Unintended Consequences: Should We Measure the Impact of Investigative Journalism?

Consequences” by SB Archer

July 13, 2017; Columbia Journalism Review

The growth of nonprofit investigative journalism is challenging the way the field looks at impact. For-profit outlets have traditionally drawn a fine line between rigorous reporting and seeking specific outcomes. But new nonprofit outlets are not only trying to cause change, they’re trying to determine the best way to measure it. Leaders in both nonprofit and for-profit journalism gathered recently to discuss how to measure their work’s impact, as reported in the Columbia Journalism Review.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet summarized the traditional position well when he said, “You do the work, you ask the hard questions; that’s the job. Your goal can’t be a certain type of impact, at least if you’re the New York Times, the Washington Post or the [Chicago] Tribune.” However, ProPublica’s mission statement commits it to “spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.” Its annual reports list the many change its stories produced.

CJR reports that this shift is “driven in part by the increased online presence of readers, top editors at for-profit and nonprofit outlets…described placing a greater emphasis in recent years on less tangible markers like raising awareness and sparking widespread conversation.”

For example, when  the Center for Investigative Reporting did an investigation in 2014 on pesticide use in strawberries, the Center commissioned a play to raise awareness of the issue in the affected communities. Editor-in-chief Amy Pyle said “her team is spending more time engaging with readers on spaces like Facebook and Twitter as well as holding community events.” In fact, the Center employed a full-time social scientist for years to “define and quantify those more subtle measures.”

The impact of online readers and the concomitant measuring of awareness-raising and conversation-spreading also leads to journalists exploring how best to present information to ensure high numbers. The Washington Post’s senior politics editor Steven Ginsberg said, “It is up to us to figure out how people want to get that information, how to tell people what we know they want to hear.”

But, as CJR concluded, “If there is consensus about the need for engagement and flexibility in story presentation, there was less unanimity about the value of journalists explicitly striving to foment change through their work.”

Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said that considering the potential outcomes of a story is “an integral part of deciding whether to undertake a project. In addition to considering whether an issue is systemic and of global concern, the group asks if the project is likely to get a result…We want to change something; that’s why we exist.” But Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said “working from the beginning of a project to attain a desired outcome can cross the line from investigative reporting to activism.”

When it comes to impact, journalists are divided on what explicit goals an investigative project should have, lest it wander into the territory of advocacy, which is often a negative word in journalism circles. But the marked challenges to truth and data today also bring greater awareness of the importance of investigative journalism to democracy.

CJR reports that since Trump became president, attaining impact has become more challenging. It also seems to be ushering in a “golden era” in awareness of the importance of investigative journalism.

“A lot of people are getting interested in funding journalism who haven’t funded journalism in the past,” said Pyle. “They want to make a difference.” That’s good news in particular for nonprofit news organizations, which, as NPQ has reported on the past (e.g., here, here, and here) are becoming increasingly important players in journalism. But we also wonder how much philanthropic funding of nonprofit journalism outlets is driving this quest for measuring impact—and if not impact, engagement.

When we start judging investigative journalism on impact, we get into the same situation we have with advocacy where some issues take years to see results because they depend on so many other readiness factors. However, keeping the issue surfaced and the discussion going, a role investigative journalism performs well, is hugely important. Further, if we measure journalism by whether people take action, we start to narrow the focus of topics. People love it when a story has an effect. Inside Climate News broke the story about Exxon’s longstanding knowledge, and it had huge effects because it opened up a number of actions against ExxonMobil, but they had no guarantee that it would have had the enormous effect it has had on the industry.—Nancy Young and Cyndi Suarez