How does Journalism drive Change?

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.

How can journalists explicitly advocate for change while maintaining journalistic standards of objectivity? Even if they do so, won’t that damage their credibility?

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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11 Responses to “How does Journalism drive Change?”
  1. Derek Thorne

    Thanks for this Duncan. Two initial thoughts:
    – are journalists comfortable with advocating for change? Many aren’t. I know of multiple examples where journos didn’t want to hand over their findings to NGOs/activists, for example, for fear of losing impartiality. And yet their work can be used in that way anyway. And journos are still happy when their work somehow contributes to change, even if they don’t want anything to do with that process. I think these issues still haven’t been reconciled.
    – on this point, I find it fascinating how journalists in many places in the South are happy to organise a street protest or take over a press conference to defend their freedom to publish, for example. It’s normal. In the UK, for one, it’s not. Journalists tend to avoid that kind of activism, even when new laws start to encroach on their freedoms. Impartiality rules. With the rise of misinformation, surveillance etc, I wonder if they can still afford to do that.

  2. Thanks for this post, Duncan – a lot of great points, particularly on emotional resonance and messenger vs message. I wrestle with a lot of the issues you describe all the time, in thinking about the function of journalism and as I chase the stories (not investigative, though). Particularly this tension between total impartiality as a journalist and working in a field where caring about social change is part of the motivation, which Derek raises above. In practice, they come into conflict in a few ways. For example, even a perception of bias matters for top publications – so if that’s what you’re aiming for, and unless you’re a columnist, activism is probably out of the picture. In my experience, even an indirect association with organisations will exclude you from a story that covers them. Another example: if you go into the field for a story, you will mostly rely on NGOs for access – usually it’s the NGOs you report on. If you’re lucky enough to have financing from the publisher or a grant, that’s one conflict sorted (if you don’t, you’ll often be seen as compromised); then there’s the softer influence of relationships and the value you see in the NGO’s work from the point of view of social change, even as you go beyond the feel-good comms story. How to strike that balance with impartiality? When I’ve faced this I’ve stuck with journalistic principle, and I think in the end that serves everyone better because looking for the other side of the story is often revealing. But it’s tricky. On the other hand, I’ve been in situations where the questions I’ve asked encouraged practitioners to think in a new direction. If that counts as impact through process, it’s much softer and harder to prove than a change in policy for example. And bottom line, as a journalist I’m paid by what I produce, so there’s not huge incentive to spend time on relationships or keep tabs on what happens after a story.

    • Really pertinent points Anita – to address the challenges you raise we think the role of Impact Editor is key to act as a bridge between the reporters and the NGO/advocacy world, as is maintaining and publicising our very strict editorial policy and rigorous fact-checking process. Worth noting though that building relationships with the NGO world is just one element of the network building journalists can do to help spark change – building relationships with experts who have different views, powerholders and even the organisations or individuals representing those whose wrongdoing you’re exposing is just as important. You’re right that to align ourselves more closely to any particular group would compromise our impartiality, so we definitely don’t want to do that.
      Finally, I would absolutely say that encouraging practitioners to think in a new direction definitely counts as impact through process! The Bureau wouldn’t quite do that but an example of something similar we do is proactively making policymakers aware of our findings and the recommendations that experts have made.

  3. Rob Nash

    It feels that for an org like BIJ a possible role is something like ‘forensic sense-making’? In a world and information ecosystem with a very high noise-to-signal ratio, and where it is very hard to identify signal, there must be a niche for outlets that can establish that they reliably do and share good sense-making in relation to people and things that have a big influence on our lives. And it seems that organisations doing this work need to establish a very high level of trustworthiness, and so should exercise a high level of restraint about advocating for things beyond those which help us make sense of the things that affect us and decide what to do about them. Others in the ecosystem that can and should do the narrating, advocating, etc. Maybe…

  4. Sina Odugbemi

    This is a big area for systems thinking. First, it is difficult to simply focus on ‘journalism’. The entire media system is what counts, and how it is shaped and structured in each context. With regards to the possibilities of change some media systems are non-permissive; others are semi-permissive, while some are permissive, that is, they structurally facilitate free expression, debate and discussion and so on. Second, in every country the media system is an intricate part of power structures and power games. Control of information flow is at the heart of power struggles almost everywhere simply because all the players understand that public opinion has a decisive impact on the outcomes of those struggles. All this is why I have always been frustrated by the fact that many of those who work in international development ignore the crucial role of media systems in affecting development outcomes.

  5. Thanks for this great blog on our meeting Duncan, and to the commenters above who have made some really interesting and useful points. In terms of the Bureau’s role in change-making, these are my thoughts so far on what that can look like and how we can be the most effective:
    1) We move from thinking about our journalism as words on a page to living and breathing in the world – and by that I mean the many ways our findings and human stories can be transmitted and disseminated over time, in both a reactive and a targeted strategic way. So yes we have an article or a package on TV news but our findings also turn into (for example): a submission for an APPG inquiry; a play touring affected communities; the reporter as a talking head on news programmes when a related event occurs; simple printed translated materials distributed to affected households; a briefing paper for politicians, activists, NGOs etc; a roundtable for stakeholders and “targets”; a social media package; townhall meetings; an academic journal piece; the list could go on and on….. We do a lot of that already and have seen how successful it can be; but with my new role we can do a lot more and be strategic about it from the get-go.
    2) We build strong collaborative relationships with all the other groups working for change in our issues – the affected communities, activists, NGOs, lawyers etc – involving them in our work and seeing how we can assist theirs. This requires transparency about our guidelines – who we will collaborate with and who we won’t, and in what capacity; and a high level of trust in our journalistic integrity maintained by proactively publicising our editorial standards and fact-checking process, which are among the most rigorous in the business;
    3) As you mention Duncan, we ensure the journalism goes full circle – so we take our work back to the people whose stories we’ve told, letting them know what we did, what we found, what happened as a result, and listening to their thoughts on what we should do next.

  6. Ken Smith

    Behind this feeble joke, I was thinking of a more serious point. It says about this blog ” We will be highlighting content that challenges assumptions about aid and who decides what constitutes knowledge” and yet I bet most of the contributors ( and readers ? ) have studied or worked in London at some stage in their careers and understand the Brixton reference. How about hearing from other voices outside of the development world like from business or religious leaders or even footballers like Didier Drogba who reputedly stopped the civil war in Ivory Coast ( and yes I know he lived in London too but probably wasn’t at these lunches )