By Anjanette Delgado
Measuring the audience response to a journalistic story usually means counting page views and unique visitors, yet that assessment falls short.
At my Gannett newspaper in Westchester County, we wanted to know more: What happened when we started asking questions (about a story)? After we published a story? When a key decision-maker or a crowd of people saw that story?
Did we spark a change in law, a donation, a citation or the dismissal of an unlawful employee? Did the family who lost their father’s Purple Heart years ago finally find it, with help from the crowd? Did we make a difference?
If you’ve arrived at this post, I probably don’t need to say that journalism matters. For many of us, it’s a calling and a purpose and so on. But while print newsrooms especially have been hesitant to talk about this lest we seem boastful, we need to drop the pretense and get comfortable reminding our readers, advertisers and subscribers of the impact we have on our communities — that is, if we wish to hold onto our relevance and our institutional heft.
That’s why we at The Journal News and lohud.com (Westchester County, New York) built an impact tracker — to record not the clicks but the real-world change our journalism inspires.
The tracker primarily serves, but is not limited to, two types of journalism: explanatory and investigative. Whereas the purpose of explanatory journalism is to make something clear (improve understanding, change minds), the purpose of investigative journalism is most often to reveal the secrets held close by those in power.
Documenting the impact of this journalism requires diligence and truthfulness on the part of the reporter; he or she must be able to prove, to a reasonable degree, that the change is the result of his or her work and not coincidence. It also requires time. The impact of a story might not be felt for months or years (for example, if a law is to be changed).
Do it well, though, and you will have information like this at the ready:
“The Pelham Manor Board of Trustees initially suspended Alfred Mosiello over racist emails he had forwarded. But within days of our revealing some of the emails, the board pressured him to retire.”
“The story led to Libby Pataki's resignation as tourism director, the dissolution of one nonprofit, and the reconstituting of another, with a proper board of directors and appropriate oversight.”
“After the story was published, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was considering a rule change that would limit the amount of hours track workers are allowed to put in during a day.”
“In response to a lawsuit seeking to improve secular education in some Hasidic yeshivas, Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-New City, crafted a bill that allows the state to enforce the legal standard of ‘substantial equivalence.’ The lawyer who filed that suit credited our coverage with emboldening plaintiffs to come forward with the complaint.”
“Our reporting and outreach to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer's office led to the Purple Heart being returned to the family of the World War II soldier and POW."
Underneath the hood
The tracker is a Ruby on Rails web application developed by Avram Billig to populate a database. Journalists manually add impacts and tie them to stories, and we can then filter and view by story, author, date, impact, etc. As reporters from multiple newsrooms add their work, it gets categorized and stored in a PostGreSQL database that we query to discover the analytics of impact over time.
Why we aren’t focusing on social media data
Many news organizations and foundations studying impact rightly track social media shares and influence as well to prove reach and influence, often, or money well spent. While our tracker includes an option to explain the social media impact, we chose not to put our focus there for two reasons:
We started the tracker two years ago as a Google Form because it was simple to spin up and revise as we learned more about impact tracking and how it can help our newsroom. (Much credit for inspiring this first version goes to the wise and thoughtful Lindsay Green-Barber at the Center for Investigative Reporting.) Version 2.0 is this software we’re sharing with other USA Today Network newsrooms, and we’re beginning to think about 3.0 features such as connecting impact to traditional analytics and data visualizations. Each iteration of the software is a chance for greater understanding.
How we use the information we collect
Questions about the tracker or how we’re studying impact?
Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @anjdelgado.
Avram Billig turned my visions for the tracker into reality and is the reason reporters and editors think this is all much easier than it really is. Twitter: @aabillig.
Traci Bauer gave us the support and freedom to develop the tracker, and she helped shape many of its features. She is the vice president/news for The Journal News/lohud.com and The Poughkeepsie Journal. She believes empowering a community with strong journalism is the best way to build loyalty among audiences, and tracking their actions helps measure our own success. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @tbauer.
Anjanette Delgado is the digital director and head of audience for lohud.com and poughkeepsiejournal.com. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @anjdelgado.
By Laurie Trotta Valenti, PhD
On September 27 in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of attending the Sentinel Awards, an annual celebration of television programs that entertain millions but also help viewers gain insights into serious health and social issues. These are popular shows that we (or some subset of we) love watching, shows whose writers artfully weave factual information into compelling storylines. The awards are sponsored by our Hollywood, Health & Society colleagues at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center. Categories include documentaries, talk shows, comedies, reality shows, children’s programming and dramas.
Highlights among the evening’s celebrity guests was Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) star Kelly McCreary, who spoke eloquently about learning of the rare type of breast cancer to which her character’s mother succumbed. Grey’s Producer Bill Harper, upon accepting the award, shared that a personal friend had pursued medical treatment after watching the storyline, which resulted in her receiving early, life-saving intervention.
Vera Herbert from the hit show This Is Us (NBC) accepted a Sentinel Award for a riveting plotline dealing with mental health issues, specifically panic attacks. Also celebrated were stories that made us laugh while informing, as awardee Laura Gutin Peterson from black-ish (ABC) accepted for the show’s exploration of preeclampsia among pregnant women. The unscripted series Born This Way (A&E) received an award for documenting the lives of teens with Down syndrome; and a story around the new Sesame Street (HBO) character Julia, who is diagnosed with autism, was celebrated as providing a tool for modeling social behavior among children.
Years of research in the social sciences tells us that children imitate behavior they see onscreen. We also know viewers gain medical knowledge from stories they see on television: a recent Pew report revealed that 83% of Hispanics studied received medical information from media. A study by the Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health & Society about a transgender storyline on the show Royal Pains revealed that the more shows with transgender characters viewers saw, the more positive their attitudes toward transgender people and policies were. In the case of Sesame Street, the “neuronormal” characters were helped to understand that a new friend’s seemingly eccentric behavior was due to her autism. How many children watching this show will now feel more comfortable interacting with an autistic classmate? In the case of Grey’s Anatomy, we know that at least one woman’s life was saved due to the information gleaned from the show. How many more viewers might these health and issue-oriented storylines impact?
Here at the Media Impact Project, we spend our days considering ways to measure precisely how a television show, a video experience, a game, a movie or a news series impacts audiences. We ask such questions as: What information did viewers learn and apply to their own lives after watching? Did people take action after viewing? Which storylines spur more viewers to take actions such as seeking medical treatment, or “liking” a story on a Facebook page, or signing-up to volunteer for a cause, or donating money? Answers to these questions could help writers, directors and producers create more meaningful stories that truly engage their audiences, and could assist anyone interested in media’s role in our lives gain more nuanced understanding of the issues. In future blogs, myself and my colleagues on the MIP team will be sharing insights on our projects and our methods to quantify media’s impact on viewers. Stay tuned!
The 2017 Sentinel Awards honorees:
Media Impact Project
A hub for collecting, developing and sharing approaches for measuring the impact of media.