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Assessing Inclusion as a Central Element of Public Media 2.0

On February 11-12 the Center will be holding its annual Making Your Media Matter conference, and this year's theme is "Real Stories, Real Impact." Leading up to the conference, and over the course of the spring Research Fellow Katie Donnelly and I will be examining methods for assessing various elements that contribute to high-impact public media projects.

At their best, such public media 2.0 projects reach millions of diverse users. They rely on the media makers to provide trusted, relevant content and tools that engage them to effectively tackle and solve contested problems, and to influence public debates through personal or collective deliberation and action.

Each of these elements of impact-reach, inclusion, trustworthiness, relevance, engagement and influence-play a supporting role in media projects that successfully convene publics. More often than not, however, public media projects succeed in one area, but lag in another:

 

  • they reach many audience members but don't engage them;
  • they strongly engage users who are united around a particular identity or ideological mindset but not the entire range of stakeholders in an issue;
  • they address important issues, but don't make them relevant to users.

 

Such partial victories can be frustrating to both makers and funders, because they don't have a shared vocabulary for systematically assessing the outcomes of mission-driven media. Few clear standards or frameworks have emerged for evaluating the salient elements of public media impact in the multiplatform, real-time digital media environment. And the old, reliable broadcast benchmark-reach, as measured by Nielsen, Arbitron, or box office returns-is fragmenting into many different encounters with content over multiple screens.

What's more, different communities of media makers value particular elements of impact more strongly than others. While journalists may focus more emphatically on reach, trust, and relevance, issue-driven media makers hone in on engagement and influence. Media projects dedicated to serving so-called "minority" users will, by design, tend to attract smaller audiences, as will "vertical" projects designed to take a deep look at a particular topic, and "hyperlocal" projects designed to engage publics by location. Does that really make them less valuable in a news environment that tends to skimp on both inclusion and depth?

Measuring all of these projects with the old yardstick of reach isn't just comparing apples and oranges-it's like throwing figs, starfruit, yucca into the mix, plus all manner of unprecedented grafts and hybrids.

We don't know which public media 2.0 experiments will flourish, and which will wither. But in order to support and replicate breakout projects, we need a better taxonomy for classifying them, and better tools for matching impact assessment to strategic intention. That's what we'll be exploring in this series of posts.

We'll be honing and testing the boundaries of the elements of impact laid out above, and pairing them with examinations of real projects in our Public Media 2.0 Showcase. We invite your comments and suggestions as the research evolves.

How do you measure inclusion in public media?

Inclusion is a central element to public media 2.0 projects, because publics can only form effectively when the broadest possible swath of stakeholders is involved. Lack of inclusion results in mistrust and disengagement by underserved audiences, and yields lopsided debates and coverage.

Traditional public broadcasting has been roundly criticized for its failure to engage diverse audiences through programming choices. The familiar filters of race, gender, class are often cited as barriers to participation or coverage in public media, but audiences also regularly point out bias based on political preference, generation, location, educational level, communication style, and more.

The evolution of networked public media organizations provides new opportunities for inclusion. But what criteria are being used to judge inclusion, and what tools can makers, outlets and funders employ to assess their projects? The recent report issued by the Station Resource Group's Grow the Audience project, Public Radio in the New Network Age, offers some clues.

The report cites committing to "a more inclusive public service" as the number one goal for public radio, and focuses particularly on improving racial diversity. Related indicators of change include:

 

  • Shifts at the top: Tracking and increasing the number of stations owned or controlled by people of color, and making sure that those leaders have a place at the table
  • New staffing choices throughout: Tracking the diversity of both on-air and behind-the-scenes hires
  • Expansion of perspectives and sources: Tracking who's selected by hosts and reporters as a guest, an expert, or a newsmaker
  • Launching more authentic and creative formats, programs and services: This can't be a quota-driven process-as the report notes "it is important to consider the advice we heard from numerous researchers and analysts: that race and ethnicity are limited tools in programming development and that public radio should give close attention to values, lifestyles, and interests as it pursues goals of inclusiveness and diversity."
  • Outreach to new audiences: The report sets a goal of tripling the amount of listening by people of color to public radio.

 

The assumption here is that by changing what happens at the front end of production-leadership, program strategy, reporting choices-public broadcasters will draw in new audiences. The report also offers some observations and recommendations about what it will take to move public radio stations into new thinking about how to not just attract and engage audiences, but to form networks of users. For us, this where the real action is, and where inclusion could become truly powerful-allowing publics to dynamically form around issues of concern to them, using content and public platforms as a catalyst for action. The overwhelming response to the recent earthquake in Haiti suggests how quickly media outlets can pair broadcast platforms with social media capabilities to inform, connect and activate seemingly disconnected publics around a particular crisis or issue.

The report also describes a system that's already lacking inclusion, and prescribes solutions for rectifying that. However, what if this is the wrong frame? Inclusion can no longer just mean increasing the diversity of traditional journalists, reporters and sources-it has to be understood as creating and utilizing open platforms to broaden the discussion and empower users from the start to make their own public media 2.0. This is already happening on commercial platforms, but could be refined and supported within a public media framework. Properly designed, such projects can actually drive broadband and mobile adoption, or be paired with related efforts to increase underserved populations' access to technology.

What new metrics might be used to assess this level of inclusion in many-to-many media projects? In this week's Public Media 2.0 Showcase, we explore this question by taking a look at the transition of ColorLines magazine-a project dedicated to the principles of inclusion-from print to mobile.