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Section 2: Topic 1

Impact vs engagement

The word ‘impact’ is problematic for many, given that it could be either positive or negative (and it has connotations of (possibly painful) collisions!). The complexity of the concept is summed up in this recent academic definition of impact:

Perceived and/or demonstrable benefits to individuals, groups, organisations and society (including human and non-human entities in the present and future) that are causally linked (necessarily or sufficiently) to research.” 

(Reed et al., in press)

In plain English, this definition is saying that impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. In a word, impact is benefit. 


Linked to this then, engagement is whatever you do to generate those good things. In some grant application forms, researchers are asked to describe their engagement as their “pathway to impact”. Using this metaphor, you may have many different paths to choose from, and you could have a team of people all travelling different paths to help you reach your destination. One of those pathways may be media engagement. As you stop to rest and take stock of your progress along the path, you often realise that you have reached important milestones on your pathway to impact. As a result of your media engagement, for example, you might have raised awareness of an important issue. Your task then is to enable the researchers you work with to capture evidence of that change in awareness before continuing their journey (sometimes with you and sometimes with others) to reach the next milestone, for example attitudinal or behaviour change. 


Crucially, this approach to impact focuses on the concept of benefit. It is surprising how much clarity it brings when you simply ask yourself “What was the benefit?”. Keep asking who benefits and how, and you will discover if there has been any impact. If there is no evidence of impact, then you have not yet reached your destination, and you need to work out what path will take you to those ultimate benefits. Very often, media can be one of the paths that can take researchers to that destination. 


The reason that media engagement is sometimes seen as a distraction to impact is that press offices rarely stay on the journey with researchers all the way to impact, and when they do, they are only able to provide evidence of media reach. If you consider impact as benefit, then it doesn’t matter how many people you reached if none of them actually benefited. For all you know, you may have just been generating noise or worse, you may have generated misunderstanding, offence and negative unintended consequences. The reach you can bring through media engagement only has value as impact if you can also show that at least a proportion of those you reached benefited in some way. 

Case Study: ‘They put a few coins in your hands to drop a baby in you’ – how research on Haitian children abandoned by UN fathers led to international outcry

This story was one of the first projects taken on by The Conversation’s Insights team, which was established to find great and important stories, harnessing the power of academic research projects that often go unreported and unnoticed.


The Conversation story (a reported piece of journalism by academics working with our two professional editors) was based on new research which involved interviews with 2,500 Haitians about the experiences of local women and girls living in communities that host peace support operations. Of those, 265 told stories that featured children fathered by UN personnel. That 10% of those interviewed mentioned such children highlighted just how common such stories really were. The shocking narratives revealed how girls as young as 11 were sexually abused and impregnated by peacekeepers and then, as one man put it, “left in misery” to raise their children alone, often because the fathers were repatriated once the pregnancy became known. Mothers were left to raise the children in settings of extreme poverty and disadvantage, with most receiving no assistance at all.

Once The Conversation team had the story ready, they looked to engage another media partner who would co-publish at the same time to help amplify the findings of the research. They approached Sean O'Neill at The Times, as his previous Oxfam expose was one of the first to really open up the global conversation about the behaviour of charities and NGOs in ravaged and vulnerable parts of the world. Sean saw the potential of the story straight away, as did his editor, who put it on the front page and allowed for a double page spread inside (largely based on The Conversation long read), as well as a leader article.

The story went on to create massive media and real world impact. It was followed up by (among others) The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters, The Daily Mail, The Sun, Huffington Post, The New Zealand Herald, Yahoo and Apple News.

Bocchit Edmond, Haiti’s foreign minister, demanded answers from the UN and told The Times:


“The findings in this report are truly distressing. The behaviour and actions described are deplorable.”


The Conversation article led to the government in Chile setting up a commission to investigate the claims and the UN is now working closely with the researchers as a result of the story. Bureau des Avocats International - a charity working in Haiti - has also said there was increased interest in their advocacy work and in their social media platforms after the article was published.


The research which this story centres on was carried out by Sabine Lee, Professor of Modern History at Birmingham University, and Susan Bartels, Clinical Scientist at Queen's University, Ontario. The Conversation Insights team is made up of two journalists and commissioning editors, Josephine Lethbridge and Paul Keaveny. It was in early 2019 that Josephine Lethbridge found a note on the research on a funding website and realised that this may be a very important story to investigate. She quickly set up a meeting with the academics who were very keen to work on a story with The Conversation.

As academics are not journalists and are not used to writing for the general public Josephine set them a very clear and detailed template on the best way to approach the story - to get past the data and to reveal the human voices. The Conversation then collaborated on the story with the two academic authors for almost 12 months.

Lee said: “The Conversation article has been an amazing asset and the reach of the piece has made a real difference to our work generally and our work with the UN more specifically.”


Bartels added: “We have now had really great engagement with the UN and this was sparked by The Conversation article. Thank you!”


The Conversation is a charity and an independent source of news journalism, sourced from the academic and research community. Operating in eight regions around the world it reaches a global audience of between 40 and 50 million people a month.



Read the original story in The Conversation


Read coverage in The Times

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