Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: How do we measure impact as journalists?

As part of my MFA program at the University of Georgia, I write. A lot. And I enjoy it. I relish constructing a three-dimensional scene with verbal imagery. I read two books a month and deliver 350-word responses, which allows me to weave narrative into my work and ponder its process and impact. I have decided to share those pieces here when applicable, such as this entry about Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:

“We’ve all heard the complaints about television news.”

The man with the gray beard smirked and sighed, his boutonnière the same red velvet color as the podium.

“It’s superficial. It’s sensationalist. It’s trivial.” The compliment? “But it isn’t all ‘Action This’ or ‘Eyewitness That’. They’re not all Ron Burgundy.”

The crowd laughed. The Hillman Foundation this year awarded national journalism prizes for seven formats. Only the broadcast honoree needed to force a smile through a roast of his profession.

I watched the video online and prickled at the cheap shots. I value my job in television news. My goals far exceed Ron Burgundy.

But I know it has shaped my work. I fear the channel-click. I craft my stories to never lose their grip on the viewer. Jon Stewart once said, “I am very uncomfortable going more than a few minutes without a laugh.” I dread going more than a few seconds without a “moment” – a beautifully composed shot, turn of phrase, burst of natural sound, or anything that will snap a viewer back to attention.

That’s why I chose to read Evicted. Matthew Desmond immersed himself in a trailer park and ghetto to comprehend poverty in Milwaukee. He spent eight years on the project. He developed rich characters and trusted readers to stick with them for 400 pages – and past the epilogue for his thoughts on universal housing vouchers.

It worked. Evicted spent weeks on the Times bestseller list. Desmond received the Hillman for book journalism, topped only by the Pulitzer he won two weeks earlier.

I still wonder. For all its acclaim, Evicted preceded a Presidential election where affordable housing never came up. Our country is no closer to establishing Desmond’s voucher idea.

I often romanticize winning a Hillman. But I think less about how I write and more about why. How does true impact appear? In sales? Awards? Laws passed? Lives saved? The intangible ways people might change upon reading my work?

I question whether I would have tackled Evicted with Desmond’s restraint and faith. But I’m glad he did. And I’m glad so many have listened.


The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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