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The Case for Media Impact



The media—and especially nonprofit media—has spent the past few years struggling to measure the impact of its work. Some outlets are compelled to do so by counting their philanthropic supporters; others see their impact as foundational to audience development and engagement, and still others are beginning to experiment with the role of impact measurement in advertising and other revenue streams. Of course, at its core, journalism is intended to have an effect: to inform the public so we can be civically engaged and hold the powerful to account.

But what does it mean for a journalistic organization to put the goal of impact at the center of its mission? In this report, we explore this question through the lens of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its explosive project, “Evicted and Abandoned,” in which a collaborative reporting project of more than fifty reporters and fifteen organizations in twenty-one countries took on the World Bank. The investigation found that, over the last decade, projects funded by the World Bank have physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people; that the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation have financed governments and companies accused of human rights violations; and that, from 2009 to 2013, World Bank Group lenders invested fifty billion dollars into projects graded with the highest risk for “irreversible or unprecedented” social or environmental impacts.

Part One of the report introduces the current impact conversation in the media arena and describes ICIJ’s structure and strategy. Part Two traces the forerunners to some contemporary journalists’ discomfort with the notion of impact as a goal for media, and finds that, in fact, the notion of journalistic impact is nothing new. In Part Three, we examine how ICIJ’s impact imperative affects the organization’s approach to story choice, production, and distribution. The report also covers the challenges associated with this model and suggests what other journalistic organizations can learn from the experience of ICIJ.

Key Findings

  • A networked structure necessarily requires that ICIJ relinquish control of the investigation and content produced by partner organizations, which can result in reporting errors.
  • Measuring the impact of one organization and one project is difficult. Even knowing about the far-flung impact of ICIJ partner stories is near impossible.
  • Collaborations, however complicated, result in increased capacity, larger audiences, and greater potential for impact. ICIJ’s above-and-below distribution strategy has proven effective.
  • Large, international media generates attention to issues from international elites, while local and national media generates awareness among the most affected populations.
  • A rolling thunder approach whereby reporters stick with the story long after the initial publication keeps the spotlight on the issues.


  • Impact is not a dirty word: In our experience, news organizations are often wary of putting impact at the center of their operations for fear of getting too close to the ethical line separating unbiased journalism from advocacy work. The case of ICIJ demonstrates that an impact imperative need not cross this line, nor is impact necessarily a requirement that funders foist upon organizations. Instead, by having a clear mission that puts impact at the center of all it does, an organization can formulate its own theory of change (even if implicit) to guide strategy.
  • Give your audience more—people like positive change more than bad news: The next step for media organizations is to take the expansive notion of impact that helps to govern internal strategy and communicate these changes with audiences. Now, as the American public’s trust in both media and government hovers at an all-time low, it is more important than ever to show the positive change that often stems from crucially important investigative reporting. This includes not just the political and institutional responses, but also the nuanced changes that happen at the level of individuals and communities.

Read the full report here or download a PDF

June 7, 2017