By Anya Schiffrin & Ethan Zuckerman

In October 2014, the nonprofit news
organization ProPublica released
“Deadly Force, in Black and White,”
a study of police killings of civilians in
the United States. By examining data
collected by the US Federal Bureau of
Investigation between 2010 and 2012,
ProPublica found that young black men
were 21 times more likely to be killed by police
than were young white men. In most cases, white policemen were
responsible for the killings. The average age of the black victims
was 30. Police reports typically cited “resisting arrest” or “fleeing
arrest” as the reason for such shootings. Often, however, the police
didn’t provide a reason and instead described the circumstances of
a given shooting as “undetermined.”1

Complete with graphics and links to official documents, “Deadly
Force, in Black and White” is a great piece of original journalism.
Media outlets quoted it, and civil rights organizations cited it in
support of police reform. But in November, just a month after
released the report, an event occurred that highlighted
the limited ability of media coverage to affect facts on the ground: A
grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., declined to indict police officer Darren
Wilson in the shooting of an unarmed black man named Michael
Brown. When it comes to changing the world, it seems,
forces such as systemic racism often matter more
than careful reporting and hard data.

ProPublica, like a growing number of other media organizations
today, relies extensively on donor funding to support its
work. As a consequence, these media outlets face increasing pressure
to demonstrate that journalism can make a difference in the
world. Donors are seeking ways to measure the impact of the media
projects that they fund, and media organizations in turn are working
to track the real-world effects of what they publish—partly in
the hope that proving their worth will help enable their survival.

The days when media companies could survive by relying solely on
advertising and subscription revenues are over. Disruptive technologies,
among other factors, have steadily eroded the business models
that traditionally supported US news organizations. One alternative
source of funding, of course, is the public sector. But Americans
always been uneasy with government support for media. The United
States—unlike Germany and the United Kingdom,
for example—has
never developed robust taxpayer-supported public media institutions. In the absence of both commercial and public
sources of revenue, more and more media organizations
are willing to accept novel funding
arrangements from the philanthropic sector.

Private philanthropy, along with government
agencies, has long supported struggling
newspapers and community radio stations in
developing countries. Donors in this category
include the Ford Foundation, the Open Society
Foundations, the US Agency for International
Development (USAID), and a host of European
governments and international aid organizations.
USAID, for example, has funded community
radio stations in Mali, and the Open Society Foundations has
supported media initiatives led by Burmese exiles.

But we are now adjusting to a reality in which major US and
news organizations depend on philanthropy. The Guardian
newspaper receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
for its Global Development Web page, and NPR gets support from that
foundation for its coverage of topics such as education. In addition,
as traditional media outlets cut their investigative budgets, donor-supported
organizations like the Center for Public Integrity, the
Global Investigative Journalism Network, ProPublica, and SCOOP
have emerged to fill that gap. Philanthropic organizations, in fact,
have fueled an explosion of independent investigative reporting
in recent years. The Omidyar Network, for instance, has funded a
Web-based outlet called Sahara Reporters, which focuses on exposing
corruption in Nigeria.

Some of the most influential new donors on the scene today—including
the founders of the Gates and Omidyar philanthropies—come not from a journalism background but from a business tradition
in which management by metrics is commonplace. Partly under their
influence, a movement has emerged to find ways to track the effects of
donor-supported journalism. All around the world, media outlets are
learning that some funders are uncomfortable with supporting journalism
merely as a “public good.” They want to see proof of impact.

The Media Metrics Quandary

The task of “proving impact” doesn’t come naturally to most
journalists. They reject a utilitarian view of their worth, preferring
to believe that news is a public good that merits support for
its own sake. They view themselves not as campaigners for a cause
but as fair and impartial observers. At the same time, they like to
think that they can change the world simply by “getting the story
out.” Aron Pilhofer, executive editor of digital at The Guardian,
summarized the prevailing view in a much-quoted blog post: “The
metrics newsrooms have traditionally used tended to be fairly imprecise:
Did a law change? Did the bad guy go to jail? Were dangers
revealed? Were lives saved? Or least significant of all, did it win
an award?”2 In any event, journalists tend to be wary of adopting
universal metrics. They know that each media organization has a
different audience that it wants to reach and different ideas about
what constitutes “impact.”

