Defining “impact” can make journalism better

PERUGIA, ITALY – There are few moments in a journalist’s career as meaningful as hearing that their story had a positive impact on readers and prompted change. But most reporters and newsrooms lack the tools to accurately measure impact and understand how an impactful story can be replicated. Clicks and views can show the reach of a story, but how can we consistently tell if, and how, we are effecting change in the community?

This question is usually lost in the immediacy of the news cycle and the demands of a business struggling to find a sustainable model, but there are many newsrooms around the globe experimenting with new approaches to audience engagement and thinking about impact.

Our Report for the World program supports many of these newsrooms and we started to notice trends in the approaches of our reporters, or corps members, at each organization. To know more, we teamed up with Columbia University’s SIPA capstone team to launch a study to identify and understand how newsrooms create an impact in their communities, to learn about barriers they face and from that, learn how we can help overcome them.

This week, we’re at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, one of the biggest and most diverse gatherings of our industry, to share the findings of the study and broaden the conversation about impact with newsroom leaders from all over the world.

GroundTruth’s team and other media workers at the International Journalism Festival, where Report for the World launched its Impact Report and revenue roadmap. (Photo by Nathan Tisdale for The GroundTruth Project)

“Our Impact Review Report aims to amplify the work of our newsroom partners and provide them with tools to gather insights that can expand and improve their coverage and their connection with their communities,” said Report for the World Executive Director Preethi Nallu, who co-authored the study.

GroundTruth’s managing editor Wilson Liévano speaking with Report for the World Executive Director Preethi Nallu and former GroundTruth fellow Alessia Cerantola at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy (Photo by Nathan Tisdale for The GroundTruth Project)

The study’s other author, Columbia Professor Anya Schiffrin, developed a matrix that defines journalistic impact not just at the societal level, but at the individual and institutional one. As the study indicates, “This matrix helps editors, newsrooms and funders understand a range of impacts and how they influence each other: from the shorter term effects on the journalists producing the stories and audiences reading them, to the midterm changes with new stories and those strands that develop from a specific beat or topic, to the more gradual shifts that happen in the editorial missions of newsrooms. Finally, the matrix connects the impact of such consistent coverage to structural, systemic, policy changes in the affected communities.”

We can see how this plays out in the field through the case study of our host newsroom, InfoAmazonia in Brazil. Last year, corps member Fabio Bispo teamed up with the Center for Climate Crime Analysis (CCCA) to investigate how the meat sold in a French supermarket chain Casino was linked to the deforestation of indigenous lands in the Amazon by suppliers connected to Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS. The story had a big institutional impact by contributing to the delay and later cancellation of JBS’ IPO in the New York Stock Exchange; a community impact by serving as a reference for environmental organizations that put pressure on the Brazilian government to take action; and even at the individual level, by helping Bispo advance his career and gain recognition from his peers.

Although not every story can have these levels of impact, the matrix proposed in the study can help newsrooms identify and track what kind of impact they are having; improve their coverage; and be more responsive to the needs of their communities. As the report indicates, the solutions to the global crisis in journalism must be local:

“Regardless of the type of challenges – environmental destruction, systemic corruption, gender discrimination or racial injustice – the communities facing problems hold their own solutions. Local journalists and newsrooms are uniquely positioned to create accountability in these communities with their reporting, because of their access, trust, and intimate knowledge of the topics they cover. They are vital agents in the fight for social justice. They are conduits of our collective impact.”