Yesterday, the Lear Center launched the Media Impact Project, which aspires to be a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by $3.25 million in initial funding from the Gates and Knight Foundations, I’m optimistic that this project can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.
The New York Times picked up the story and I was thrilled to see reporter Michael Cieply focus on this aspect of the program:
to provide tools on an “open-source” basis, putting socially minded nonprofit groups on a more equal footing with corporate advertisers, who use sophisticated, but expensive, measurements.
As Bill Gates pointed out recently in the Wall Street Journal, accurate measurement is the key to innovation. Without benchmarks, we don’t know where we’re going. Because media is such a pervasive presence in human life, we need reliable systems for measuring its impact. It’s difficult work, as our funders have pointed out, but with the rise of social media networks and the prospects of big data analysis the academy has an unprecedented opportunity to step up and to provide mechanisms for measurement untainted by profit motives.
The entertainment industry is notorious for adjusting its numbers to service an often inscrutable bottom line. And all of us – including everyone who variously produces or consumes media content – have been ill-served by cookie-cutter audience segmentation techniques and panel-based research methods that cannot account for what’s happening in the “long tail” of our global cultural economy. The insidious audience segmentation techniques that valorize age, race, gender and income over every other facet of human identity have contributed to a media system rife with stereotypes about how humans tick. (You can find out more about my thoughts on this in this TED talk.) The awe-inspiring data sets emerging from social media networks offer us the opportunity to understand ourselves, and our engagement with media, in a far more nuanced way.
My vision here? Ultimately, I want media makers to have the resources to make data-driven decisions. Rather than depending on their “gut” and random comments from their kids and colleagues, I want them to grapple with meaningful feedback information that demonstrates how real people have engaged with their work and what effects that interaction has produced.
I also want media makers to have a far more sophisticated and detailed understanding of their audience’s needs, values and taste. For me, it’s an issue of respect. I want our media environment to be respectful and responsive to the needs of global audiences, not just a few prized, but deeply misunderstood, demographic groups.
Looking for a job? The Media Impact Project is hiring! Find out more.