Duncan Green – How does journalism drive change?

Digging without fear or favour, dramatising academic research, coining a  buzzword that sticks – all ways a journalist can command attention and occasionally make a difference.

Duncan Green is Head of Research at Oxfam GB

Cross-posted from Duncan’s blog From Poverty to Power

This was the topic for the latest in a series of Brixton lunches which seem to proliferate in the summer lull. I was talking to Miriam Wells from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a very cool organization (@TBIJ if you’re on twitter) where she has just become the ‘Impact Editor’. Now she has to work out what that means – she sets out some initial thoughts here.

She has plenty to work with – the BIJ has some notable victories, eg on the rise of antibiotic resistance. It has a smart team of super-dedicated writers, an established reputation. The challenge now is to be more deliberate and systematic about achieving change.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about investigative journalism. Standard news journalism is part of the flow of information and ideas that facilitates social change, but this kind is a more deliberate effort to uncover what has been kept hidden by those in power, and (usually) to right wrongs.

Some investigations become their own events of course – think Thalidomide or Edward Snowden. There the story is so powerful that it brings about change all on its own. But they are the exception – so Miriam’s question is how to make BIJ’s less high profile work have more impact.

The BIJ feels like some kind of hybrid mix of the more thoughtful kind of journalism, thinktanks and academia, and faces many of the dilemmas academics face when pursuing change. There’s a lot of overlap here with our work on designing research for impact, e.g. on engaging the eventual targets of your messages in the creation of the content, via interviews, advisory boards etc. And, just like academics, how can journalists explicitly advocate for change while maintaining journalistic standards of objectivity? Even if they do so, won’t that damage their credibility?

She’d read How Change Happens and pointed out that the media only make fleeting appearances in it. Which is both true and odd, since I was once a very unsuccessful journo, and my wife Cathy was a rather better one.  So now is my chance to make up for that oversight with some random thoughts:

Miriam raised the question of journalism’s staying power. Following the news is anathema to sticking with a particular subject for the years and decades often necessary to achieve change. Activists worry about this too, but I’m not so concerned – if you think of change as a system process, any one player doesn’t have to do everything. Some (eg academics) naturally stick with a subject over the long haul, while others (eg media) are better suited to coming in as amplifiers at those moments of opportunity when an issue suddenly surfaces in the public debate.

Similarly I don’t think the BIJ needs to worry about always presenting positive alternatives – others, eg the Solutions Journalism network, can step into that role.

The BIJ could actually make more of its role during such ‘critical junctures’ – by bringing together the longer term, but slower-reacting players to take advantage of those windows. They could also fill a gap where academics and think tanks often fall down – rapidly rehashing the available research and advice on a given issue in response to an event. Academics are too often handcuffed by the research paper pipeline, while activists can seem so in thrall to their campaign plans that they fail to respond to (or even notice) new opportunities.

Another potential role is framing and narrative. The Guardian’s John Crace coined the term ‘The Maybot’ for what he saw as Teresa May’s robotic performance during the 2017 election and the term stuck, shaping how people saw her and her rapidly disintegrating premiership. Ditto narratives – Miriam talks about journalists being better at achieving ‘emotional resonance’ among the public and I think she’s right. What moves both the public and decision-makers are human stories and compelling narratives, even if they then have to backed up by number crunching, and journalists are often better at telling them.

But how about voice and ‘handing over the stick’? The BIJ feels a bit like a collection of super smart journos a la Woodward and Bernstein. The danger is that that gets very extractive – fly in, interview the victims, then head back to the office and the Pullitzer. The Bureau actually does some really interesting bottom-up citizen journalism through its Bureau Local project, but it could do more. In its great recent work on homelessness, why not hand out disposable cameras to 100 homeless people and see if they could generate a photo story?

This works the other way too. Journalists are as bad, if not worse, as academics at ‘giving the story back’ to the people they interview, let alone asking their advice on what to do next. Participatory blogging anyone?

Finally, there’s messenger v message. Journalism tends to be built on the idea of the heroic investigator (back to Watergate again), but in terms of impact it may be better to get someone else to carry the message. Who gets more impact on tackling plastics, a journalistic investigator or a secular saint like David Attenborough? (OK, he’s actually a sort of journalist, but you know what I mean).

Other thoughts?

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