Crossing enemy lines?

Credit: Flickr/oooh.oooh

In one of today’s lunchtime sessions at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists, Chris Whitty, head of research at the UK Department for International Development (DfID), said the point of research was not doing the research itself, but putting its findings to use. He emphasised that the media has a key role in facilitating the transition from one to the other.

This reflects an idea presented yesterday by Ugandan journalist Patrick Luganda that science journalists, if they do their job right, can provide a platform for informed decision-making and debate.

But creating such a platform means that reporters and researchers have to be fully engaged with each other and committed to getting the science out there.

Yet, more often that not there is, according to Whitty, “mutual antagonism, more often indifference”.

Why? It seems it all boils down to two simple excuses — from both sides: don’t want to; don’t know how to.

Journalists are reluctant because they think science is boring, irrelevant or just too complicated, or because they don’t know who to talk to. Researchers, on the other hand, don’t talk to reporters because they don’t know any, because they worry that their research will be oversimplified or misrepresented, or because they just don’t see communication as part of their job.

The answer, according to two DfID-funded projects in Africa presented at today’s meeting, is to get the two sides round a table to talk the issues through. For example, a discussion on language in one project in Zambia quite quickly led to a set of terms and definitions that journalists felt comfortable using in their stories, but which researchers felt still retained scientific meaning.

More difficult is determining where researchers’ responsibility in communicating science ends and journalists’ begins, said Alex Hyde from the TARGETS Health Research Consortium.

Indeed, as pointed out by TVE Asia Pacific’s Nalaka Gunawardene, some researchers have started bypassing journalists altogether and feeding their findings to policymakers more directly, using the plethora of tools available through new media.

Does that mean we’ll all soon be out of a job? Let’s hope not.

Sian Lewis, SciDev.Net

One Response to Crossing enemy lines?

  1. Geoff Dabelko says:

    Thanks for the post Sian. Any links on the two DFID funded reports on Africa you mention.

    Your column points out the need for non-partisan, non-advocacy matchmakers who sit between the worlds of research and journalism and research and policy. They are different languages with different tools (ie your don’t know how explanation) and it helps to have interpreters in the room. And your point about being in the same room is in fact key. There are precious few opportunities for it, I would maintain in part because donors, public and private, are so focused on measurable ends that there is too little value put on process ie dialogue as an end itself. If done well, it can lead to greater understanding, better networks, and constructive opportunities for improving respective professions through engagement with the “other.” In this way, the promotion of dialogue is a “faith-based” effort – one must have faith that getting the right people in the room and facilitating open debate will produce positive if unpredictable improvements in research, reporting, and policy.

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