Engaging the media to influence policy

By Greer van Zyl, Healthwrite

Media can play a critical role in influencing policy positively, according to Jo Carpenter from PANOS (UK). In the final media engagement session on Thursday afternoon, she outlined research which PANOS had done in Uganda and Jamaica, selected because of their high proportion of media independence and diversity, where coverage had influenced policy. Four case studies (two in each country) were examined, focusing on labour practices, developmental status of children (Jamaica), the Mabira forest, and use of polythene bags (Uganda) which had all had good media coverage. The research involved 12 in-depth interviews with key informants and content analysis methodology. The study found that researchers were equivocal on their roles in promoting the research in the media; some actively engaged the media; others were more reticent.

The key findings were that media were critical to influencing policy, but didn’t work in isolation. Debates were not initiated by journalists, but sustained by them. Civil society was most successful in catalysing media debates because of their skills and resources. Professional links were seen as critical between researchers, policy-makers, civil society and the media. In all cases, policy-makers saw the media as a source of information and a window on public opinion. The influence of a media debate was not dependent on its quality.

These findings show that communication strategies need to be systematically integrated into all research initiatives. Researchers need to be trained; professional relationships between media, civil society, policy and researchers need to be strengthened; and capacity building of the media is important, specifically for talk show hosts. Editors need to be engaged because they don’t have the time, resources, power to transfer skills to reporters through standard journalism processes.

Jo also discussed how the RELAY programme of PANOS works with developing countries to connect journalists and editors with researchers to enhance their capacity and communicate research. PANOS supports research institutes in their media strategies, and hosts events which bring academics and journalists together. Before working in a new country, PANOS scopes the media and research environments to spot gaps and identify lead journalists and researchers who are currently working with media. (See www.panos.org.uk/relay for more details)

Luisa Massarani from Brazil discussed the importance of radio to engage people in science as it has high penetration in the country. There were only a few science radio programmes in Brazil, and consequently people were not using radio as a source of information on science and technology.

A project was launched to engage 10-year-old children in science and health issues through a radio programme which trains the children in radio and science communication by deciding the format, issues to be covered etc. Another project deals with a radio science programme called “Electron” which integrates science and culture once a week in short snippets which features music and poetry related to science. Programmes have dealt with AIDS (data, vaccine development and Brazilian research on AIDS) and genetics (the use of genetic information on health insurance and jobs; research in genetics and tropical diseases) which is packaged with appropriate music (including heavy metal “Pity and the bloody chromosomes”). (www.museudavida.fiocruz.br/electron)

Communication does not happen in a vacuum or in a linear fashion, explained Monica Bonaccorso, a lecturer and senior research associate at Goldsmiths, University of London. “The question is how to really reach people through the media and how effective is it; what are we communicating?”

She explained that many communication models and expectations of communicators is that once a message has been conveyed, it will be accurately received, which is problematic as it does not account for feedback and cultural contexts within which messages are received. “Much of the effort we put into communicating science may be wasted because we are not communicating in the right way, which recognises that communication is an evolving process and is the product of learned events defined by social frameworks.” She said it was incredibly difficult to predict the effect of communicative efforts by studying audiences and doing evaluation because communication is so complex.

Julie Clayton, UK-based freelancer, trainer and organiser of the World Conference of Science Journalists taking place in London in 2009 (www.wcsj2009.org), spoke candidly about SciDev.net’s involvement in building science journalism capacity through training and workshops to promote the standards of science journalism globally.

She also discussed the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) which is an umbrella organisation promoting peer-to-peer mentoring in Africa and the Middle-East which aims to improve the quality of science reporting and improve networking. “It’s not only about linking mentors (who are practicing journalists) and mentees, it’s also about new opportunities such as setting up journalistic associations which can twin with others,” said Julie. The federation has created an online science journalism course: (see www.wfsj.org/course). Outcomes of the programme include better stories, more responsibility, more space for coverage, and recognition by editors.

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