There is skepticism on the donor side, too. Some donors have
taken the stance that media impact is impossible to gauge: There are too many variables to measure, and the time scale for evaluation
is too short, they argue. “Media organizations need to make
the case that their work could lead to change, but I am very skeptical
about what I see as a growing impact-industrial complex,” says
one grantmaker from a prominent US foundation. The debate about
whether and how to ask grantees to measure impact has created a
fault line in the world of donors. In some ways, this dispute echoes
the ongoing debate over strategic philanthropy. Here, too,
critics argue that basing donor decisions on outcome-related
evidence forces grantees to focus on conducting
evaluations to prove the worth of their work—at the expense of actually doing that work.3

Journalists and donors both note that the media
is only one part of a larger ecosystem. The multitude of
variables that affect any process of social change makes it hard
to isolate—let alone measure—the impact of journalistic efforts.
People sometimes credit the media with helping to cement opposition
to the Vietnam War, or with inspiring the protests that led to
the Arab Spring, for example. But was it reporting on the Vietnam
War that undermined public support for it, or was it the fact that
middle-class college students didn’t want to fight in that conflict?
Was the Arab Spring a “Facebook revolution,” or was it a predictable
response to deteriorating economic conditions and widespread
youth unemployment?

For years, economists and political scientists have studied the effects
that media coverage has on areas such as government
public corruption, and voting behavior.4 Their research
shows that news coverage does affect a wide range of outcomes, including
government spending decisions and governmental responses
to natural disasters. At the same time, scholars warn that it’s hard to
trace a direct connection between, say, a single newspaper story and
an identifiable real-world effect. “If we were to monitor the effect of
100 news stories on people’s behavior and noticed no difference, we
could conclude that there is no media impact. But then story 101 may
cause people to take to the streets in protest. Perhaps that one story
hit a nerve, or perhaps stories 99, 100, and 101 packed into a snowball
that spurred the mobilization,” says Paul F. Lagunes, assistant professor
of international and public affairs at Columbia University, who
studies the effectiveness of anti-corruption programs. “Then there’s
the question of unobserved change. A news story may modify the way
we view the world without spurring us to take immediate action.”

What’s more, the metrics that media organizations typically use
were not designed to measure social impact. Most of these metrics
originated in the advertising industry. They estimate the size of an
audience for broadcast and print outlets, or they count the number
of visitors to a website. But knowing that an article reached millions
of readers is only one part of answering the larger question of
whether the article had an effect on voters and policymakers. After
all, conveying information to a large number of people is not always
the best way to promote social change. Minky Worden, director of
global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, notes that efforts based
on mass action often have limited efficacy. “Boycotts are kind of
old-fashioned now,” she says. “Targeted sanctions, reaching policymakers
at a key moment, or creative campaigns to change specific
laws and policies can be more effective.”

Measure for Measure

Despite these concerns and caveats, several organizations
are taking steps to develop usable standards for measuring
media effects. Among those groups are the Gates
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the
Nieman Journalism
Lab at Harvard University, the Norman Lear
Center at the University
of Southern California Annenberg School
for Communication
and Journalism, the Pew Research Center, and
the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University
Graduate School of Journalism.
In looking at the approaches that
these groups are adopting, we distinguish broadly between reach (how
many people engage with a given body of media content), influence
(how that content affects public dialogue), and impact (how the content
helps drive policy change or movement building).

Reach | There’s no guarantee that a story read by millions of
people will have more impact than one that reaches only a few
hundred readers. But it’s easier to posit impact when a story finds
a substantial audience. Numerous metrics exist to help news organizations
gauge the audience for their content. In addition to the
metrics commonly used by Web advertisers—page views, unique
visitors, and so on—some outlets consider “attention minutes,” a
variable that measures the amount of time that readers spend with
an article
or view. The leaders of Upworthy, a website that develops
and markets articles that it deems “meaningful,” label attention
minutes as their “primary metric.” More specifically, they look
at two variables: “total attention on site” and “total attention per
piece.”5 Many organizations also track the “social sharing” of a
story by noting how often people cite it on Facebook, Twitter, and
other social networks. Sharing of this kind expands the reach of a
story beyond the base of a site’s regular readers.

One problem with focusing on reach is that it tends to favor
offbeat or feel-good stories over more substantial reporting and
analysis. Another problem is that reach-oriented metrics are ones
that people can easily manipulate. If the number of clicks on a given
article is the measure of its reach (and if advertising revenue derives
from reach data), then those who manage websites will devise ways
to increase that number. Hence the emergence of “clickbait” stories
that carry attention-grabbing headlines and of “bots” that click on
stories automatically.

