How Sesame Introduced Me to the Powerful Combination of Media and Research

By Daoud Kuttab

It was during the events that followed the breakdown in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in 2002 that I turned to Dr. Cairo Arafat at UNICEF with a question. What can we do with children trapped in their homes during the long Israeli imposed curfew period to help ease the strain on them and their families.

Dr. Arafat and our television creative team decided to produce 13 short one minute video Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that are directed to Palestinian children. We knew that trapped in their home children are glued to their tv channels, especially during the afternoon hours when several programs including the Palestinian version of Sesame Street is being broadcast.

At the time, Dr. Arafat and I were in serious debate about the tone and content of what to be produced. She was adamant that the best thing for children is to reassure them of the concept of normality and the need to reinforce the daily routine that they are used to. I had thought that what we needed was much more aggressive content that can help address the seriously traumatized children. Dr. Arafat and I had worked a lot with Sesame Street and so we decided to apply some of the research methodology we had picked up from them. Namely that of testing our ideas before broadcasting them.

Suffice to say, Dr. Arafat was correct and the videos we produced that stressed the importance of normality and routine did well in testing and performed amazingly when we broadcast them.

I have often applied many of the techniques and ideas I have learned over the years when we first brought Sesame Street to Palestinian children. Ideas like always thinking of the child’s point of view, mixing messages with fun and entertaining segments and of course research.

Years later working in Jordan with much older Syrian refugees I have used some of the same techniques. Even for adults, it is always important to hear authentic voices and test them in real life circumstances.

As the director general of Community Media Network in Jordan, I have tried to provide an opportunity for Syrian refugees to speak for themselves. We organized basic journalism courses and once trained we gave Syrian reporters equipment and asked them to do audio and video reports about their own communities. We featured these reports on a radio program entitled “Syrians Among Us” which was co- hosted by a Syrian and a Jordanian and which was aimed among other things to root out some of the hate speech that is often mingled in with some of the local morning radio programs.

Sesame workshop has been a huge learning experience for us in understanding how best to use television to educate, excite and empower people of all ages. I continue to use many of these basic techniques in the various media projects I am involved in.

While television continues to be a powerful tool, short videos broadcast on a variety of platforms is today the most powerful tool of communications. Combing the media experience of Sesame Street and the experience of the International Rescue Committee working with local communications experts will be a powerful combination that will have amazing results especially to the traumatized Syrian refugee population in the region.

Daoud Kuttab is an award winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He was the executive producer of Shara’a Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street. Follow him on twitter.com/daoudkuttab