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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

The Topic Guide on Politics and Ideas: The Communication of Research

The communication of research

In this section:

Knowledge Translation & Brokering

Influencing policy through research is not a simple case of producing knowledge that informs policymakers in a linear fashion, as the literature in on research within the policy process the demonstrates. How knowledge is used depends to a large extent upon who is it communicated to, how, and in what form. As a group of IDRC researchers describe: “Knowledge is like fine wine. The researcher brews it, the scientific paper bottles it, the peer review tastes it, the journal sticks a label on it, and archive systems store it carefully in a cellar. Splendid! Just one small problem: wine is only useful when somebody drinks it. Wine in a bottle does not quench thirst. Knowledge Translation (KT) opens the bottle, pours the wine into a glass, and serves it” (Bennett & Jessani, 2011). The translation of knowledge is a process that ensures research-based knowledge is interesting, understood, relevant, reaches the right audience, and compels action.

Discussions surrounding why and how knowledge is be ‘translated’ are vast, and often encompass a number of related concepts such as Knowledge Brokering, Knowledge Transfer, Knowledge Intermediaries, and Knowledge Management. Predicated – as much of the research-to-policy literature is – on the assumption that there is a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ between the research and policymaking communities, these concepts are used distinctively and also interchangeably as a way of describing the processes that take place at the research and policy ‘interface’ in order to turn research into action. Recently, these range of concepts have been grouped together under the umbrella term K* as a result of an ongoing work on knowledge sharing involving the ODI, World Bank, and the United Nations University. Described as the collective term “for the set of functions and processes at the various interfaces between knowledge, practice, and policy”, the various concepts it encompasses are thought to “improve the way in which knowledge is shared and applied; improving processes already in place to bring about more effective and sustainable change” (Shaxson, 2012).

The concept of ‘knowledge brokering’ is particularly popular (UNCTAD Virtual Institute, 2006Fisher and Vogel, 2008Cooper, 2010), alongside that of Knowledge Translation (Ward et al, 2011; Bennett & Jessani, 2011). Knowledge translation is often described in relation to knowledge brokers or intermediaries who bridge the gap between not only between the research and policy spheres but also between the policymakers and the media (White, 2012). Many different types of actors can be knowledge brokers and intermediaries by fulfilling a role within a knowledge system, including NGOs, universities, advocacy organizations, and think tanks (Knowledge Brokers’ Forum, 2010); and increasingly organizations are using the language of knowledge systems to describe what they do, for example The African Development Bank identifies itself as a ‘knowledge broker that’, due to its link with governments and with policy makers, has a role in brokering research for inclusion member countries’ policies (Jones, 2011).

The knowledge broker or intermediary is often characterized as a ‘middle man’ in the literature, literally a ‘bridge’ which sits in between two distinct spaces. The importance of using networks to bring groups together is emphasized, as is perceived neutrality, communication and mediation skills, and political awareness. In addition to networking, knowledge brokers are described as performing functions such as research synthesis based on analysis; creating partnerships for research; facilitating access to data and evidence; and convening meetings at a variety of different levels and for varying purposes.

However, the traditional approach to viewing knowledge translation and brokering as a process ‘inbetween’ policy and research has been criticized (Mendizabal, 2013) (Mendizabal, 2012) for creating an artificial distinction between researchers and policymakers. Further, there is a lack of clarity as to what K* actually is: while grouping together a set of related concepts in order to avoid the expansion of additional terms (‘jargon’) Mendizabal argues that “it feels a bit contradictory that to get rid of jargon the proponents of K* have created more jargon” (Mendizabal, 2012).

An alternative understanding of the functions already being carried out by think tanks, research institutes, and others is the concept of ‘boundary workers’ (Mendizabal, 2013) proposed by Robber Hope, which refers to individuals or groups that are part of the communities they seek to bring together. Rather than sitting ‘in the middle’, boundary workers are accountable to these communities, and they are experts in their fields – not experts in being intermediaries. In demonstrating the point the author writes: “A good economics editor should be just as capable of authoring an economics book or paper as an economics researcher. A science analyst in a government department must be capable of understanding and, if not replicating at least following, the nuances of the research process behind the latest academic studies. But both the editor and the analyst must be competent in their jobs as journalists and policymakers, respectively.”

Successful boundary arrangements have the following characteristics:

  1. Double participation (people from both communities are represented)

  2. Dual accountability (boundary workers are accountable to the rules of both communities)

  3. Boundary objects (they produce outputs that incorporate knowledge and methods from both communities: e.g. econometrist or climate models, biannual audits, reports, etc.)