Efforts to enable advanced approaches to measuring reach are
now under way. A leading example is NewsLynx, a project hosted at
the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. NewsLynx
aims to help news organizations and their funders map how stories
spread across the Web. “We found that people were getting a bunch
of notifications from Google Alert and then manually entering them
into a spreadsheet. We are trying to make the drudge work of being an impact analyst easier,” says Brian Abelson, who helped launch
NewsLynx. (For more information on that initiative, see “Reading
Between the Lines.”)

Influence | How do media stories affect readers’ attitudes? How
do they shape the public dialogue as a whole? We know that in some
cases media coverage can change how people and organizations
approach a given issue. Josh Greenberg, an associate professor of
communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, studied
the way that coverage of labor conditions in the shoe factories that
supply Nike led to a change in how people think about solutions to
the sweatshop problem. He showed that media outlets such as The
Washington Post shifted their coverage away from the conditions in
those factories and toward the role of individual buying choices. As
a result, the discussion of how to solve the problem began to focus
less on improving or enforcing regulations than on, say, encouraging
consumers to buy fair labor footwear.6

In the past, news organizations had to rely on focus groups and
survey research to understand how audiences absorbed their content.
But with the rise of the Web, the toolkit for measuring influence
has expanded dramatically. Hyperlinks, the glue of the Web,
provide a clear proxy for influence. Media professionals sometimes
claim that a link isn’t an endorsement. But there are clear indications
that when an author links to a story, she signals that the story
did influence her (positively or negatively) and that it therefore has
helped shape the broader discussion of a given topic. Consider a study
led by Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School. Benkler
and his colleagues used links to trace how Wikipedia contributors,
grassroots activists, and technology bloggers influenced the debate
over the Stop Online Piracy Act (also known as SOPA-PIPA), a bill
in the US Congress that proposed significant changes to the laws
that protect copyright holders on the Internet.7

Media Cloud, a joint project of the MIT Center for Civic Media
and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University,
offers a new way to discern patterns of influence. (One of us, Ethan
Zuckerman, is a principal investigator for Media Cloud. So is Yochai
Benkler.) It is an open source tool that monitors 50,000 social and
journalistic channels, and it allows researchers to study two important
media-based processes: agenda setting and framing. By measuring
the volume of stories on a given topic, as compared with the coverage
of other topics, Media Cloud can show how effective politicians,
activists, and other parties are at putting an issue “on the agenda” for
public debate. And by tracking the language that people use to talk
about a topic, Media Cloud can highlight the various “frames” that
get attached to a news event. A frame, in short, is a way of interpreting
an event that supports one social or political agenda over another.
A story about the killing of Michael Brown, for instance, might lead
to discussions of topics such as urban poverty, racial bias, and militarized
policing. By tracking published stories and clustering those
that use similar language, Media Cloud helps identify which frames
appear in reporting and which news outlets have introduced new
frames into the public debate.

A difficult challenge in this research involves evaluating the role
that media-based efforts play in setting an agenda or framing an issue.
The #blacklivesmatter movement is a case in point. The killing of
Brown, along with other episodes in which young black men died at the
hands of police, led people to use that hashtag on Twitter in order to frame these tragedies as part of a larger narrative about police treatment
of people of color. But violent protests against those deaths led
to a reframing of the entire story as one that ended in “rioting.” Both
events on the ground and people’s interpretation of those events, in
other words, can help set the agenda for an issue.

Impact | Just because journalists have exposed people to information
doesn’t mean that people will take action or demand policy
changes in response to that information. Jonathan Stray, a fellow at
the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, calls this challenge—that
of translating media coverage into social impact—“the last mile
problem.”8 In certain cases, however, it’s possible to link a specific
journalistic project to a discernible policy outcome. Even an article
that doesn’t gain wide circulation can cause change if those who
do read it are willing and able to act on what they read. (The late
Robert L. Bartley, who was editor of the Wall Street Journal opinion
page for many years, once said, “It takes 75 editorials to pass a
law.”9) Here are some examples of journalism that resulted in real-world
social impact.

