the newsroom, data journalism and impact

Last weeks Comcast Watchathon brought me the doubtful experience of catching up on a couple of shows I’ve been curious about. Not much good came out of it. Of the one I had some hopes for was The Newsroom. Not only because I have been discovering The West Wing lately, but also because the topic is related to my profession as a communications specialist (though I have never worked in a TV newsroom, only in print).

For the sake of this article, let’s put the drama aside (and there’s a lot of drama and shouting and so on in the first three episodes, all that I watched). The promising idea was respectful: Create an evening news show that focuses on the facts, balanced reporting, and not squinting on the latest audience data. Alas, it only exists in monologues of high-flying aspirations for the show. What is shown of the show is what is being criticized: opinionated journalism, not fact-based journalism. The impact is measured by: the happiness of lead anchor Will McAvoy and his boss Charlie Skinner. How many candidates have been cross-examined. And overall ratings are 7% lower. Then I switched off.

Measuring impact of journalism

Which brings me to the white paper by non-profit journalism organization ProPublica Issues Around Impact I read this weekend: A very useful introduction by Richard Tofel into the complex task of measuring reach and impact of journalism – something that Jonathan Stray called last year a maddeningly difficult task!

There weren’t many ways of measuring the impact that did really surprise me, but I found a couple of findings very useful:

1) While true impact is rare, the “return-on-investment” is actually not at all that low. Take that ProPublica has employed about 20 reporters in recent years, and its annual reports cite around 9 instances of significant impact in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012.

2) And while not all investigation yields monetary returns, some actually do. Such as ProPublica’s reporting that won the organization its second Pulitzer and that has already resulted in more than a half billion dollars in fines and settlements paid to the federal government by financial institutions.
What to expect from journalism?
3) So what impact do we actually expect from journalism? Media as the control and accountability organ (the fourth power) is a key role for sure. In the case of ProPublica, the focus is very strongly on accountability and prevention of abuse of public power, as its mission states: “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting ofwrongdoing.”

But how about improving the lives of the people by identifying shortcomings of society more generally. (Keeping in mind the difference between journalims and advocacy that Tofel distinguishes well)

Snow’s cholera map

The data journalist

In my view, there is a new role of the journalist evolving: As a connector of journalism for improving society through data, stories (such as citizen journalism), and exposing not the abuse, but the simple not-knowing-it-better or not caring about enough. And researching and exposing data that may not be that clear at all.

A good example might be data journalism, a branch of journalism that traces its origines from the classic example of John Snow who uncovered through mapping of data the reasons for a cholera outbreak in the London of the 19th century.

This connection of journalism with data could provide for increased potential for impact. It might also put the journalist much more strongly in the middle of the policy forming process, and puts a focus on the integrity of data.

Research is of course nothing new for a journalist, it is quasi in its DNA, but I believe that with the technification – or hackerization – there will be some returns to come in the future.

By the way, it would be interesting to know how the New York Times was planning its impact when publishing their story into the hidden riches of Wen Jiabao’s family. Will our website be blocked?

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