  4. Co-production (early or premature consensus-seeking or compromise building is a serious threat to successful boundary work which must allow both communities’ knowledge and methods to work alongside each other)

  5. Metagovernance and capacity building (to strengthen the relationship)

According to Hoppe there are seven types of discourse on boundary work that can be identified in Dutch practice and that may provide some indication of their nature in other contexts:

  1. Rational facilitation of political accommodation: e.g. experienced and prominent members of advisory bodies, or civil servants attending to the knowledge and look-out function in departmental agencies

  2. Knowledge brokerage: e.g. civil servants or consultants who exploit opportunities for instrumental learning

  3. Mega-policy strategy: e.g. government oriented think tanks review long term strategic policy guidelines and pivotal assumptions in policy beliefs in use in light of the most recent sound science and argument.

  4. Policy analysis: e.g. policy units or analysts who provide politicians, and others with evidence based intelligence on long-standing programmatic relations with established policy networks.

  5. Policy advice: e.g. individuals or organisations that advice decision makers about the acceptability and feasibility of policy proposals incorporating the best available knowledge on what works.

  6. Post-normal science advice; e.g individuals, programmes or organisations that wish to create and institutionalize more stable role and interaction patters so that scientists and policymakers may engage in productive, open dialogue

  7. Deliberative –procedure advice; e.g. advisory bodies or permanent secretaries with civil servant status that maintain clear and transparent procedures.

This translated into four levels of boundary work:

  1. Boundary work is (trans-)nationally culture bound. Without them it is difficult to translate policy recommendations that may greatly depend on cultural norms.

  2. Boundary work across different policy dimensions. This emerges from the existence of different roles of different players in different policy domains. And different roles of evidence in different policy domains.

  3. Boundary arrangements and organizations that institutionally facilitate the science/politics interactions and knowledge/power structures in each policy domain.

  4. Boundary work in projects. These deal with project level infrastructure –and project design.


Hoppe, R. (2010). From “knowledge use” towards “boundary work”: sketch of an emerging new agenda for inquiry into science-policy interaction. In R. J. in’t Veld (Ed.), Knowledge Democracy: Consequences for Science, Politics, and Media. Heidelberg: Springer

This paper explores the concept of boundary workers drawing from the Dutch experience. It presents different levels of boundary work as well different functions thus demonstrating the range of individuals, bodies, processes, and organisations that can fulfil this role. According to Hoppe, the successful boundary arrangements include:

Successful boundary arrangements have the following characteristics:

  1. Double participation (people from both communities are represented)

  2. Dual accountability (boundary workers are accountable to the rules of both communities)

  3. Boundary objects (they produce outputs that incorporate knowledge and methods from both communities: e.g. econometrist or climate models, biannual audits, reports, etc.)

  4. Co-production (early or premature consensus-seeking or compromise building is a serious threat to successful boundary work which must allow both communities’ knowledge and methods to work alongside each other)

  5. Metagovernance and capacity building (to strengthen the relationship)

Bennett, G. and Jessani, N. (2011). ‘The Knowledge Translation Toolkit’. Ottawa: IDRC.

Based on attempts to bridge the ‘know-do’ gap in health systems research, this toolkit offers guidance to researchers in the broad area of Knowledge Translation (KT). The guide aims to provoke new debate rather than offer simple recipes, while enabling researchers to try different approaches to KT. Targeting researchers at both individual and organizational level, the authors argue that there are four reasons why the ‘know-do’ gap exists: lack of knowledge or access to information;  lack of understanding of information or why it is important; perceived lack of relevance – information is thought to be irrelevant and not beneficial to a particular agenda; and lack of agreement with the information provided. KT makes ‘research matter’ by ensuring that research reaches more people, is more clearly understood, and is more likely to lead to positive action. In short, that their work becomes more useful, and therefore more valuable. Achieving this demands better ‘communication’— transmitting information that is relevant, accessible, and meaningful to those who could benefit from it.  Knowledge that has been translated therefore informs, guides, and motivates; thereby turning latent knowledge into active knowledge. KT ensures that the targets of research messages think that research is interesting, relevant, clear and credible, and compels action. The guide is organized in five sections:

  1. The Concept (Section I) – closing the know-do gap: turning knowledge into action.

  2. The Audience (Section II) – identifying who has the power to take action (policy/practice).

  3. The Message (Section III) – packaging the knowledge appropriately for that audience.

  4. The Medium (Section IV) – delivering the message, closing thegap, triggering the action.

  5. The Tools (Section V) – a few more thoughts about the methods of doing all those things.

Ward, V., Smith, S., Carruthers, S., Hamer, S., and House, A. (2010) ‘Knowledge Brokering: Exploring the process of transferring knowledge into action’. Leeds: University of Leeds.

