I was very honored to speak at the Paley Center’s International Council Summit, an annual event that brings together a who’s who of media heavyweights and impresarios. This year the topic was big data and so the conference opened appropriately enough with Hans Rosling, the infographic genius, who shamed us for our ignorance about the state of the world (you have to see the video.) Eric Schmidt (yes, that Eric Schmidt) closed the proceedings with more quotable stuff than I could tweet (e.g., “The Internet is a huge accomplishment – don’t screw with it!!”) Of course everyone wanted to hear what Nate Silver had to say about his new gig at ESPN, and now you, too, can see every speaker on the program here . . . except me. I gave the luncheon talk at the 21 Club (talk about ambiance!) and so there was no recording.
Here’s what I said:
The Centers for Disease Control found out that over half of Americans believe that the health storylines they see in entertainment programming are accurate and a quarter say that those TV shows are one of their main sources for health information.
Of course we understand the difference between fiction and reality, but we have to be awfully naive to believe that really compelling stories don’t have an effect on us.
For 13 years, we’ve been doing careful academic research at the Norman Lear Center in order to figure out exactly how much of an impact media has on us. We’ve found that a storyline on the TV show Numbers – you know, the one with Rob Morrow – convinced 10% of its viewers to volunteer to donate their organs. An HIV hotline got a record number of callers after a soapie, the Bold & the Beautiful, aired a scene in which a guy tells his girlfriend he’s HIV positive.
Whether it’s smoking or seatbelts, or Fonzie getting a library card, we know that attitudes and behaviors can shift in response to imagery on popular television.
When we asked Americans whether they had ever taken some kind of action based on entertainment programming they’d seen, 65% of respondents admitted that they had. And those actions ranged from seeking more information about the issue to making a donation to a charity (13% owned up to that).
Is it a matter of monkey see, monkey do? Nah. Humans are more complicated than that, and so are the stories we tell each other.
The people in this room know how much is at stake. Imagine if we actually knew what role media was playing in our lives? What would happen if we could accurately measure how media moves us? And what exactly it moves us to do?
Just think back to a song, a TV show, a comic book character, a movie or a book that really shifted your perspective, that set you on a new path, that made you think about yourself and the world in different way.
We’ve certainly seen stories literally save lives. A radio soap opera in Tanzania was so effective at lowering HIV rates in provinces that received the broadcast compared to those that did not, that they had to discontinue the experiment and broadcast the show to the entire country for ethical reasons.
Usually we don’t have the luxury of creating such a large and diverse control group in order to scientifically measure the impact of media. You see similar issues in the field of education, where it’s taken entirely too long, in my mind, for educational initiatives to be adequately vetted through the use of control groups.
What if we applied the scientific rigor of the pharmaceutical industry to TV programming? What if we treated media as if it were a drug: which delivery systems would prove most potent and for whom? What types of content would prove life-changing?
At the Norman Lear Center, we recently developed a pragmatic new survey methodology for measuring the impact of media. The key is addressing the self-selection bias problem. Only certain people seek out certain kinds of media based on their personal taste and access. Our new tool accounts for that bias by calculating each and every survey respondent’s propensity to have seen that piece of media. After that likelihood has been determined, we compare very similar people who were exposed to that media and those who were not. Then we determine whether exposure to that piece of media is correlated with shifts in knowledge, attitudes or behavior.
When we used this methodology on the documentary film Food, Inc., we found significant differences between our control group and those who had watched the film, who were eating healthier food, were more knowledgeable about food safety issues, and who were shopping at farmers markets more frequently than very similar people who had not seen the film. (Here’s my TEDx talk about this research.)
These days we’re more awash than ever in data about how we humans are using and consuming media. For the Food, Inc. study, it was cheap and easy for us to gather 20,000 respondents through digital platforms.
But, as you also know, virtually no one agrees on how to measure media usage, engagement, and most importantly, impact. And the stakes seem higher than ever as we witness the development of ever more intimate and immersive technologies which make that bleed line between screen time (mediated reality) and real time thinner and thinner.
Why hasn’t measuring the impact of media been a priority for us? Well one powerful reason is liability. Who wants to be on the hook for having had some kind of negative impact on people? We’ve seen these accusations play out before with kids and violent video games or heavy metal music. Unless the news is good news, the media industry doesn’t necessarily want to know.
Another problem is that there are far too many incentives built into the media business to use measurement to game the system. The media industries are, by and large, for-profit industries. If you can come up with a custom audience measurement metric that makes your company more money, then you will receive strong encouragement to continue to use that metric – even if it doesn’t do a good job of actually monitoring who encountered your media and what kind of impact it had on them. The truth has been beside the point.
There are powerful incentives to keep your methods opaque – to come up with a black box algorithm that makes it impossible for others to check your work by attempting to repeat your results. This is why many media companies subscribe to multiple social media monitoring services, all of whom use different methods and generate different results that can be cherry picked by their clients.
So we remain adrift in a sea of unverifiable data points, making it virtually impossible for scholars and researchers to find out the truth about who engages in what media and to what end. As you can imagine, foundations that fund media initiatives have been very frustrated with their inability to get accurate, empirically solid, repeatable measurements of the impact of the media they have produced. Many have concluded that it’s simply too difficult and too expensive to do; that we’ll never have numbers we can compare, and, after all, isn’t it impossible to measure shifts in hearts in minds?
This year, we entered into a partnership with the Gates and the Knight Foundations to create a global hub for media impact research at the Lear Center. Our goal is to assist all media makers to do a better job accounting for how people engage with their media and assessing the consequences of that engagement.
We’re expanding the amount and types of research that we do at USC, and we are committed to collecting and sharing best practices from all around the world, from all sectors, academic, governmental, industry. From luminaries like you.
This new initiative is called the Media Impact Project and it brings together scholars across the disciplinary spectrum to develop and share freely the best possible tools and practices. Echoing Nate Silver’s comment this morning, I hope you’ll join us in making media analytics a non-fiction business.