Carnival of Journalism: How To Measure What Matters?

My (belated) entry in the March Carnival of journalism. The theme: how do we measure impact?

Just as we need to be careful what we wish for, we must choose carefully before establishing metrics. From The Guardian‘s Simon Caulkin (emphasis added):

What gets measured gets managed – even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so…

Quality guru W Edwards Deming went further, putting ‘management by use only of visible figures, with little consideration of figures that are unknown or unknowable’ at No 5 in his list of seven deadly management diseases. Henry Mintzberg, the sanest of management educators, proposed that starting ‘from the premise that we can’t measure what matters‘ gives managers the best chance of realistically facing up to their challenge.

What matters? What is the role of journalism, our purpose, our challenge?

I don’t think that America’s news media have been given the gift of the First Amendment so that moguls can negotiate monopoly rents into millionaire status. I don’t think that America’s news media have been given the gift of the First Amendment in order to glorify celebrity culture (think Kim Kardashian, for example).

I do think America’s news media have been given the gift of the First Amendment to speak truth to power, to give voice to the powerless, to act as a watchdog on public institutions — all things that matter but that are hard to measure and even harder to monetize.

Two recent stories brought this point home to me.

First, the #STOPKony campaign.

The virality of the questionable video is unquestionable. On March 5, only 58,000 viewed [1] the Vimeo-hosted video. The next day, the number was 2.7 million. The third day (March 7) it was 8.2 million.

Cynics (count me in this group) see the $15 million raised from this campaign as a testament to the need to use any means to trigger donations so that those who run Invisible Children can continue to fight for their cause. After all, most of the organization’s budget goes to overhead, filming, salaries and travel (“we are an advocacy and awareness organization”) not aid to Africa; to arguments for militarization, not humanitarian intervention.

Yes, the group raised awareness of problems in Africa by appealing to the white man’s burden. It also tapped into the click-as-substitute-for-action movement honed to a fine edge by Facebook, lamented by Malcolm Gladwell. But more importantly, it’s generated a lot of money for the principals to travel around the U.S., talking to college students, cultivating a community with the power to launch a viral video overnight. Thus the story, many said (the younger you are, the more likely you were to believe this), may have not have been accurate but it matters and as a result did more good than harm [2]. Just look at at the inches of newsprint, minutes of air time that have been devoted to the plight of Uganda!

Second, Mike Daisey.

I saw Daisey’s show when he was in Seattle last year. I have visited Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan, but not mainland China. Even though I live on the left coast, have had students from China and have read Chinese-American authors, I know that my perceptions about Chinese culture and commerce are simplistic.

So I’m not surprised that my crap detector remained dormant as I listened to his (supposedly) personal stories. His fabrications fit the frame that I use to view “things Chinese.” But because the frame was skewed for at least one reporter living in China, we all now know about the fabrications, the deliberate lies to both America and This American Life [3].

Yes, Daisey raised awareness of problems in China. He did so, however, by linking Apple and Foxconn together like a horse and carriage, even though Foxconn makes products for every major computer electronics firm: Amazon, Cisco, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft … the list goes on. However accurate his story, many said, it matters and did more good than harm. Just look at the inches of newsprint, minutes of air time now devoted to working conditions at Foxconn!

In both cases, brilliant marketing and an exaggerated (to be kind) narrative raised awareness of something the protagonists believed was an under-reported issue.

In both cases, the story was also the vehicle for the storyteller’s livelihood.

In both cases, the medium was initially non-traditional. outside of what we think of as the “news media.”

These examples raise more questions than they answer.

How can journalists legitimately spotlight under-reported stories? How do we chose which issues to spotlight, and how do we carve out the time in an business climate squeezed by forever lost monopoly rents? How do we get attention in the attention economy without resorting to hyperbole? Is it proper for a journalist to become central to the story? How do we build networks like those of Invisible Children? Should we? Where do we cross the line from “speaking truth to power” to becoming advocates? Should we?

And how does “but it matters!” coexist in an environment where assessment is measured in large part by short-term page views and click-throughs?

Postscript: this is part one of a two-parter. While sitting in a hearing convened by the Washington News Council on Saturday, I started thinking differently about the word impact, moving from “measure” to “assess,” from numbers to fairness, from bottom line to social impact.

[1] “Views” are measured as someone hitting “play” not necessarily watching ’til the end
2] To be clear, I do not ascribe to this view.
[3] Even on stage, first person memoirs don’t get to play loose and fast with facts. It’s not a biopic when the storyteller is the protagonist!


