Program evaluation and investigative journalism

by bledsoe on August 27, 2008

It has been widely reported that traditional newspapers are struggling mightily of late, largely because of the proliferation of news sources made possible by the internet (e.g., blogs, Google News, Twitter, etc.). Mike Masnick of Techdirt points us to an article in the New York Times that highlights a business model that is an alternative to the traditional investigative reporter model.

The Times article examines a model that uses an approach called crowdfunding, in which the money to pay for a reporter to investigate and write about a particular topic is provided by a group of people who, for whatever reason, have a particular interest in the topic. (The article notes that crowdfunding is similar to crowdsourcing: "In crowdsourcing, the people supply the content; in crowdfunding, they supply the cash.") The crowdfunding model has been implemented in a number of different enterprises (including music, film, venture capital, consumer credit, and funding teacher projects) and is currently being tried in the journalism field by a new nonprofit group in San Francisco called "Spot Us."

These two models, the traditional investigative reporter model and the crowdfunded model, reminded me of two other models that those of us in the program evaluation field see all the time: the internal evaluator and the external evaluator. An internal evaluator is typically an employee of a (usually medium- to large-size) company and is responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of that company's programs. An external evaluator (aka, an independent evaluator) is typically a consultant or contractor who is hired specifically to design and conduct an evaluation of a particular program. Often, foundations or other grant-making groups require that the organization who implements the grant hire an external evaluator to determine the effectiveness of the program. The reasoning is that an external evaluator will presumably provide an unbiased (or at least less biased) perspective than would someone who is directly tied to the organization.

Like Masnick, I find the crowdfunded model described in the Times article to be an intriguing idea, but if the comments posted by some Techdirt readers are any indication, there are apparently a number of people concerned that the crowdfunded model is far inferior to that of the traditional model. The crowdfunded reporter, according to some, would not be an unbiased source of information since he or she would be tempted to slant their story to please their funders. It seems to me, however, that the temptation to slant your reporting to please your funders is there regardless of who your funders are. Traditional newspapers are regularly accused of slanting their coverage, or simply not reporting on certain stories, out of fear of offending their largest advertisers, for example.


Whether this new model of funding investigative journalism will find success alongside the traditional model is still to be determined, but I don't see that it is inherently more biased than the traditional model; the potential bias merely comes from a different source.

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