Among the most meaningful discussions taking place in the digital media world this year has been the ongoing conversation about whether it is possible to measure journalism by its impact. I first became aware of this discussion through a post by Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times. Pilhofer’s post teases a Knight Mozilla fellowship and opens a Pandora’s box of ideas related to measuring journalism by its impact. The argument centers on the thoughts synthesized by Greg Linch at The Washington Post on his blog, The Linchpen. If you read the thread of posts you will see why I say synthesized. The entire topic revolves around the idea that digital publishing affords us many measurements related to the output of journalists (pageviews, time on site, pages/visit, etc.) but that these measurements are not the best ways to assess what journalists or media organizations do each day.
Pilhofer, Linch and others propose that measuring journalism by its impact rather than its popularity, reach or quantitative engagement would be far more meaningful both for journalists and the consumers of media. The big question, of course, is how? How do you measure the impact of journalism. They rightly point out that the industry already measures some things that look like impact (laws changed, injustices righted, awards won) but that these are not the same as impact and, in the case of awards won, have very little to do with impact. As you might imagine, a discussion about measuring impact can get philosophical very quickly and rightfully so. After all, when you propose to measure impact, it is inevitable to ask, “how do you define impact?” I suspect that the reason impact is so difficult to measure is because it is a construct. Many things, each independently measurable, make up impact but none of them completely defines it. It is the question of defining impact that poses the greatest challenge and that is the question I want to address here.
The principals in the discussion have pointed out that this question of defining impact has several dimensions as they drill down to the core of its meaning. First, there is the question of value. Is an impactful story about sports as impactful as an impactful story about high-level government corruption? Can it possibly be? The implication is that it probably cannot be as impactful, all things being equal. Therefore a measure of value, or maybe values, is most likely a term in the equation calculating impact.
Second, they point out that there is a question of scale in defining impact. If you presume a connection between impact and the thoughts and actions of a group of people, is the size of that group a factor in defining impact? If a piece of journalism changes the life of one person but is ignored by everyone else, does it meet the definition of impactful? Conversely, if a piece of journalism appeals to a large and broad group of people, how impactful can it really be? Is it simply riding some part of the zeitgeist?
Third, defining impact requires that we consider the intensity of the force that is felt. Impactful could mean contributing to popular culture or it could mean toppling presidencies. If it means the latter can it possibly also mean the former or is there a threshold to be met to be considered impactful? Is there an intensity threshold that helps define impact or what is meant by impact? For lack of a better word, does the outcome have to be “important?”
All of these questions have a common denominator, the core of question of impact, and that is “what do we want journalism to do?” By no means have I done an exhaustive analysis of all of the issues related to this question if that is even possible, but my hypothesis is borrowed from Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology.
I submit that the purpose of journalism, like the purpose of any worthwhile pursuit, is to increase human well-being and ultimately to contribute to our society’s ability to flourish. Seligman talks about well-being and flourishing in several works and notably in the Penn Resiliency Program, a program focused on cognitive-behavioral and social problem-solving skills. Seligman presents the major components of well-being and the extent to which thoughts and actions foster these components of well-being determines their contribution to well-being. I think it could be the ideal framework for defining the impact of journalism.
In his book, "Flourish", Seligman points out that there are five elements to well-being: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships and accomplishment. While some of these may be subjectively measurable, each can be assessed and its contribution to well-being ascertained. Likewise, I can begin to see parallels between these elements and the desired outcomes of journalism.
Using ideas of well-being and flourishing as starting points for defining impact as it relates journalism has at least four notable benefits. First, the well-being framework is unbiased when applied to journalism. Having been constructed for a very different and much more fundamental purpose, well-being theory does not fall prey to claims of liberalism or conservatism. It serves no master when applied to professional journalism.
Second, Seligman’s well-being theory is scientific, meaning that it has withstood the tests of experimentation and falsifiability. This is important in our case because, to be credible, any research into measuring of the impact of journalism should be subject to some rigor and the Scientific Method is the standard of rigor in any field of research.
Third, well-being theory can be applied to the individual as well as to the group. The elements of well-being, as outlined by Seligman, appear not to lose their conceptual meaning when considered within a population or community. This makes them and the theory great candidates for measuring the impact of journalism, which is almost by definition related to community.
Fourth, well-being theory is in itself meaningful. Therefore, measuring journalism on a scale that is inherently meaningful feels like the desired outcome. After all, current measurements are not inherently meaningful which has led to this entire discussion. Basing our measurement of impact on the ability of the output to contribute to the well-being of its audience is a departure from traditional measurements and certainly no simple task. After all, reporting what you might think of as negative news (murder, conflict, etc.) could contribute just as much to well-being as reporting positive news (heroism, generosity, accomplishment, etc.). How do you weigh their relative contribution? The point is that however you weigh them, the measurement seems to be of the right kind.
Fostering the conditions that allow for an individual or a community to flourish sounds exactly like what journalism media organizations were built to do. Making communities better places to live and improving the lives of the people in them, how else would you measure journalism? Any other way and we might as well be measuring hits.