“Media Impact” –> Advocacy Journalism?


Lots of people in our business seem to be talking about “impact” these days. That includes people who think about media trends and, increasingly, people who run media organizations. Everyone wants to have it.  Meetings and forums are popping up to talk about it.

So what is “media impact”?  

That’s exactly what those meetings and forums are trying to nail down, but broadly, it can mean anything from “our reporting got a corrupt politician thrown out of office” to “our audience is more informed and engaged because of our content.”

Also, it has to be measurable and prove-able.  That’s partly because measurable “impact” is keenly important to foundations, i.e., funders, which are increasingly viewed as the key to sustainability in our business.

There’s a lot more about this in Current’s article about a recent media impact forum in DC, sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting.  CIR’s own writeup of the event is worth a read too.

Journalistic ethics missing from the conversation?

Both pieces include interesting discussions about how media organizations are beginning to set “impact” goals as part of the planning process for projects and series.  They also delve into the importance of forging community partnerships to amplify the “impact” of media content.

They spend little to no time, however, on the potential implications for ethical journalism or the possibility of a slippery slope towards advocacy or, worse yet, “pay for play” content.

Current’s piece dips its toe into these stormy waters, quoting PRI’s VP of Content Strategy and Development Kathy Merritt, speaking at the CIR event:

Merritt also acknowledged the difficulty of getting journalists to buy into conversations about what they want their reporting to accomplish. “We have to find the sweet spot that’s not advocacy — because I don’t think we want to go there — but it’s something that can still be a powerful change,” she said.

Ethical implications not black and white

If that’s all Kathy said on the matter, I don’t blame her.  This is a complicated issue, and as a journalist I find myself wracked with ambivalence about it.

My recent post on grant-funded reporting addresses the closely related issue of how to make sure funders don’t unduly influence your organization’s journalism.  But this idea of “impact” is not so black and white.

Impact is a worthy goal …

On the one hand, of course journalists want their work to have an impact.

  • We hope the corrupt politician is thrown out of office because we uncovered her dirty dealings.
  • We hope a business that’s harming consumers is punished because we uncovered its negligence.
  • We hope more research dollars are spent on an obscure disease because we brought it into the spotlight.

After all, many of us got into this field when we were young and idealistic, thinking it was our vehicle for changing the world.  And many great journalists do change the world.

… but journalism is about facts, not recommendations

Here’s the thing: the ethics of unbiased journalism require that journalists keep their “impact” goals to themselves.

Our job is simply to report the facts, not recommend solutions.  We leave that to commentators, advocates, and lawmakers.  If we cross that line, we become advocates ourselves, and we may become blinded to the other side of the story.  There is always another side, maybe one we hadn’t even imagined until we started reporting, and it’s our responsibility to tell it, even if we personally disagree with it.

If our media organizations set specific “impact” goals for our journalistic endeavors before we even start reporting, aren’t they – and we – prejudging the outcome of that reporting?

Take the disease example.  Surely, increased investment into a previously unknown disease would be an unimpeachable “impact” goal, right?  But what if we discover during the course of our reporting that the severity of the disease has been exaggerated by people with ties to the pharmaceutical company developing a treatment?  What about the simple concern that investing in this disease will shift resources away from some other worthy cause?

Journalists should be at the table

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think a lot of good could come from this focus on “media impact” … but only if journalists are at the table from the beginning of this discussion across the media landscape.

Let’s not fall into the silo trap, where media CEOs, development chiefs, and think tankers attend meetings and forums and figure out the perfect paradigm, only to be met with resistance and resentment from their news departments because they haven’t considered the journalist’s perspective and concerns.

Again, journalists do want to have an impact.  And we’re creative people.  If we’re at the table, we can all work together to have and measure that impact without prejudging it and without compromising our ethics, integrity, or credibility.

“Media Impact” –> Advocacy Journalism?

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