This paper presents the findings of a project funded by the Medical Research Council on how knowledge is transferred in the health sector. The research was designed to: (1) gain a better understanding of the processes involved in knowledge transfer and (2) produce a template to help researchers, practitioners and decision makers plan and evaluate initiatives for transferring knowledge into action. The authors argue that knowledge transfer, rather than involving a simple linear process, is complex, dynamic and iterative, and that a model which shows how this process works can help research producers and users plan and evaluate knowledge transfer activities. The researchers have developed a model involving two practical frameworks for thinking about knowledge transfer – one for the user and one for the producers of research. The authors suggest that further research will involve developing the frameworks in conjunction with research users and producers, testing their applicability in different contexts and testing their effectiveness as tools for planning and evaluating the knowledge transfer process.

Shaxson, L. (2012) ‘Expanding our Understanding of K*(Kt, KE, Ktt, KMb, KB, KM, etc.)’: A concept paper emerging from the K* conference held in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, April 2012.

This paper provides a core concept of K*, which is the collective term for the set of processes that take place during the interfaces between knowledge, policy and practice and have the objective of improving the sharing of knowledge and its use. The processes that make up K* are knowledge management, knowledge transfer, knowledge translation, knowledge exchange, knowledge brokering and knowledge mobilisation, all of which share principles and functions and have blurred boundaries between them. These processes can be best understood in a spectrum: they might have different roles but they have a common origin, which is the enabling of access to different sources of information. The paper also provides case studies analysing how K* has been approached by think tanks, international organizations and governmental institutions.

Vogel, I. and Fisher, C. (2008) ‘Locating the power of in-between: How research brokers and intermediaries support evidence-based pro-poor policy and practice’. Brighton: IDS.

This background paper, written for the Conference “Locating the power of in-between: how research brokers and intermediaries support evidence-based pro-poor policy and practice” which took place in Centurion, Pretoria South Africa on 1-2 July 2008, discusses the definition of pro – poor evidence based policy and what role research brokers and intermediaries have in the development of said policy. The paper understands research brokers and intermediaries as actors who are involved in the process of generating, organising or communicating information based on research for a particular purpose and for specific social groups, facilitating exchanges between these.  Due to their access to research based information, they provide rich sources for the development of evidence based policy.

Cooper, A. (2010) ‘Knowledge Brokers – A Promising Knowledge Mobilization Strategy to Increase Research Use and Its Impact in Education’. Denver: AERA

This article discusses knowledge brokers’ capacity to bridge the gap between research and policy regarding education in Canada. It outlines the different types of knowledge brokers that are involved in bringing together research on education and policy, such as ministry research branches, universities, think tanks, advocacy organizations, as well as a list of several types of knowledge brokering models. It concludes that knowledge brokers are useful for the mobilization of information across the different organizations, departments and stakeholders invested in education in Canada.

UNCTAD Virtual Institute (2006). ‘Research-Based Policy Making:  Bridging The Gap Between Researchers And Policy Makers: Recommendations for researchers and policy makers’. UNCTAD-WTO-ITC workshop on trade policy analysis, Geneva, 11 – 15 September 2006.

It is common for there to be a lack of communication and interaction between researchers and policy makers, which results in a lack of evidence based policy. This article, a report resulting from a UNCTAD – WHO – ITC workshop, states that, in the case of research and trade, findings can only be used if there is close cooperation between researchers and policy makers and if both parties understand the need for topic relevance, communication, dissemination and implementation of research output. Among its recommendations for researchers is the need to disseminate their information, to have direct contacts with decision makers and to make their research more relevant. Meanwhile, it recommends policy makers to involve researchers in policy consultation, and to create channels that inform academia of major policy questions.

Knowledge Brokers’ Forum (2010) ‘E-Discussion: Knowledge Brokering and Intermediary concepts.’  Knowledge Brokers’ Forum.

This document is a compilation of emails exchanged by individuals who identify themselves as knowledge brokers and participate in the Knowledge Brokers’ Forum. The document concludes that knowledge brokers come from different backgrounds – they can be individuals, think tanks, advocacy organizations, libraries and resource centres, NGOs, even countries. While the different concepts linked to knowledge production are mostly used interchangeably, they propose that a knowledge broker is as proactive facilitator of knowledge that connects people and organizations to add value to existing information.


McIntosh White, J. (2012) ‘Translating Technology, Science and Health: Public Information Officers as Knowledge Transfer Intermediaries’. New Mexico: University of New Mexico.

There is still belief among the scientific community that the media is not a convenient channel through which research finding may be announced, preferring to address the public directly. Public Information Officers (PIOs) act as knowledge transfer intermediaries between scientists and the mass media, and try to distribute scientific research to the latter in order for them to publish research stories by using news releases, institutional websites and direct contacts with reporters and editors. However, many PIOs are lacking in skills that would enable them to effectively speak with scientists. This study attempts to measure the technological and scientific orientation of PIOs and studies how this correlates to PIOs roles in the knowledge transfer process.

