Investigating the Impact of Journalism

How should journalists measure impact? It’s a question I’ve spent much of the past year thinking about, reading about and — most recently — writing about.

ICIJA journal article I co-authored, “What Can Nonprofit Journalists Actually do for Democracy?,” examines how one prestigious nonprofit newsroom conceptualizes impact. From the Journalism Studies abstract:

At a time when news organizations are struggling to define and promote their own relevance, some argue that journalists should make explicit their efforts to contribute to democracy as well as the results of those efforts. This study focuses on one prominent nonprofit news organization, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), that openly discusses the impact of its work in a way that may point to the beginnings of a new journalistic theory of democracy. We conduct a discourse analysis evaluating ICIJ’s own language about three of its high-profile investigative reports into global tax evasion, and discover four ways in which the organization makes reference to the impact of those projects. Ultimately, we argue that this focus on impact—encouraged, at least in part, by the organization’s foundation funders—is leading ICIJ to measure its democratic role in a way that sets its behavior apart from traditional journalistic entities, presenting an opportunity for scholars to discuss journalism’s evolving role in democracy.

Less than two months after publishing the study, ICIJ became a media darling after coordinating the massive Panama Papers investigation. On the heels of that story I wrote a piece in MediaShift about how ICIJ discusses impact and how it helps us understand the response to its latest series of reports.

In doing research for this study, I became interested in all the potential ways to measure impact other than the typical audience metrics such as page views, scroll length and social sharing. Two that stuck out to me as incredibly important but rarely referenced: audience awareness and understanding.


That became the topic for my latest MediaShift article,  “Audience Awareness and Comprehension: The Seldom-Measured Metrics.” The piece, part of a new section on the website called MetricShift, includes interviews with ProPublica, Center for Investigative Reporting, WNYC, Solutions Journalism Network, Engaging News Project, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other news outlets/foundations thinking about impact. From the article:

As more news organizations seek to explain complex topics in engaging ways online, there’s a growing need for data on the effectiveness of their efforts. In a white paper on measuring the impact of nonprofit journalism, ProPublica president Richard Tofel wrote that “Explanatory journalism seeks primarily to elucidate.… The impact of explanatory journalism will be determined by measuring how much readers’ awareness or understanding has increased.”