Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Eyeballs and Impact: Are We Measuring the Right Things if We Care About Social Progress?

November 26, 2012

This was originally published on Skoll World Forum online. 

For those who question the media’s influence on social change, consider recent voter support for gay marriage in four U.S. states.  University of Southern California Professor Dan Schnur called it “the Will and Gracification of America,” referencing the popular TV program Will & Grace which ran for eight seasons, beginning in 1998.  Earlier this year when asked about attitudes towards homosexuality and gay marriage, Vice President Joe Biden claimed Will & Graceprobably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” He may be right. They both may be right.  But it all raises a critical question we need to get better at answering: When does media matter most and in what ways?  The question – or questions – comes down to impact.  What does impact actually look like on the audiences media-makers hope to reach?

In just the past year, we have seen the beginnings of an important evolution:  many media organizations are moving from a largely agnostic relationship to their role in social change to openly discussing, pursuing, and even attempting to track their impact on the issues they address.  Take the New York Times, for example.  Just a month ago, Aron Pilhofer, the Times Interactive Editor, placed a Mozilla-Knight fellow inside the newsroom to help measure impact.  It’s the first time such a person will work inside the newsroom, rather than in sales.  As Pilhofer put it:

…the benchmarks we use now are so ill suited. They are the simplistic, one-dimensional metrics we all know: pageviews, time on site, uniques. We use them largely because they are there and because they are easy — even though we all know they’re a lousy way to measure impact.

Pilhofer’s idea is part of a vibrant conversation that has been punctuated by a host of blog posts on the subject, including a thoughtful piece by Jonathan Stray where he stresses how big the task is for news media, noting that “The first challenge may be a shift in thinking, as measuring the effect of journalism is a radical idea.”

It’s not just talk and it goes well beyond journalism. A group of leading public media stations known as the Public Television Major Market Group (PTMMG) — which includes stations in St. Louis, Indianapolis and Detroit — has developed a “community impact” model around key issues facing large cities across the U.S.  Its goal is to help public media stations both promote and track what it calls “media-driven involvement,” “community outcomes” and “collective impact.” (See image below)


There are also entertainment organizations like Participant Media. It recently partnered with the Norman Lear Center — which studies the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment — to begin tracking the lasting influence on personal behaviors of some of its films, such as Food Inc. and Waiting for Superman. (You can see a TEDx talk of some of this work.)

We shouldn’t underestimate the potential of measuring impact.  As we’ve learned from economists and social scientists, we become what we measure.  As Dan Chiely explained in the Harvard Business Review, “Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against.”

“As media organizations consider what type of content inspires engagement, participation, even action, versus what leaves people demoralized and feeling helpless, the drive towards social progress will continue, and most likely accelerate.”

What does this all have to do with accelerating social progress? 

Measuring impact means measuring change: it includes, but is not limited to, perception change, policy change, behavior change and, more broadly, social change. Some of the Gates Foundation’s media grants focus on supporting the media’s ability to drive deeper engagement in the issues, to help build communities and foster greater participation.  Our latest grant to NPR, for example, supports a new social media and reporting platform to help facilitate conversation and community around global health issues.

Seeking to Stimulate Positive Change

One media organization that has not shied from change is the nonprofit news platform ProPublica. From the moment it launched back in 2008, its founder, Paul Steiger, released its mission statement: “We seek to stimulate positive change.” It’s an extraordinary statement for an organization filled with some of the most respected investigative journalists in the business. My guess is that if it weren’t such a reputable bunch, many people would have cried foul, accusing them of partaking in advocacy journalism. But, as ProPublica’s Dick Tofel explained, it’s based on a pretty simple notion:

“If you reveal an injustice, you should want, if possible, to show how that injustice might be remedied, and to use the means at your disposal to see that it is.”

David Bornstein, who co-writes the New York Times Fixes blog with Tina Rosenberg, agrees with the ProPublica approach and believes media, and journalism specifically, “needs to do a better job helping people imagine how tomorrow can be fixed, not just telling them how yesterday broke.” Over a recent cup of coffee, he asked me, “What if parents talked to their children at breakfast the way most news organizations cover the world – highlighting shortcomings but omitting strengths?” As a father of two girls ages 10 and 14, it wasn’t hard to imagine the mood that would set.

Bornstein’s response is what he calls “solutions journalism.” It’s not good news stories which, he says, tend to highlight individual heroes and are too often “2 ounce solutions to 100 pound problems.” He promotes “how-to” storytelling and analysis that takes a rigorous, investigative approach to uncover scalable solutions with as much effort as reporters take exposing the problem.

It’s one approach.  But it begs media executives, writers, and producers to begin asking themselves, “What impact are we having on the audiences we reach?” As media organizations consider what type of content inspires engagement, participation, even action, versus what leaves people demoralized and feeling helpless, the drive towards social progress will continue, and most likely accelerate.

It’s worth remembering that the power of social change isn’t just in the hands of media. All of us who consume, share and contribute to the conversation have a role to play. The questions are: How do we seize this opportunity? How can we as media consumers help shape and improve the “products”? As producers, how can we renew our thinking about what media is – while staying true to our core values? Please share your ideas about what you think is the way forward.

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