Jones, B. (2011). ‘Linking Research to Policy: the African Development Bank as a Knowledge Broker’. Tunis: African Development Bank Group

This working paper analyzes the role of the African Development Bank as a knowledge broker for regional member countries. It argues that the ADB is well – positioned for this role because it already conducts high quality research and has close ties to relevant policy makers which it can leverage to make a bigger impact on policy.

Boundary workers

Mendizabal, E. (2012). K* (and * stands for what exactly?) onthinktanks Blogpost, April 27th 2012.

The emerging K* concept is a distraction from existing individuals, groups and organizations that already serve as knowledge managers, brokers, intermediaries, etc. It does not offer anything new other than an umbrella concept under which all the others could go; it creates a differentiation between research and professions where there necessarily isn’t; and it gives the impression that research moves linearly towards policy when it might not always be the case. The article urges the refocusing on entities that already fulfil these roles.

Mendizabal, E. (2013). ‘An alternative to the supply, demand and intermediary model: competencies for all’. Onthinktanks blogpost, January 13th 2013.

Addressing the traditional distinctions between those who supply research, those who demand it, and those ‘in-between’, this article uses Robert Hoppe’s work on boundary workers and Joseph Braml’s description of think tanks (and other organizations that fulfil functions that focus on research, analysis, and communications) as ‘an organization homo mediaticus’ to support the author’s criticism of the way in which knowledge intermediaries are understood within the research-to-policy community. In Mendizabal’s conception, a boundary worker is unlike the intermediary that sits ‘in-between’ two or more separate players or communities. Boundary workers instead must ‘abide by’ and be accountable to the communities it brings together. Thus, a boundary worker is not ‘in the middle’ but is an active and respected member of both the research and policy communities. Being a specialist in ‘intermediation’ is in fact not that important; rather, an effective boundary worker is competent in the trades of the communities it brings together and adds value to the interaction by its own interventions. Examples of boundary workers include think tanks, university research centres, and policy analysis units within ministries. To demonstrate the point, the author argues that: “A good economics editor should be just as capable of authoring an economics book or paper as an economics researcher. A science analyst in a government department must be capable of understanding and, if not replicating at least following, the nuances of the research process behind the latest academic studies. But both the editor and the analyst must be competent in their jobs as journalists and policymakers, respectively.”

Digital tools and their impact on policymaking, research and communications

Digital communications has changed the research-to-policy interface, with communication strategies for researchers undergoing significant changes with the advent of the digital age. Digital tools have also broadened political participation among populations as information is gathered more easily and communication with others is faster.  Importantly for researchers, they are becoming increasingly accessible to publish and distribute research, and to interact with their ‘audience’. The 2011 Arab Spring arguably highlighted how the internet age has contributed to changing patterns of political participation. It is thought that digital tools have great potential in promoting and fostering new paths of participation as well as protest, and social media is increasingly being relied upon to predict social capital and political and social participation (de Zuñiga, Jung and Valenzuela, 2012). The proliferation of both personal and professional blogs can ensure that particular issues and questions become part of national and global agendas; while also promoting new channels of democratic involvement by promoting active discussion and participation in their readers (Drezner and Farrell, 2004de Zuñiga, Veenstra et. al, 2010). Mobile phones in African countries have shown that individuals develop creative ways of gathering information, creating an impact both on users and on the technology itself (Wasserman, 2010). Hacktivism, the legal or illegal use of digital tools in the pursuit of a political end, such as protest, is also on the rise (Samuel, 2004).

Not everyone is quite so optimistic about the impact of social media in political participation and protest, however. While convenient, social media does not start revolutions, and these must still be conducted through traditional channels of mobilisation and motivation (Papic and Noonan, 2011).

Technologies such as Facebook and Twitter as well as other digital platforms now permit real time interaction with other individuals, which makes sharing information faster and easier. But how have researchers adapted themselves to these technologies? Some have embraced them and others are wary of their implications. For example, the way that scientists use social media depends on their discipline and their sentiments (Van Eperen and Marincola, 2001). While a group of scientists consider social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter as unprofessional, and with possible negative consequences as it could compromise their research, others believe that they are useful in disseminating and communicating their research to actors they would otherwise have not had access to. Virtual research environments (Quinell, 2011) have also been created by researchers to facilitate interaction with actors not geographically available. Social media has also come to be considered as a peer evaluation system (Hermida, 2011), as fellow researchers can access research and give feedback in real time.

