Inauguration day is just around the corner, and many funders and journalists are increasingly concerned about the role media play in a free and democratic society. The field is moving quickly to understand the impact of “fake news,” propaganda, hoaxes and biased coverage—both in how they skew information relating to the issues funders care about, and in how they contribute to undermining journalism and democracy.

With that in mind, we thought we’d use the opportunities, challenges and threats of the new year and the new administration to take a closer look at how we’ve been thinking about impact here at Media Impact Funders over the past several years, and how we’ll be thinking about it going forward. Our resolutions: Dig more deeply into breaking research, and to make it easier for you to use the tools and resources we gather. To that end, here’s a quick tour of what’s on offer.

About our curated impact resources
Since the fall of 2013, our Assessing the Impact of Media (AIM) initiative has been developed with support from the Rita Allen Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation and the Knight Foundation. This curated collection of the latest analysis, tools and trends in impact assessment is designed to help funders and grantees understand the tools, methods and context for building an impact strategy and evaluating the outcomes of media projects. You can explore our repository to see how funders and media makers are thinking about impact right now, and how to build assessment into your projects or organizational strategy from the very start.

About our original impact resources
We’ve also collaborated with our members and others in the field to create original impact resources—most recently, this media strategy deck, a deck of cards to help funders and makers map out and assess different media engagement strategies. Also known as the Impact Pack, this deck was created by MIF’s Research and Strategy Director Jessica Clark in collaboration with the Media Impact Project (MIP) at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center and Dot Connector Studio.

Our other original impact resources include our monthly analysis pieces and AIM newsletter; reports including Funder Perspectives: Assessing Media Investments, which reveals foundations’ varied approaches to assessing the impact of media projects; how-to guides such as Impact Assessment for Nonprofit News Projects and their Funders (also co-produced with MIP); and our Media Impact Festival case studies, which offer examples of various ways to evaluate the outcomes of high-impact documentary films and interactive productions. See our detailed case studies from the 2016, 2015, and 2014 Media Impact Festivals.

We also regularly convene funders to discuss impact, and conduct research on how funders are thinking about and assessing impact in the field

How we’ve been thinking about impact so far
Here at Media Impact Funders, we’ve always worked under the assumption that impact means more than just tracking metrics.
Not long ago, funders, outlets and makers thought about media impact primarily in terms of print or broadcast audience: how many people watched, listened to or other otherwise experienced a story or production. In some cases, perhaps evaluators used survey or interview data to track whether there was a subsequent attitude or behavior shift among audience members, but there was no systematic effort to explore other potential outcomes.

In today’s complex digital media world, however, funders and makers have realized that there is much more to impact than these traditional metrics. Depending on the project, impact assessment may involve tracking community engagement activities, media coverage, political or legal outcomes, increases in diversity and representation, attention from influential people, internal capacity building and much more. Specific impact metrics will differ depending on each project’s goals, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Now, there are many frameworks, models, and tools to help funders and makers plan, evaluate and share their impact stories, and we aim to feature as many of them as possible in our collection.

Our collection also includes other types of resources, such as articles devoted to spotting trends in the fields of journalism and philanthropy that can help you understand the context in which your project needs to succeed, inspiring examples of innovative projects and collaborations, and research reports that delve into the neuroscience of decision-making and communications.

We also devote part of our collection to strategy resources. In the past, funders and makers were likely to think about impact after a project or grant cycle was complete. In some cases, external evaluators provided reports at the end of a project describing what happened. Now the media funding community is acknowledging the need to think about impact and evaluation from the very beginning of designing a program. Considering the unpredictable directions that experimental media projects could take, makers and funders now are looking for ways to embed impact evaluation throughout a project’s entire life cycle, shifting strategy in response to impact measures as needed.

How we’ll be thinking about impact in 2017
Going forward, we will be drilling down even further into complex impact dynamics. This includes increasing our attention to the impact of science communication, and honing in on research that examines the most effective ways to convey information given the neurological and emotional reasons why people believe in and propagate false information. Understanding how audiences process messages will take on heightened importance going forward, as many of the pressing issues that are near and dear to our members—climate change, immigration, LGBTQ rights, and economic inequality, for example—are facing even more enormous challenges over the coming years.

Over the next year, also stay tuned for additional changes and additions to our website as we continue to improve upon and expand our digital resources.

About the Author
Katie Donnelly

Katie Donnelly

Research Consultant

Katie is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders and associate director for media strategy and production firm Dot Connector Studio. She formerly served as associate research director at American University’s Center for Social Media (now the Center for Media and Social Impact), and as senior research associate at the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab. Katie has led impact evaluations for many media organizations including PBS, Working Films, and the National Association for Latino Independent Producers. She has conducted extensive impact research, particularly on the power of documentary film, and has written about the power of media to make change for numerous academic and journalistic publications. Katie has created many educational toolkits that use media to dig into social issues, including curricula addressing youth and gender, substance abuse, and gender-based violence.