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Harnessing Big Data to Measure Media Impact

The Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism announced a new program today aimed at measuring media impact. With $3.25 million in funding from the Knight Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Lear Center Media Impact Project hopes to help news outlets and journos understand engagement on a deeper level. Sure, journalists can measure engagement by number of retweets or Facebook ‘Likes.’ But just because many people retweeted a headline doesn’t mean that the story will promote change. (Especially if they haven’t even read it.)

“The metrics that have been used for this have been astonishingly primitive,” Martin Kaplan, director of the Lear Center, told The New York Times. The center is in the process of assembling a team of journos, analytics experts and social scientists to figure out how media affects the behavior of consumers. According to a post on the Knight Blog, the project aims to:

  • Develop and test new tools for measuring media impact
  • Create a data analytics center to collect and analyze diverse data streams related to how people engage in the media
  • Collect and share best practices in understanding shifts in people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to their engagement with media
  • Provide technical assistance to media organizations to improve their practices

Engagement vs. Impact

One of the tricky issues the Lear Center will have to sort out is the relationship between engagement and impact. (Namely, what is the relationship between engagement and impact?) Let’s say a story succeeds in explaining an issue well, and gets many RTs and ‘Likes’ on Facebook. But if all those people retweeting and liking the article are merely doing so because the story confirms their own beliefs, we can’t say that the story had much of an impact. A story, no matter how well-written or well-reported, doesn’t have impact unless it prods people to change their minds and/or actions.

Lately, big data has gotten a spotlight in the media, for its blessings upon Hollywood and HR departments. It’ll be interesting to see how the Lear Center’s more rigorous focus on data will impact journalism. Plus, they’re hiring!

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