Assessing Impact of Media

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Analysis

Insights from an Impact Conversation Gone Global

On the one hand, President Obama dubbed this weekend’s historic climate change agreement in Paris “a turning point for the world.” On the other, it “didn’t save the planet,” according to environmental activist Bill McKibben. However, “it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

Either way, there’s much more to be said and done—and these are no small stakes. Billions of philanthropic dollars have already flowed into environmental research and initiatives. Media is crucial in this sector, both to advance advocacy around solutions and to report on the real human consequences of related shifts in weather, air quality, and food systems, among other topics.

In November, MIF and Vulcan Productions convened leading funders and producers to discuss a slate of ambitious projects on related issues, and examine how best to both build and evaluate their impact.

Producers of such high-impact films as Chasing Ice, Time to Choose and Racing Extinction  discussed their strategies, as did leaders from National Geographic and the Climate Desk reporting collaboration. Speakers also addressed larger strategies for communicating around controversial climate change issues. Veteran social impact communicator David Fenton challenged funders to support more cohesive talking points across the board:

We haven’t been able to communicate repeatedly and effectively: What’s our simple message? We don’t have it. What’s our simple visualization? We don’t have it. What’s our simple message about how to solve this that we repeat intentionally all the time? We don’t have it. Who are our well-known spokespeople? We only have one, and he doesn’t work for everybody. All of these films, media communications activities, have to add up into a campaign. Separated, isolated activities don’t work.

Read more about this lively discussion in our wrap-up, and learn why even more funding for climate change media is needed in the wake of COP21 in this Insight piece from Executive Director Vince Stehle.

Two other November gatherings took on the question of how best to understand the impact of media on a global stage:

  • In Seattle, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) hosted its 10th “Dissection” meeting, bringing together leaders in media, philanthropy and research to share tools and methods for defining and assessing impact. Spanning two days, the event featured participants from six continents, and showcased rising evaluation approaches for news, entertainment, documentary, social media and more. Tune into the conversation via Storify, and see what CIR Director of Strategic Research, Lindsay Green-Barber, thinks will come next for the growing media evaluation field.
  • Impact questions were also on the docket at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. MIF’s director of research and strategy, Jessica Clark, participated in an industry talk titled Evaluating Impact, which took a look at the growing practices of both impact production and impact assessment across the U.S. and Europe. This field came into even sharper focus at BRITDOC’s first international Impact Producers Assembly, where they released an updated version of their useful and comprehensive Impact Field Guide and Toolkit with support from funders including Bertha, Ford, Knight and Sundance.

Taken together, these three events revealed a few clear takeaways:

1) Not all impact strategies are created equal: While U.S.- and U.K.- based producers and funders have taken the lead in both defining media impact and developing related tools, context matters when it comes to constructing campaigns in other countries. Producers, journalists and subjects can find their lives and livelihoods threatened when participating in forms of advocacy and reporting that have become routine in Western democracies.

Even in such countries, circumstances may change—as impact strategists associated with the documentary This Changes Everything discovered when French police cracked down on protests planned for the Paris climate talks. Activists came up with creative solutions, such as laying out 10,000 pairs of shoes along the route where the climate march should have started. Such workarounds point out the difficulty of developing one-size-fits-all campaigns, and the importance of ingenuity and local expertise among impact producers.

2) Everyone needs better directories: Whether you’re a funder seeking to understand the impact of your media grant, or a producer seeking to engage networks of stakeholders in the issue you’re covering, access to expertise is in short supply. A number of lists have been established, including the Fledgling Fund’s Provider Directory, POV’s list of Engagement Strategists, Tugg’s PMD Database, and our own working list of media impact experts. While the U.S. impact sector is relatively well networked at this point, there were a number of evaluators from across the world at the Dissection event who were new to the conversation. In field-building, there’s still much more room to grow.

3) The field would benefit from an “Angie’s List” for impact tools: While the laundry list of evaluation tools for journalism and documentary has grown over the past few years, there are few resources for comparing the costs and benefits of using the various tools. Also, a number of these tools are still experimental, or proprietary, making it difficult to share best practices.

What are your challenges in developing impact strategies for your media projects here in the U.S. or abroad? Let us know.

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