Interestingly, there is almost no literature that focuses on the impact or effects of social media and digital tools on the quality of research. Nonetheless, studies have focused on the effect of social media and open access on the peer review process (Pickard, 2012). Some feel that traditional peer review processes are too slow and lacks transparency – social media offers alternatives such as comment crowdsourcing and public reviews. Open access is also a matter of debate for the research community: some feel that it is an important part of the research system as it allows for more access to research and wider dissemination, as well as instant citation (Joseph, 2012; Brody, 2006), while others consider that editors are still needed to make sure that research is universally understood and to assure the reputation of journals (Brown, 2012). It has also been argued that open access journals have not shown to have a higher citation rate than non-open access publications (Pringle, 2012).

The use of digital tools is now an established part of the research dissemination process, with most communications guides now covering social media and web tools. It is becoming increasingly important that researchers are well versed in these technologies, with research showing that the use of digital tools is an effective way of communicating research and influencing policy (Girard and Acosta y Lara, 2012). For instance, the European Commission’s Communicating Research Guide specifies that a good communications team should have professional communication specialists that can ensure a higher potential for research dissemination and impact. It is also imperative to have a corporate design suitable both for print and web pages (Directorate-General for Research, 2010). The Overseas Development Institute’s online strategy has won international recognition (Scott, 2012), reflecting the centrality of digital approaches to communication.

Social media guides teach researchers how to use these platforms for social citations, sharing, blogging, microblogging, etc. There are also guides on how to use specific programs, like Twitter (Mollett, Moran and Dunleavy, 2011Cann, Dimitriou and Hooley, 2011). Digital tools can also be used to foster evidence – based policy, by communicating research through communications teams, web sites and interacting with the press; measuring impact and influence may also be done through digital platforms (Directorate-General for Research Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, 2010Scott, 2012).


Digital tools and research

Quinnell, S-L. (2011). ‘Becoming a Networked Researcher – using social media for research and researcher development’. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog. London: London School of Economics.

The author has developed a virtual research environment which included a blog, a message board, a forum and instant messaging, for the purpose of communicating with those actors pertinent to her doctoral thesis who were globally dispersed. Social media enabled her to contact individuals interested in her work that she couldn’t have done through traditional methods. Now the platform provides “how to” guides on social media and will eventually instruct other researchers to produce their own virtual research environments.

Hermida, A. (2011) ‘Social media is inherently a system of peer evaluation and is changing the way scholars disseminate their research, raising questions about the way we evaluate academic authority’. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog. London: London School of Economics

Social media can serve as a system of peer evaluation, in which participation and engagement is present and rewarded and where reputation is based on what an individual brings to the network. So far, peer review processes and the way that authority is assigned to research has not changed much, and so it is time to consider the implications of ICTs on research.  A framework to understand the impact of social media can be created by looking at the five building blocks of social media.

Van Eperen, L. and Marincola, F.M. (2011) ‘How scientists use social media to communicate their research’. Journal of Transnational Medicine, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 199

The way that scientists use social media platforms is dependent on discipline and sentiments. For instance, a considerable group of scientists consider Facebook and Twitter as unprofessional platforms that could compromise advancements in their research, which is why they steer towards social media suited for academic research (e.g.: LabSpaces). These scientists look for their niche and communicate their findings within a small web community. Others, however, consider that Facebook and Twitter are useful in disseminating their research and communicating with other researchers as well as with the general audience.

Girard, B. and Acosta y Lara, E. (eds.) (2012) ‘Impact 2.0. New mechanisms for linking research and policy’. Montevideo: Fundación Comunica.

Access online (English version)

Access online (Spanish version)

This book features case studies and reports on the use of “web 2.0″ and social networking applications and services to increase the impact of research on policy in Latin America. While the experiments and evaluations undertaken under the Impact 2.0 umbrella displayed a tremendous diversity in terms of the online tools they used, their methodological approaches, their communication strategies etc., certain patterns emerged and overall the various projects can be seen to have adopted three distinct approaches to their use of social networking to link research and policy: 1) Projects in which researchers made use of online campaigns to make their research conclusions more visible to the public at large, usually with the expectation that public support and visibility would give their proposals increased legitimacy and support among policymaker, 2) Projects in which researchers sought to support online public consultation processes in collaboration with government entities, and 3) Projects which explored the use of web 2.0 and social networking services to open direct channels of communication between researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders in order to communicate research, collaborate on specific activities, and/or with a more-or-less explicit objective of getting them to know each other better and to build trust.

Guides to using digital communications for research impact

Cann, A., Dimitriou, K. & T. Hooley (2011) ‘Social Media: A guide for Researchers’. Leicester: International Center for Guidance.

