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Modulation, by Nic McPhee

The Negative Impact of "Impact"

Feb 1, 2016


Much attention has recently been directed to the measurement of media impact.

In public diplomacy, the need to assess impact is readily apparent. Public diplomacy is a persuasive activity. Stakeholders want to know if the effort was able to “move the needle.” The same is true for the public affairs offices of corporations and government agencies. And in the “near news” articles by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the quest for impact is evident to the reader.

If, however, news is written or produced to create a certain impact, it isn't really news. It is advocacy, or propaganda. The audience for international broadcasting will perceive it for what it is. They will tune -- or point their browsers -- elsewhere.

In one government-funded international communication activity, international broadcasting, the situation is more complicated. The audience for international broadcasting seeks news and information that is more objective than the news they get from their state-controlled domestic media. Their domestic media designed to rally support for the regime and its policies. The audience for international broadcasting seeks relief from that type of content. They want to be comprehensively and truthfully informed.

While many countries engage in international broadcasting (now sometimes referred to as “international media” to encompass the addition of text via the Internet), only a few uncommonly wise national governments allow their international broadcasting outlets the independence necessary to achieve the credibility required to attract an audience. This is market-based international broadcasting.

News in international broadcasting provides audiences with the information they need to make up their own minds about current events. Citizens trying to build and maintain democracies need this antidote to the misinformation and disinformation they receive from dictators and terrorists. This is the “impact” of international broadcasting. It is subtle and occurs over the long term. It is difficult to measure. I find some of the best evidence of the impact of international broadcasting to be contained in historical works, especially those with first-person accounts (See, for example, references to listening to BBC in Germany during World War II in Eric A. Johnson, with Karl-Heinz Reuband, What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany, Basic Books, 2006).

If, however, news is written or produced to create a certain impact, it isn't really news. It is advocacy, or propaganda. The audience for international broadcasting will perceive it for what it is. They will tune -- or point their browsers -- elsewhere.

In international broadcasting, audience sizes in raw numbers are usually small compared to those of domestic broadcasting. The audience for international broadcasting tends to be elite, with an unusually high level of interest in news and current affairs. Often, they pass the information to their compatriots. Performance targets should therefore consider the quality as well as quantity of audience. The presence of other competitors in the international broadcasting arena is useful, because they provide benchmarks. If these audience numbers are satisfactory, impact will take care of itself.   

This is the communication process of international broadcasting. It is not particularly intuitive. The senior executives of international broadcasting must artfully explain this process to their parliaments and legislatures. Focusing too much on “impact” could compel staff broadcasters to create content designed to elicit prescribed results. This could reduce the audience to the point that the possibility of actual impact fades into the static.

Photo by Nic McPhee | CC BY-SA 2.0


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Why Don't They Listen?

Kim Andrew Elliot is right: " is written or produced to create a certain impact, it isn't really news. It is advocacy, or propaganda. The audience for international broadcasting will perceive it for what it is. They will tune -- or point their browsers -- elsewhere."

He is also correct in stating that senior executives of international broadcasting must explain this to their parliaments and legislatures or face losing audiences if they focus too much on impact.

Unfortunately this is not being done here in the U.S. Why? For one, the senior executives want to hold onto their positions. And secondly, as Mr. Elliot notes, the impact of credible journalism "is subtle and occurs over the long term. It is difficult to measure."

And our legislators, like investors seeking quarterly profits, want quick results. I fear change is not going to happen anytime soon and in the meantime the quality of our government-funded international media efforts will continue to suffer. It is time, in my view, for radical reform.

Mr. Elliott couldn't be more wrong

When I was put in charge of Voice of America Polish Service in the 1980s, I remember Mr. Elliott giving us the same advice. We did exactly the opposite of what he had recommended and VOA Polish Service audience multiplied from about 10% to more than 70% in a few short years. The problem was that like many of our VOA non-foreign-language speaking colleagues, Mr. Elliott did not know our audience or what living under a communist regime was like. When VOA followed his preferred model for many years earlier it was being beaten in audience ratings by Radio Free Europe by wide margins. His argument is also somewhat simplistic and misleading. Seeking impact does not mean engaging in propaganda. But audiences living under extreme conditions do not want bland news. American taxpayers want BBG to focus on countries in extreme conditions. They don't want to pay for another CNN International. Impact is indeed best measured long-term, but BBG would be wise to seek advice from experts who know their audiences.

