Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Gates and Knight fund new project to improve measuring media impact

April 29, 2013, 3:03 p.m., Posted by Mayur Patel and Daniel Green

The following blog post is written by Daniel Green, head of strategic partnerships, communications at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Mayur Patel, VP/strategy and assessment at Knight Founation. Photo credit: Flickr user atmtx.

We’re excited to tell you about the launch of an initiative we’ve been discussing for some time. It’s called the Media Impact Project and it will be housed at the Norman Lear Center, part of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

With $3.25 million in seed funding from Gates and Knight Foundation, the project is an effort to advance a better understanding of audience engagement and media impact. Measuring how media influences the ways people think and act, and contributes to broader societal changes is something with which we all struggle. Our  hope is that journalists, media organizations and those involved in communication campaigns will be able to use this new resource to strengthen their work.

We know this is an ambitious initiative. We’ve been told countless times by colleagues how hard – and impossible – this may be. It might help if we share how we got here and why we believe that strategic investments in media measurement have the potential to be transformative.

Both Knight and Gates Foundation share a belief in the power of informed and engaged communities for many reasons – from strengthening democracy and civil society to helping address some of the world’s most challenging social problems. In this context, the possibilities of learning how storytelling connects people and inspires action are more exciting than ever. There is now a wealth of data generated by people’s consumption and production of digital media that can be used to improve how we understand engagement and when that leads to greater awareness, knowledge and even changes in behavior. This information gives content creators the opportunity to understand what works and to use that feedback to stay relevant in an environment of rapid change. Yet the tools and approaches we have to measure and analyze this data are underdeveloped.

In the winter of 2011 and spring of 2012, Gates and Knight brought together media practitioners, academics, evaluators and other foundations that fund media to explore these issues further. The group discussed how we define and measure media “engagement” and its effects on individuals and society.

From the conversations, it became clear that all of us are grappling with these questions more profoundly than ever before. As practitioners and funders we all want to know what difference we’re making in the world. The wide reach of media offers huge potential to do just that – but the current methods to measure it are inadequate. Despite advances in technology, we tend to rely on relatively simplistic measures, such as page views, uniques and retweets. The limitations of these metrics have sparked a vibrant discussion, with various journalists and editors pushing for better ways to assess media’s effects on people’s attitudes and behavior, and its contribution to broader policy changes.

The Media Impact Project is one effort to improve how we capture these deeper effects. The Lear Center’s team of social and behavioral scientists, journalists and data analytics experts will explore how we might go beyond basic measures of media reach. In partnership with journalists, storytellers and media organizations, the project will work on:

  • Developing and testing new tools and methods for measuring media impact.
  • Creating a data analytics center to collect and analyze diverse data streams related to how people engage with media.
  • Collecting and sharing best practices in understanding shifts in people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to their engagement with media.
  • Providing technical assistance to media organizations to improve their practices.

We hope that our foundations’ investment in media measurement will add momentum to the work various organizations are already doing to track how their content influences the way people think and act. For example, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, recently released a great overview (PDF) of the tools they use to understand the reach and impact of their stories. Similarly, at the start of this year the New York Times placed a Mozilla-Knight fellow, inside their newsroom to improve how they gage people’s interaction with their reporting. By applying statistics and social science research to journalism, this work has begun generating new metrics for news data applications.

The launch of the Media Impact Project is just the beginning. It needs ideas, participation, collaboration and great people. The Lear Center will be looking to build a diverse group of partnerships with media organizations who want to better understand how their content engages people and inspires action. This is a challenging task for all of us. Yet opportunity to use measurement to make our work, organizations and the field of journalism and media stronger has never been more urgent or promising.

By Daniel Green, head of strategic partnerships, communications at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Mayur Patel, VP/strategy and assessment at Knight Founation.