This guide lists the social media tools that help researchers in finding, using and disseminating information. Social media can help in what the authors describe as the four parts of the research production process: identification of knowledge, creation of knowledge, quality assurance and dissemination. The guide lists tools for social citation sharing, blogging, microblogging, research and writing collaboration, etc.

Mollett, A., Moran, D., and Dunleavy, P. (2011) ‘Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities: A guide for academics and researchers’. London: LSE Public Policy Group

This practical guide was produced to instruct academics on how to use Twitter to broaden their audiences, disseminate their research more effectively, communicate with other researchers and gain access to other research. The guide offers step-by-step processes on, for instance, setting up a Twitter account.

Directorate-General for Research (2010) ‘Communicating research for evidence-based policymaking: A practical guide for researchers in socio-economic sciences and humanities’.  Brussels: European Commission

This guide instructs researchers on research communication for policy impact. Researchers and policy makers must communicate with each other, and researchers have to make sure that policy relevant issues at the heart of their research are clearly defined and communicated. The guide offers instruction on a number of approaches, including how to build a communications team, on using web sites, and interacting with the press.

Scott, N. (2012) ‘ODI’s award-winning online strategy explained’. Onthinktanks blogpost, September 19th 2012.

Nick Scott explains the ODI digital strategy, which was awarded Online Strategy of the Year at the Digital Communications Awards. They first identified three major challenges: creating demand for an idea, empowering their researchers and communicating on a tight budget. To face these challenges he proposed ´being there´ – posting at appropriate sites, using Twitter and Facebook and sending emails. ‘Cradle to grey’ would empower their researchers by making online activities central to the research, bolstering the reputation of the individual researchers. And finally, ‘reusing the wheel’, which meant that they would use free software like WordPress, Flickr and Wikipedia, would help in communicating on a small budget.

Digital tools and political participation

de Zúñiga, H., Nakwong, J., and Valenzuela, S.  (2012) ‘Social Media Use for News and Individuals’ Social Capital, Civic Engagement and Political Participation’. Journal of Computer – Mediated Communication, Issue 17, pp. 319-336

This report presents the research findings of a project which used U.S data to test whether social media can promote democratic participation among users. Its results show that after controlling demographic variables, traditional media use both online and offline, knowledge and efficacy, and the frequency and size of political discussion networks, information seeking via social media significantly predicts people’s social capital and civic and political participatory behaviors. Other findings were that young people, minorities and people with lower levels of income and education are more inclined to use social media for news.

Drezner, D. and Farrell, H. (2004) ‘The Power and Politics of Blogs’. Paper to be presented to the 2004 American  Political Science Association

What is the role of blogs in political debate? This article argues that under specific circumstances blogs can socially construct an agenda that acts as a focal point for the media, thus shaping the political debate, particularly when blogs focus on a new or neglected issue. Two interrelated aspects of blogs work to do this: the unequal distribution of leaders across blogs, and the increasing interaction between them and the media.

de Zúñiga, H.G., Veenstra, G., Vraga, E. and Shah, D. (2010) ‘Digital Democracy: Reimagining Pathways to Political Participation’. Journal of Information Technology and Politics, Vol. 7, No 1, pp. 36-51

Bloggers are promoting new paths to democratic involvement through online channels that complement and give new life to conventional forms of political expression and participation. Blog readers do not just peruse these channels but are involved in an array of online and offline political activities; these two spheres are complementary and mutually supportive.  In sum, the use of blogs promotes political participation.

Samuel, A. (2004). ‘Hacktivism and the Future of Political Participation’ (2004). PhD Thesis. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University.

This doctoral thesis focuses on hacktivism, which consists of the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of political ends. Examples are web site defacements, redirects, information theft, virtual sabotage, etc. There are three types of hacktivism, and they all carry out policy circumvention, also known as legal noncompliance. Legal noncompliance may be either a strategic political response to a certain law, regulation or policy, which tries to nullify said law, regulation or policy and create certain benefits.

Papic, P. (2011) and Sean Noonan (2011) ‘Social Media as a Tool for Protest’. Stratfor Global Intelligence online article, 3 February 2011.

This article argues that social media, by itself, does not start revolutions, and like any tool, has weaknesses and strengths and their results depend on how they are used and how accessible they are. It uses as examples the revolutions that took place in Tunisia and Egypt, in which protesters used social media. While social media is useful, it does not necessarily mobilise individuals to physically protest, nor is it free or repression from governmental counter – tactics and neither does it offer secrecy. It may help get the word around, but for protests to work there must still be a core message that unifies people, and traditional methods of mobilisation must still be applied. In short, the article concludes that social media is simply a convenience.

Wasserman, H. (2011) ‘Mobile Phones, Popular Media, and Everyday African Democracy: Transmissions and Transgressions’. Popular Communication, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 146-158.

