The movie about the pedophile priest scandal underscores that investigative journalism and making an impact is what really matters.
This article was originally published at medium.com
Anyone watching Academy Award Best Picture nominee Spotlight will understand that investigative journalism is the future of news. The movie about the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic’s Church pedophile priest scandal is not just aimed at Oscar gold but is a model of impact media — a way of telling stories that can reinvigorate U.S. news. In U.S. journalism’s heyday, success was measured by newspaper circulation data and television broadcast audiences. Prestigious awards, from The Pultizer Prizes to Emmys were nice, but securing advertising dollars was the real prize. However, the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of social media has utterly transformed and disrupted traditional media.
Enter impact media — an approach where the success of news or entertainment is not measured in advertising dollars or audience alone but by whether it engenders societal change. It’s an approach embraced by many outlets, from grant-funded organizations such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity set up explicitly to conduct investigative journalism to for-profit newsrooms that also invest in public-service reporting.
Making A Difference
Spotlight is a perfect example of impact media in action. It recounts reporters writing about pedophile priests in Boston and uncovering the Catholic church’s cover-up. Their goal was not publishing sensational stories but exposing the corrupt leadership’s cover-up.
The Boston Globe’s work was impact media at its finest — after its 2002 stories, pedophile priest scandals were uncovered worldwide. The newspaper won a 2003 Pulitzer and Cardinal Bernard Law resigned. Now, the movie, too, is a great example of impact media by sharing that story with a wider audience. New York magazine’s Vulture praises the film: “This tight, relatively low-key, step-by-step procedural has a stronger impact than any horror movie.”
“The true story of a small team of Boston reporters who, in the early 2000s, uncovered a vast number of pedophile priests and an equally vast network of criminal enablers inside and outside the Catholic church, Spotlight makes as good a case for the necessity of investigative journalism as any film since All the President’s Men,” Vulture writes. Participant Media, one of the movie’s producers, is a leading proponent of impact media. Founded in 2004 by former eBay executive Jeffrey Skoll, it works to make entertainment that is profitable and inspires social change. They have remained consistent in their mission since their earliest releases, such as Good Night, And Good Luck, about how television newsman Edward R. Murrow defied corporate and sponsorship pressures to expose the scaremongering tactics of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy during his communist “witch-hunts” of the 1950s. The lesson from Good Night, And Good Luck and from Spotlight is that impact journalism was what made news great in the first place.
So, how can impact media firms measure success? Participant has launched The Participant Index, which surveyed 1,055 people for feedback. It found that more than three in four people consider human rights an important social issue — making it the single most important issue for viewers — followed by healthcare, education, crime, and hunger in the United States. The survey also assessed how entertainment influences audiences, finding that 39 percent of viewers shared information, 36 percent sought information, 28 percent took some action and 23 percent were encouraged to undertake community action. Columbia University’s Anya Schiffrin and Ethan Zuckerman from MIT write in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that as news operations increasingly rely on grants rather than advertising dollars and subscriptions for funding, that measuring impact is important.
The authors cite three keys measures — reach, influence and impact. Reach includes the number of readers a story attracts to how often it is shared on social media. Influence is measured in a variety of ways, such as the number of hyperlinks to a story. Impact is everything from changing laws to people signing petitions or joining organizations.
“Tools that can measure not just ‘reach’ but also ‘influence’ and ‘impact’ are in their infancy. Yet they are becoming ever more sophisticated, and our ability to apply them has advanced dramatically,” Schiffrin and Zuckerman write.
As the media landscape changes, impact media companies will face tough competition from newcomers seeking primarily to entertain. Still, the field of impact media looks set to flourish. For example, First Look Media, funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, wants to produce stories that make a difference. First Look’s President Michael Bloom cites Spotlight as his model. “Everything we do is going to have a distinct point of view. The way we talk about it is entertainment with something on its mind,” Bloom tells Poynter.
It’s clear that Americans want stories told well and that audiences are flexible about which media they consume. The brands that will succeed are those that take worthwhile risks experimenting with new forms of storytelling, such as impact media. News organizations making an investment in investigative journalism will reap the benefits because, as Spotlight shows, dedicated investigations cause significant societal impact and make the news media the true fourth estate.
On Oscar night, most nominated producers will want to win Best Picture to boost profits. But regardless of what film wins Hollywood’s biggest accolade, the producers of Spotlight have already taken the real prize. For them, Oscar gold would just be icing on the cake.
art credit ~ Open Road Films