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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Researchers and Journalists: Wrong Bedfellows?

Researchers and Journalists: Wrong Bedfellows?

We ‘don’t see eye to eye’. They ‘don’t trust us’. We ‘don’t mingle’. They ‘don’t respect us’.

These kinds of sentiments capture the way researchers and journalists generally feel about each other. They were even echoed in a recent Panos Eastern Africa Media and Researchers Training held in Tanzania. The rationale, as you can guess, was to bridge the gap between these groups.

As someone who straddles the two professions as the proverbial bat I relate to both parties. On the one hand I complain about the way some journalists present what I say or write as a researcher. Yet I am at the forefront of criticizing researchers who withhold their findings from those of us who write in the media. In fact I haven’t yet got hold of a report from a research that I participated in three years ago. The last time I asked for it I was told I will leak it as any journo!

Depending on your vantage point it is tempting to dismiss one side of the story. That is why it is so important to deal with the danger of a single story so eloquently exposed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED talk. What is a better way of doing so than juxtaposing storytellers?

So here we go with what was said in Panos’ journalists-researchers talk: “The researchers always take away our ideas and they always keep their documents from us”; “Most of the journalists like to report that which impresses the public and not research findings”; “Lot of their research work is never available to the public and as such they have zero impact”; “I think the issue of the interest is not an issue, I think it is about marketing their newspapers and satisfying the market”.

The contrast was thus further highlighted: “Researchers are wrong, they complicate their work, they have to come down and teach us what those findings are”; “It is not a matter of complexity, the journalists are more interested in politics but not the analysis of research probably because of the nature of where they work”; “Researchers are happier with the mystery of research terms”.

Yet somewhere in-between one could find this peg that can bridge the gap: “There is a missing link because a journalist must be empowered to understand research”; “The missing link is from both ways, the researchers have to package their reports in a more friendly way and the journalists must show interest in the process and appreciate the stories coming from researchers”.

Of course it goes without saying that the story is not as simple as that when it comes to bridging the gap between journalists and researchers. Beneath the carpets and behind the curtains there are forces that affect these relations. These include corporate, political and even individual interests.

Nevertheless it is important to challenge such interests as long as they interfere with public interest in the true sense of the term ‘public’ i.e. the people. That is the role of the committed journalist and researcher. After all we, the people, have the right to be informed in our own right.

We are often told ‘no research, no right to speak’. It is about time now we insist that ‘no communication, no right to write.’ Our researchers and journalists ought to be communicators.

© Chambi Chachage

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