Oster Sachs has spent 20 years working in television news and acknowledges that the business of TV is about making money and earning high ratings. But Oster Sachs has worked on programs examining such issues as race relations, public education and human rights, and she believes television still has a role to play in addressing social issues and advocating for change.

Roberta Oster Sachs

This fall the Emmy Award-winning producer is teaching "Producing TV Programs for Social Change, "a new course that for the first time will bring together the Communications and Media Studies Program and the University College of Citizenship and Public Service (UCCPS). Drawing on programs, courses and issues on and off campus that are of political and social significance, teams of students will film 10- to 12-minute news magazine stories aimed at creating social change. Ideally, the segments will become part of a one-hour broadcast to air on the Tufts television station TUTV and at student film festivals. Students in Oster Sachs' course will also learn about documentaries.

"Documentaries are an old medium, and we can rediscover and reinvent them for use as advocacy tools," said Oster Sachs, who has been named a UCCPS senior fellow. "We can go back to Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame," which dealt with migrant farm workers, and today's "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore's piece about guns in the United States, or the PBS program "Frontline" as examples of documentaries that have had great success and great reach on social issues. Stories on programs like "60 Minutes," "Dateline" and "20/20" can have a similar impact," she said.

Stories of activism
"I think it's time to put the tools in the hands of Tufts students. And I think students who are activists and are involved in their communities or in public policy issues can tell these stories."

Oster Sachs has been a producer at "Dateline NBC" and also worked on the CBS program "Street Stories with Ed Bradley" and for the ABC News documentary unit. She has served as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and also has taught at Princeton University and Emerson College. She will serve as an executive producer for the course, with students proposing story ideas to her and ultimately reporting, writing, producing, shooting and editing their programs.

Julie Dobrow, director of the Communications and Media Studies Program, said she hopes the course is just the start of a partnership between her program and UCCPS. "There is a lot of overlap in missions, and I hope we will be doing more in years to come," she said.

Dobrow will be asking members of the Tufts community to help come up with story ideas. "Stories may be based on issues happening on campus, such as speakers who raise social issues, issues occurring in courses or issues in which Tufts is involved in community-based projects," said Dobrow, who worked with Rob Hollister, dean of UCCPS, to bring the course to Tufts.

Oster Sachs said she will have "vigorous requirements" about story ideas. Even though the documentaries will be based on issues, she said, they still need to have commercial appeal and be visually interesting.

"A lot of people are anti-TV," she said. "I'm not. I just think we can raise the standards, give students the tools, and ultimately the public is going to want more quality programs."