How can mobile phones promote political participation and transmit information in Africa? Mobile phones are more widely used, more accessible and cost less than most ICTs but access is still is quite unequal and costs are still high, which has led users to resort to creative ways of use that suggest there are alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between these technologies and political participation in this continent. This study proposes that mobile phone (and other types of ICTs) use should be approached from a perspective that focuses on the interaction between technology and society instead of looking only at the impact that technology has on individuals.

Scott, N. (2011) ‘Responding to digital disruption of traditional communications: ‘being there’ communications’ . On Think Tanks blogpost, September 19th 2011

How should researchers and organizations respond to digital disruption of traditional communications? Traditional communications comprise the media, as well as libraries and bookshops. Digital disruption of these channels are email broadcasts, websites and search engines, which make being seen and heard easier. However, as access to digital tools is very broad, there is an information overload and far more competition to stand out. “Being there” communications tries to overcome this digital disruption by placing content and links on sites that are visited on key audiences, instead of waiting for these to visit an organizational site.

Pickard, T. (2012). ‘The Impact of Open Access and Social Media on Scientific Research’ Journal of Participatory Medicine, Vol. 4, July 2012.

Social media and open access can change the way peer reviews are conducted. Traditional peer review processes are sometimes considered slow, and researchers do not know who is reviewing them as these mostly remain anonymous. Social media can provide alternatives such as crowdsourcing, which are reviews similar to those found in pages such as Amazon, where reviewers would no longer be anonymous. Open access platforms accept these innovations more readily as commentary is usually posted beside the publications.

Joseph, H. (2012). ‘The impact of open access on research and scholarship: Reflections on the Berlin 9 Open Access Conference’. College & Research Libraries News, Vol. 73,  No. 2 83-87.

The Open Access Conference came to the conclusion that open access now plays a central role in the research structure of the social sciences, the hard sciences and the humanities due to its effect on dissemination and impact.  The full availability of research is now key to the research process as its most important access is its communication. It also stimulates researchers to work faster as they can now more quickly include and work upon others’ findings.

McVeigh, M. (2004). Open Access Journals in the Thomson Database: Analysis of Impact Factors and Citation Patterns. Thomson Corporation study.

This Thomson – ISI study concludes that its open access journals do not get cited more frequently than non–open access publications, however there is no evidence that they do get cited less. Citations are due to the relevance of the articles for the readers, not to the fact that they get read.

How does the media in developing countries inform the public and influence policy?

In a general sense, the media is widely credited to have an important role in ensuring good democratic governanceIt can function as a watchdog, as a way of checking and balancing state powers; it can also further social inclusion by giving a voice to minority and marginalized groups; and it helps create an informed public (DFID, 2008). The media is also a social ‘space’ arena in which power relations are played out, and in which ideas are shaped (Castells, 2007). It is argued that in both developed and developing countries, including those with democratic political regimes, this means that power-holders possess an incentive to control the media, and thus the public agenda.

Recent commentaries on the media therefore focus on the role of the media in maintaining elite power structures by using media outlets as a means of defining the boundaries of public discussion (Desmond, 1996) (Castells, 2007). The media can be censored through direct (e.g. financial pressure or strict regulation) or indirect means (‘soft’ influencing of the media). The latter is thought to be more usual in democracies (Center for International Media Assistance, 2009). However the media possesses power in its own right, and is subject to financial incentives which influence what gets communicated, and how. For example, the literature highlights how the international media shapes the way conflicts are understood (Darley, 2005).

This context has a significant impact on how research is communicated. The media often acts as a broker between the research community and the general public (see Section 3.1), thereby introducing research to public discourse on policy issues (Mendizabal, 2011a2011b). This is important for influencing policy (Atim, 2012Carpenter and Yngstrom, 2010Makerere University, 2011). However there are significant capacity gaps amongst journalists in developing countries, and therefore huge barriers to the accurate and responsible communication of research in the media (Vincent, 2007). There is concern that in developing countries where there is a demand for skills development journalists are easily ‘co-opted’ into reporting on particular events (e.g. workshops of international donors) or from a particular perspective. For example, Zambian journalists are known to have received ‘training’ on how to report biotechnology issues by the international pro-biotechnology lobby (Broadbent, 2012).

One of the main concerns regarding the media and its relationship with research in developing countries is the way how journalists and researchers interact with each other. Generally, the link between these two actors is quite weak, for a variety of reasons; in Kenya and Uganda, for instance, while the media has focused on corruption, it has not looked at the link between tax collection, public spending and governance, due to a lack of strong networks that involve the media and allow it to use existing research and evidence (Relay, 2012). In India, journalists write stories on development but they are still not well informed by relevant research, signaling the need for a space where journalists and researchers can interact (Relay, 2012).

