Section 2: Topic 1

What is impact and where does the media fit in?

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 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 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.