20.03.18

How and why should journalists aim for change?

Pulitzer prize-winner Mike Rezendes discussed the need for impact with the Bureau team

Today the Bureau took some time out to discuss the relationship between reporting and change in the real world. This is a subject which is under frequent discussion now, especially for those of us engaged in public interest journalism. Mike Rezendes, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist from the Boston Globe visited the Bureau to give a key-note speech at an event on local reporting in the evening. Before that he sat down with the Bureau team to discuss the Spotlight team's reporting of the Catholic church abuse scandal in Boston and further afield, story-telling in investigative journalism, and impact. In the Oscar-winning film about the investigation Rezendes was played by Mark Ruffalo - and Rezendes told the Bureau that the film was a largely accurate take on the team's work. 

Rezendes told the Bureau that he judges whether or not to investigate a story on four tests: 

  • Impact is a criteria for choosing stories because “I'm in the business of making change - another word for impact”
  • Does the story shed light on a systemic wrong-doing?
  • Is it a story that “makes Boston people choke on their morning breakfast muffin?”
  • Can we get it?

He went on to say that he sees journalism as a public good: “we are in service to tell our story in a compelling way” and added that most journalists were interested in social justice. This meant, in his view, that whilst you can't always save the world and you're not a social worker, you probably do want your journalism to create reform in the real world. 

Meirion Jones/the Bureau

Christo Hird, a former managing editor at the Bureau, also visited us to run an impact seminar on the same day. Hird wrote a report, Investigative Journalism Works, for the Bureau, funded by the foundation, Adessium and published earlier this year. It looks at the impact of Watergate, Thalidomide, the Bureau's work on drones and Channel 4's Sri Lanka films. You can read it here. Hird started his impact seminar by going through the main findings of his report, which I edited for the Bureau (you can read my summary of the report as a whole here). 

He went on to talk about why the conversation about impact in journalism has sharpened and deepened over the last ten years - saying that it would have been rare to discuss it in detail even five years ago. “People who fund our journalism expect impact”, he said, pointing out that whilst the new model of philanthropic journalism does not demand a profit-based return, it did expect what he called “a transformational return”. 

He then acknowledged some of the dangers of the new approach. Some areas of journalism might be less likely to get funded now, he feared - pointing, in particular, to the fact that some funders might be “uncomfortable about journalists exposing big business; this is not unproblematic”. 

He talked about what impact means in real terms, defining it thus: “It's not reach or noise - it's change...you know impact when you see it.”

He identified four key points about impact in journalism, gained from looking at the case studies in his report:

  • it takes a long time
  • there is always opposition from powerful groups to the story
  • journalism alone cannot achieve change, that only happens in partnership
  • there is a negotiation between the roles of campaigners in an area and that of the journalist

He stressed that it was very unusual for one piece of journalism to have an impact - he had found that there was often years of work by unsung organisations behind the breakthrough piece of work that did gain attention and then spark change. 

Christo Hird talking at the Bureau Photograph: Katharine Quarmby/the Bureau

Picking up on the theme of the unease between the role of journalism and campaigning, Hird stressed that those involved in any impact campaign might have different aims, depending on their role. For example, he pointed how the Bureau's work on drone attacks started due to a desire for more transparency, compared to the aims of organisations that wanted to stop all drone attacks. Despite that difference in aim, working together had borne fruit. In the case of drone attacks, logged by the Bureau, although drone attacks had increased since measurement began, civilian casualties continue to fall. 

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The meeting then widened out to discuss the report and the role of impact generally. I asked Christo how we should integrate impact planning into our workflow, when it wasn't always easy near the beginning of the project to identify a policy ask or other desired impact. Christo acknowledged the challenge but felt that there was a role for what he called “fuzzy planning”, identifying potential allies for the work, a rough timetable for publication and a sense of what the story might be, which could then be firmed up as the reporting evolved. 

Rachel Oldroyd, the Bureau's managing editor, commented that talking about impact wasn't just something that was happening in journalism - she had seen how charities, also, were integrating impact into their discussions. “This is happening in parallel in other organisations”, she said. She added that conference sessions on impact used to be poorly attended just a few years ago but “now you have to shut the door - they are so overcrowded”. 

Meirion Jones, the investigation editor, felt that we should be able to identify stories or topics with a desired impact earlier on - and that being clearer about impact could produce stronger investigations with a longer after-life. Other reporters raised key issues - such as the problem of confirmation bias if impact is identified too early, that campaign groups need to be questioned on their aims and that good reporting is key to any form of impact. 

Megan Lucero, Bureau Local's director, made the point that all media organisations need to be get better at articulating what the value of great journalism really is.

The impact of our stories in the real world is a theme that we will keep returning to this year, as we deepen our own understanding of how journalism can affect change. 

Header photograph, of the Bureau discussing impact with Mike Rezendes, by Meirion Jones

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