So what else is new?

I don't remember the advice I may have given to the VOA Polish Service in the 1980s, but, then, at my age, I don't remember lots of things. I'm astonished that VOA followed my "preferred model for many years earlier," as I did not come to VOA until 1985. Apparently I had more "impact" than I ever imagined.

It's helpful that Ted brought up the example of Poland. During the Cold war, the peoples of the eastern European satellite states tended to be anti-Soviet, and the United State was anti-Soviet. U.S. international broadcasters could therefore wear their intended impact on their sleeves and still attract large audiences in these target countries.

Over the decades, however, I think the BBC World Service won the advantage. Their broadcasts to Eastern Europe were anti-Soviet in that they reported news that never would be disseminated within the Warsaw Pact. But BBC remained as dispassionate as possible under the circumstances.

I believe this is one of the two main reasons BBC World Service Group now has the largest global audience of any international broadcasting organization, even though the UK spends less on international broadcasting than the United States.


Kim Andrew Elliott has made a career out of audience research, for the former USIA and later for BBG/VOA. He raises some interesting points, and leads one to ask some questions.

"Audience sizes in raw numbers are usually small compared to those of domestic broadcasting," Elliott states.

But BBG, its subsidiary management (IBB) and public affairs entities, and officials of the various broadcasters, regularly boast about alleged success in generating numbers -- the more millions can be added to reports, the better.

Claiming sustained and increasing audience size, and coming up with creative ways to support those claims (a BBG official once described a process of "aggregating figures in a certain way") is now a central activity.

Indeed, everyone in the language services that multiplied (in some cases duplicated) across the BBG structure knows that they live or die based on these figures, whether accurate or not.

Mr. Elliott questions over-attention to the audience size issue. But these very audience figures always were and still are used by the BBG to lobby Congress for more funding to perpetuate often inefficient and money-wasting activities.

He also asserts that the "presence of other competitors in the international broadcasting arena is useful, because they provide benchmarks".

Quite useful, especially if we compare VOA, steadily losing respect as a destination of choice, and the BBC which greatly enhanced its status as a first class multimedia organization, rapidly and reliably delivering news and other programming.

VOA officials dismiss critics who point to overwhelming superiority of the BBC in both quantity and quality of content and speed of delivery. One wonders if they treat this advantage on the part of BBC as a "benchmark" worthy of pursuit.

Mr. Elliott has long asserted, as he does here, that "the audience for international broadcasting tends to be elite." Which elites is he referring to. A village elder in Africa, or a Nigerian billionaire checking his phone while riding in his limo? A 28-year-old stock trader in Singapore, or a member of parliament?

Here in 2016, who really believes that significant numbers of "elites" in the dwindling number of areas where BBG claims to have significant impact, have their eyes or ears glued to BBG products, more than to CNN, BBC or other global operations?

In a response, former VOA correspondent and manager Alex Belida calls for "radical reform". In an earlier commentary on CPD, he advocated for Congress to create some new grantee organization, though he apparently no longer proposes that BBG entities be placed under a "newly invigorated" VOA.

Let's be realistic -- there is little to zero chance of this happening anytime soon, no chance in this 2016 election year, and little if any chance when the 115th Congress convenes in January of 2017.

Finally, on the question of propaganda, let's be honest and, well . . . try to cut through the propaganda and fog.

During a BBG session this past December, BBG chairman Jeff Shell described the primary raison d'être of the agency as being "in the business of trying to influence people to feel better about America". The agency, he said, is here to "compete with our adversaries" and "challenge violent Islamic extremists spreading their propaganda online.”

Who actually believes that from day to day, week to week, month to month, in VOA as in the other broadcast/media entities under the BBG, managers are NOT handing out assignments to agency staff to produce reports, features, documentaries, or live programming NOT aimed at "[creating] a certain impact"??

When VOA produces a documentary about self-immolations in Tibet, or stands up a "Watching Violent Extremism Desk", or BBG creates a position of Director for Internet Freedom, or when VOA news correspondents are ordered (as we were several years ago) to reflect more of the "BBG mission"
in news reports . . .

Well, that's all about agenda, and advocacy, and with every report produced within that framework, the place moves farther away from being able to claim that it's there only to cover the news because it is -- NEWS.


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