How CIR measured the impact of an investigative series

When Lindsay Green-Barber took a job as the at the Center for Investigative Reporting’s media impact analyst, she was struck by the difference between the way two stories were received.

Editorials and investigations followed Corey G. Johnson’s story about forced sterilizations in California prisons. But a CIR series called “Rape in the Fields” got a much quieter reception, despite airing on PBS and Univision.

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Both stories “revealed injustices committed against women in vulnerable communities,” Green-Barber writes in a new report, her first case study for CIR, assessing “Rape in the Fields”‘ impact. (You can read the report below.) “Yet, the sterilization story appeared to be creating more of a national public outcry.” Then, she writes, “I had a bit of an aha moment: Spanish.”

I Googled the Spanish title of the documentary, “Violación de un Sueño,” and at the top of the results list was El Diario, the largest and oldest Spanish-language newspaper in New York City and the oldest Spanish-language daily in the U.S. There was media pickup as well as outrage and a public conversation about the series, but that activity was occurring primarily in Spanish.

“I’ve heard concern from reporters,” Green-Barber said in a phone call, that by studying impact “we’re going to limit the kinds of stories we’re going to do.” The question is really “who do we want to be talking about the reporting and why?”

“Impact is kind of a funny word for journalists,” Green-Barber said. “I think generating public debate or inserting new knowledge into a public debate is what journalism is there to do. “So I like talking about that because it’s less polemical than talking about impact.”

Green-Barber used qualitative data collected by a couple of different means, including a clippings service and an internal application that tracks mentions of CIR’s work, and conducted interviews with sources, people who attended a summit about the series and people who contacted Bernice Yeung, who reported “Rape in the Fields.” (Yeung wrote this past March about how difficult it was to track the series’ impact.)

The series had impact on several levels, Green-Barber found, not just splashy outcomes like a California state senate bill that would deny contractors’ licenses to companies who employed supervisors who harassed workers but smaller-scale outcomes like community organizers who read about the series on a Listserv and then organized screenings and discussions.

Political machinery moves slowly, she noted, even when an issue is clearly identified as a problem. “It’s not realistic to think they problem is going to be solved when you uncover it,” she said. “What you can actually know is are you affecting the way they talk about it.”

CIR report on the impact of "Rape in the Fields"

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