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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

8 replies on “Carnival of Journalism: How To Measure What Matters?”

Just now reading this from Ethan Zuckerman:

He gets to my point better than I do:
“His story is one of a handful of recent stories that have drawn attention to the tensions between journalism, storytelling and advocacy, and posed an intriguing set of questions for people interested in the future of news. What Mike Daisey’s story brings into focus is the tension between journalism as “a discipline of verification” and the power of – and need for – compelling narratives”

What’s fascinating to me is that we both linked Daisey and Invisible Children’s STOPKony campaign.

Most definitely worth your time and it’s very #longform.

LOL – it’s a big link cuz you copied it from Facebook – and therefore the only way it works is for someone to be logged in to Facebook. :-/

WaPo link is still ugly (but not as ugly):

It’s an interesting story — and part of what the college students believe has a basis in reality. (Not the part about finding “Nixon’s secret fund” via a Google search — that one is very hard for me to swallow. I’ve not come across anything that, umm, shallow, in my teaching at UW – and all of my classes are not journalism classes.)

I get more than a little bent out of shape with statements like this one from Woodward (b 1943).

“The truth of what goes on is not on the Internet. [The Internet] can supplement. It can help advance. But the truth resides with people. Human sources.”

Woodward’s comment reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of “The Internet.”

It is a technology. It is a medium, like the phone, fax machine and telegraph that came before it. The scale of this technology means that what is being shared can be shared more widely and more cheaply than any medium that predates it.

But it’s still people (‘human sources’) providing that information. See Wikileaks.

We don’t have computer programs autonomously writing analyses and recording video and audio. Yet.

“The ballroom, though, was mostly misty with nostalgia.”

Yup. That’s pretty clear.

If students (“all” not “one or two”) don’t know “Martin Luther from Martin Luther King” that is not THEIR fault. It is our (collective we) fault because we are the people who shape the norms that are reflected in education curricula. It is our (collective we) fault because too often we reduce history to rote recitation of facts. It is our (collective we) fault because we don’t teach comparative religion or even a history of religion lest we offend someone (not just the religious right).

Hi Kathy
I taught at Columbia’s Journalism school for 7 years and then another 6 at NYU. Believe me, we have created an idiot generation. Note this piece from today’s WaPo
[Facebook-login-required link removed – see next comment for link]

(boy, that was a big link).

When I was at NYU most of my students didn’t know Martin Luther from Martin Luther King and didn’t care. Many thought that radio was invented by Macaroni.

Bring on the Kardashians. That’s clearly what they want.. and about all they understand.

Thanks. I expected you to disagree. :-)

No where did I say that news organizations should not “make money” although the BBC does a damn fine job with its hybrid model. Without them, we’d know a lot less about what’s going on in the world.

There are systemic issues surrounding mega-media-corps that relate to consolidation and capitalism that are larger than anything I’ve written about here.

You typed: “we may have debased our educational system and created an idiot society, but so be it.”

I can’t – I won’t – accept that attitude. Perhaps that’s why I’m an educator.

Hi Kathy
This was interesting, but I have to disagree:
“I don’t think that America’s news media have been given the gift of the First Amendment so that moguls can negotiate monopoly rents into millionaire status. I don’t think that America’s news media have been given the gift of the First Amendment in order to glorify celebrity culture (think Kim Kardashian, for example).”
The First Amendment says “Congress Shall Make No Law”. That’s pretty clear. It doesn’t say ‘here’s what you have to do with a free press’. Making money with a free press is the only way to have a free press. Otherwise, who pays for it? and if ‘we the people’ want to see Kim Kardashian or Cupcake Wars or anything else, well, we may have debased our educational system and created an idiot society, but so be it. That’s who we are. The last society to print ‘only important stuff’ was the Soviet Union, and while Pravda had great circulation numbers, I don’t think it was all that readable. The problem here is that ‘your’ idea of what is ‘important’ doesn’t’ mean anything – neither does anyone else’s idea of ‘what is important’. The nice thing about a free press tied to a market is that everyone gets to decide what they think is important. That you don’t think it’s important or junk or whatever..well, too bad. That’s life in a free society. That’s the price we pay for a true First Amendment. So let the money roll! And let the market decide. As Abraham Lincoln might have said – it’s the worst system, except for all the others.

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