Evaluating Interactive Documentaries: Audience, Impact and Innovation in Public Interest Media

Public interest media organizations are increasingly interested in experimenting with interactive and participatory approaches to documentary storytelling enabled by digital technologies. However, due to the experimental nature of these interactive documentaries, it is not yet clear whether the more active user engagements they require translate into outcomes like sustained attention, greater narrative comprehension, enhanced learning, empathy or civic engagement – never mind larger societal impacts like improved public discourse, behavior change or policy change. The shifting definitions and measures of complex, multi-­‐dimensional concepts like “engagement” and “impact” is a challenge for public interest media organizations migrating to digital platforms – particularly at a time when audience activities have become far more transparent and funders place greater emphasis on “data-­driven” impact measurement.

This thesis explores the “theories of change” that inform institutional investments in documentary and examines how three public interest media organizations – the National Film Board of Canada, POV and the New York Times – are approaching interactive documentary production, attempting to define what constitutes success or impact – and how to measure it. I argue that we need new theories of change and evaluation frameworks that expand definitions of “impact” and “engagement,” balancing public service mission with the strategic goals of audience development and the circuitous processes of artistic and technological innovation. This means looking beyond quantitative mass media era metrics, which fail to account for important qualitative dimensions of the user experience. I propose a new set of qualitative and quantitative measures that might better reflect the social and artistic aspirations of the interactive documentary, test assumptions in ways that can inform project design, and embrace the potentials of technology to transform the methods, ethics and process of documentary storytelling in the digital age.


Sean Flynn

Sean Flynn

Program Director, Points North Institute