How journalists can achieve a bigger impact with their stories

A conversation with Bernadette Kuiper, director of Impact Makers

Photo by CNN

This summer, the case of Noura Hussein, a Sudanese teenager on death row, resounded with a global audience. Noura, now 19, was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing her husband who she says raped her.

Media outlets around the world, including CNN’s As Equals’ year-long project on gender inequality, which the European Journalism Centre funded, put an ongoing spotlight on Noura’s case and on forced child marriages and marital rape.

Noura’s death sentence has been overturned, thanks to sustained pressure from international media coverage and the #JusticeForNoura global campaign.

Outcomes like this show how journalism makes the world a better place. And while journalism’s role is vital for democracies around the globe, its impact on society is perhaps not always obvious to the public.

This is why in a time when media face low public trust and financial struggles, measuring the impact of journalism can help newsrooms reconnect with its audience and attract new funders.

And while some newsrooms have started taking the mission of impact at the core of their existence, the wider journalism ecosystem is still to embrace impact’s value for journalism.

So should journalists be busy with impact? And how?

To understand how journalists can reframe how they look at audiences and the outcomes of their work, we talked to Bernadette Kuiper, who co-founded Impact Makers to support storytellers in achieving bigger social impact with their work.

Why should journalists care about impact?

Stories are and have always been what makes the world go around. It’s the way that we learn and progress together. But the traditional way of distributing our stories across the board is changing. The good old days when a good story was enough are over.

We now live in a world that produces too many stories. If you want your story to make a change, you need to do more than when everybody read newspapers. Nowadays, you need to take control over what happens to your story. You need a strategy to find and engage the right people who can make a difference.

What steps can journalists follow to achieve a bigger impact with their stories?

Step one starts with defining your ambition and realising where your stance is. Do you as a journalist have an impact ambition? Is this a story you feel strongly about and are going to put in extra hours and effort into? What change, if any, do you want to see in the world coming from your story? This is a very important step because only with the full commitment you can deliver the work that an impact campaign requires.

Step two is mapping the field that your story needs to land in. Who are the main players in that field? Who are the main partners that you need to engage? Where do you position your story?

Step three is building relationships with your partners and a network around your work early on. Many organisations can use your stories to improve or to reinforce their work. But they usually have many stories to pick from. So you need to explain exactly why your story is the one they should dedicate their time and effort to. Look for partners who align with your ambitions for the story and who appreciate the story.

An important step is to create an elegant exit. How are you going to leave the field behind? Who can continue your work once you’ve moved on to the next story? You don’t want to be seen as abandoning the network on which you relied upon along the way. You have the responsibility to not leave the network with a bitter feeling towards cooperating with journalists.

Finally, remember to go back to step one and ask yourself if you’re still following your strategy and goal.

Nowadays, journalists can also work with impact producers to develop an impact strategy and an impact campaign.

What’s the role of an impact producer and how can they support journalists?

An impact producer is a very familiar role for documentary filmmakers, where they focus on ensuring the film’s success in the world. In journalism, this is still a new role, only making its way into newsrooms. That is why I want to make clear that an impact producer is not a marketer or a distributor. A marketer is doing outreach work and asking questions such as “Who do you want to reach?” and “How do you reach them?”.

An impact producer is taking a step further and asking questions such as:

  • Why do you want to reach your audience and what do you want to happen next?
  • Do you want your story to create awareness?
  • Do you want people to change their behaviour towards something?
  • Do you want to support communities to work together in new ways?
  • Do you want to change rules and regulations?
  • Are you looking for a structural change?
Bernadette Kuiper during the impact brainstorm session for the EJCBolly Lolly Dhally project

In practice, an impact producer leads the strategic positioning work for the journalist’s story. They develop and execute an impact strategy towards the journalist’s desired goals.

It is a role that takes time, effort, money and strategic skills. It’s usually something that a journalist can’t do while working on a story. The story should be the journalist’s number one concern at all times. Without a good and compelling story, there cannot be any impact.

An impact campaign starts long before the story’s release. While the journalist is immersed in the story process, the impact producer is building relationships of trust, alliances and a network of partners. All with the aim to create momentum and the right conditions to support the story’s launch.

What type of stories are most fit for an impact campaign?

These are usually stories that deal with urgent topics in the world. They tackle things that everyone is thinking, talking and worrying about. Examples are the immigration crisis, gender relations, racism or climate change.

The downside of the impact hype is that everything needs to make an impact now. But that is not always the case. Not every story needs to make an impact. Some stories are important or beautiful or need to be told on their own.

How do you draw the right lines between where journalism ends and where advocacy begins?

Opinions differ on that, so every journalist needs to draw that line for themselves. Remaining independent when you’re creating your story is essential. And that’s a very definite line to draw.

For me, this is very much a theoretical discussion. In practice most journalists want their story to make some kind of difference. Journalists are usually very disappointed if they’ve worked hard on a story and once published nobody responds to it.

Find natural partners. Be always very clear about the fact that you are an independent journalist and the story is yours and nobody else’s. The right partners are open to these conversations. They know and appreciate your skills as a storyteller. I’ve rarely had the experience that organisations wanted to have some kind of say during the creative process.

How can journalism and society benefit from measuring journalism’s impact?

Measuring journalism’s impact allows us to talk a bit more in-depth about why journalism as a trade is so important for society. This is unfortunately no longer given knowledge for everyone. So, we need to make journalism’s impact less abstract and show in a very direct way how impact and change happen.

We need to be careful though not to overburden the journalists with this task. We need to take a collective responsibility for that. That’s where funders play a big role. It’s good to see that many funders are coming up with a budget to do impact evaluation in journalism. In turn, these case studies can speak about the change and societal value of journalism at large.


The European Journalism Centre is working with Impact Makers to assess the impact of the “Bolly, Lolly, Dhally — Women in South Asia Film” project. Stay tuned as we share our findings in the coming months.

The Bolly Lolly Dhally team during a brainstorm with Impact Makers

Further reading