How Discourse Media tracks the long tail of an investigation’s impact
What is the best way to measure the impact of our collaboration with Maclean’s that probed high rates of Indigenous incarceration?
As a journalist, when I start digging into a complex story, I’m bolstered by the idea of impact. When this thing breaks, how will people react? Whose perspective will be broadened? What policies might change?
I hope for a ripple and fantasize about a tidal wave. But how do you measure the impact of a story? And what can you do to extend that impact – without being branded an advocate in disguise as an upstanding objective journalist?
These questions all feed into a broader question we’re asking ourselves at Discourse Media: how can journalism better support the ongoing reconciliation process that was prompted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)? Recently we worked with Maclean’s reporter Nancy Macdonald on a whole-system investigation into disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates. When the cover story came out, we watched the social media responses roll in: some were shocked by the statistics and stories, others less so.
Tweets and Facebook comments are one way to gauge the impact of a story. As the name “Discourse” would suggest, we aim to get people talking about important issues. And so we’re developing an efficient and meaningful way to track (both quantity and quality) and engage with social media conversations. But how do you track the broader impact – beyond the surface Facebook feeds and other online forums?
We want to know how the story (dubbed “Justice is not blind” in print and “Canada’s prisons are the new ‘residential schools’” online) is being received by those with significant power to drive social change – government and community leaders.
Working in tandem with Macdonald, we’ve been following up. We reached out to provincial and territorial justice ministers, leaders of Indigenous organizations, and Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre. We asked: What did they make of the story? What do they feel was missing? And what actions are they taking relevant to the issues raised?
Ouellette, an academic, advocate and now politician, is well-versed in our justice system’s inequities. And still he was “struck” to learn how many Indigenous people caught up in the justice system “plead guilty in order just to get it over and done with so they can get home to their family, get back to work and just get on with their lives.”
He would have liked to see more in the article about the failure of the legal system to consistently interpret and apply Gladue, a set of principles established by the Supreme Court that courts must abide by when assessing cases against Aboriginal people.
“Essentially judges are breaking the law. That’s something actually very easy to change. The training can become something mandated by a province. It’s hard to change judges, but you can appoint different types of judges,” Ouellette offered.
He said he was going to meet with women at a prison in his riding this week. We’ll be following up to hear how it went.
NDP Fort Rouge, Manitoba candidate Wab Kinew responded to the story via a series of tweets. He offered critical feedback on the title Maclean’s chose to give the story online.
I also reached out to Assembly of First Nations BC Chief Shane Gottfriedson. Over the phone from Winnipeg, where he was attending the National Roundtable on missing and murdered Indigenous women, he told us what he’s doing to address the systemic injustices outlined in the article.
“We’re calling for adequate and substantial funding that supports many of our First Nations policing services – including specific federal budget commitments. We need to look at improved relationships with both our provincial and federal police systems – addressing racism.”
We received long lists of actions from (some of the) provincial ministries we reached out to. We heard from Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba. They told us about Aboriginal Justice Advisory Groups advising attorney generals, restorative justice initiatives, national roundtables addressing missing and murdered Indigenous women, youth justice committees and school curriculum development.
Of course, simply keeping a log of comments and promises isn’t enough. We need to know whether these approaches to addressing inequities in our justice system are impactful and scalable. Are policymakers following through on their pledges to make change? What do these changes actually mean at the community level? Over the next few months, we will be sticking with the story and asking these questions. At Discourse, we call this part of our process The Long Tail. In short, when we hit publish on a story, we don’t walk away. We follow the story of who is doing what. We track change.
The TRC called on public institutions involved in journalism, including universities, the CBC and APTN, to make change. And while every media outlet in Canada covered the release of the TRC report and recommendations, there has been little sustained coverage of how Canada is responding.
In the spirit of extending the impact of this story — and others like it — we are developing a digital platform where reconciliation-focused promises like these can be consolidated and closely monitored. We envision a website where people can go to see who has promised to do what, a place where journalists can go for story ideas. At the same time, we plan to produce journalism that investigates and explains examples of people working toward solutions. We will work closely with community partners to engage people in storytelling, and with permission, share their first person perspectives. The TRC has given us an opportunity to have a profound conversation about the role of Indigenous people and nations in the future of the country. We’re taking that opportunity.
These are some of our ideas for creating an impactful and collaborative space for reconciliation-focused journalism. We’d love to hear yours.