In 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article that
built on research by New Zealand scholars who had documented the
forced labor of Indonesian workers on Korean-owned vessels. These
vessels were fishing for catch to be exported by New Zealand companies.10 The article caused so much outrage that the New Zealand
government quickly enacted legislation that made it a crime, punishable
by imprisonment, to exploit migrant workers. The government
also passed a law that will require all vessels that fish in New
Zealand waters to abide by the country’s labor, health, and safety
regulations. After the article came out, moreover, retailers such as
Safeway, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods launched investigations into
their supply chains. Some US buyers canceled contracts with New
Zealand fish suppliers.11

In 2010, ProPublica published a series of articles that tracked
which US doctors had received payments from pharmaceutical
companies. Over a two-year period, according to the series, those
companies made payments to roughly 17,000 physicians, and these
payments totaled more than $2.5 billion. ProPublica provided an
app that people could use to find out whether drug companies had
given money to their doctors.12 More than 180 outlets picked up
the story. “This scrutiny,” according to ProPublica, “has prompted
tightening of disclosure rules.”13 The University of Colorado, Denver
overhauled the conflict-of-interest policies that apply to its teaching
hospitals, for example, and Stanford University took disciplinary
action against five of its faculty members.

In 2014, the Center for Public Integrity published a series on
how Luxembourg had enabled major companies such as Coach,
Disney, FedEx, Ikea, Koch Industries, and Pepsi to evade taxes by
registering in that country so that they could take advantage of
loopholes in various treaties.14 The story splashed across front pages
throughout Europe. Within days, there were calls for Jean-Claude
Juncker—a former prime minister of Luxembourg, who had just
been chosen to head the European Commission—to resign from
his new post. The European Union, meanwhile, moved to pass a
law that would ban these kinds of sweetheart deals.15

Some investigative reporting teams have developed systems to
track the real-world impact of their work. They use these systems
to monitor editorials that cite their investigations or policy changes
that come in the wake of their reporting. Each year, ProPublica
publishes updates on the status of issues that it has covered in its
major reporting projects. And Participant Media, an entertainment
company that produces films with social and political themes, has
launched the Participant Index, an attempt to capture outcomes
that go beyond policy change. The company conducts surveys
to determine whether people who have seen specific Participant
films have then taken related actions—signing a petition, making
a donation,
or joining an organization, for example. Participant
has invited newsrooms and advocacy organizations to use
its method as well.16

The Impact of Measurement

Nonprofit newsrooms and the organizations that fund
them will continue to hone their use of new and existing
metrics. Tools that can measure not just “reach” but
also “influence” and “impact” are in their infancy. Yet they are
becoming ever more sophisticated, and our ability to apply them
has advanced dramatically.

Today, we know a lot more than we did previously about news
consumption habits and about the way that ideas spread, and this
knowledge can help us understand how social change occurs. Research
shows that change usually takes place over the span of decades and
that media coverage has an impact only when other social forces
are also at work. Take the case of female foot-binding in China. For
hundreds of years, the philosopher Anthony Appiah notes, Chinese
writers had called attention to the dangers of that practice. But only
when young members of the country’s elite became ashamed of foot-binding
did Chinese authorities begin to issue decrees against it.17

Some kinds of impact are easy to measure—the passage of a law, the
ousting of a corrupt politician. Other forms of social change (like the
demise of foot-binding in China) involve a transformation of cultural
norms. Almost inevitably, that kind of change is a long and complex
process. Even episodes of seemingly rapid change, such as the shift in
Americans’ attitudes toward gay and lesbian marriage rights, typically
follow an extended period of political activism and cultural ferment.

In that context, consider again the ProPublica report titled
“Deadly Force, in Black and White.” It’s probably unrealistic to
that such a report would lead to an indictment of the police
officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. But that measure of
is not the only one that matters. By bringing attention to
the disproportionate use of force against black men, the ProPublica
may help shift public attitudes about that subject, and
it may open a dialogue both about police practice and about the
persistence of racial bias in the United States.

As media organizations become ever more dependent on funding
that doesn’t come from advertising or subscriptions—funding
that comes with pressure to demonstrate real-world impact—they
and their supporters should heed the risks that this trend involves.
Funders, for their part, must avoid the trap of supporting only groups
that are able to deploy the latest technology. A small journalism NGO
in Africa, for example, is unlikely to have the staff, skills, or resources
to use sophisticated impact measurement tools. Would we want a
world in which that kind of group cannot get funding? After all, until
a journalist actually covers a story, we can’t know whether the story
will make a difference.

Media organizations, meanwhile, must watch out for threats to
newsroom independence. The increasing focus on measurable impact
may become an excuse to decide that only some kinds of coverage
are worth supporting. If newsrooms limit their reporting to stories
that can have immediate effects or quantifiable results, they might
be unwilling
to cover large, persistent—yet vitally important—social
problems. Ultimately, the impact that journalists can have on society
will erode if they must serve the whims of funders. That is true
whether the funders in question are government officials, advertisers,
corporate owners, or well-intentioned philanthropists.

Show more