Further, research must comply with a number of conditions for the media to take an interest in it and report it. Research has to be ‘newsworthy’, concise and not overly technical. It has been found that if research is too complex or lacks readily-translatable ‘headlines’ its media coverage reduces considerably (Makere University, 2011; Uceda, 2011). The ‘knowledge gap’ between the media and research compounds this problem: most journalists in developing countries do not have specialized knowledge on many issues such as science, development or climate change, which leads to oversimplified news coverage, sensationalism, and distrust on the part of researchers  (Makere University, 2011Kakonge, 2011Vincent, 2007Carpenter and Yngstrom, 2010).

However, researchers do believe in the importance of communicating evidence, if not through the media then through other channels, in order to inspire and inform development policy and practice, and increase dissemination and impact (Directorate – General for Research, 2010). As mentioned, the media therefore plays a central role in determining (as well as reflecting) the public agenda, which is why researchers strive for it to pay attention to their findings and improving collaboration (Yngstrom, 2011). Some organizations have taken the lead in bringing research and journalists together by providing the latter training in those topics which they focus on, for instance reproductive health, and grants for outstanding reporting (Oronje, Undie, Zulu and Crichton, 2011).


Communicating research through the media

Center for International Media Assistance (2009) ‘Funding for Media Development by Major Donors Outside the United States’. Washington D.C:  Center for International Media Assistance

Media support is usually found within a governance agenda: funds are usually allocated to development projects that focus on governance, and these might have a media support area. This is particularly seen among Nordic countries, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. However, there seems to be a trend within donor organizations that pulls away from funds dealing with the media or with Information and Communication Technology.

Panos East Africa (2012) ‘Tax and Governance: Improving media engagement with research on tax and governance in Kenya and Uganda’. Case study Working Paper, London: Panos

In these two countries, frustration among the population towards governmental accountability has been growing while East African and international research institutes have been investigating the implications of tax systems for governance. However, while the media was focusing on documenting corruption, it had not look at the link between tax collection, public spending and governance. This case study on how tax and governance are reported by the media in Kenya and Uganda has found that relationships between journalists and researchers must be built and existing networks must be strengthened in order to involve the media and use available research and evidence.

Panos East Asia (2012) ‘Reporting research on dams and development in NE India’. Case Study Working Paper 2. London: Panos

This PANOS Relay programme report looks at how research is reported in North East India, where the local media has been active in reporting development issues but are not informed by relevant research. The document shares the results after a six month fellowship where they provided local journalists with resource materials, orientation workshops, field visits, publishing, reflection reports, etc. Some results were improved reporting skills, better quality of media coverage and new relationships between journalists and researchers. The most highlighted issue was the need to create spaces where researchers and the media could interact together, and how this was tackled by Relay.

Department of Journalism and Communication, Makerere University (2011). ‘Media Coverage Of Science And Technology in Africa’. Report sponsored by UNESCO. Kampala: University of Makerere

While the media can act as a broker between scientific research and the general public, the relationship between the two is influenced by several factors. Research must be newsworthy and deemed interesting to the public by the media, and when scientific information is considered too complex, media coverage reduces significantly. This study reports that in Africa, particularly, there is a knowledge gap between science and the media since there are very few journalists who have expertise in scientific and technological issues and thus little ability in their comprehension.  This results in an over simplistic interpretation of research, which is known as the least common denominator approach to knowledge, or in a sensationalist approach that exaggerates findings.  The study also provides recommendations to the media like having policies and guidelines on scientific coverage, and investing in specialized knowledge of these issues in order to reduce the knowledge gap.

Atim, L. (2012) ‘Promoting Research Communication – Panos Eastern Africa’s experience’. London: Panos

Research can be communicated in several ways, such as through academic journals, university libraries, policy briefs, etc. However, many times the media is not considered as a useful dissemination tool. This report shares Relay’s findings on how to bring researchers and journalists together, by acknowledging that the media is helpful in promoting participation in debates about research and policy; that working with the media results in researchers promoting the creation of a public interest media sector; that it creates accountability and transparency for research; and that it helps get funding and sponsors.

Vincent, R. (2007). ‘Barriers to effective health journalism’. London: Panos

What factors impede journalists to accurately report health research and support debate on health? This report uses data gathered for the Health Journalism Partnership, which includes a global survey of over 450 organizations that work with health media support; interviews in 16 countries; and four in depth case studies, such as discrimination against HIV / AIDS and the media in Jamaica. Researchers are commonly wary of the media due to fears about sensationalism and misreporting, while there is little access to reliable information from national health ministries, health agencies and governments in certain countries, which leads journalists to get information from other sources.

Carpenter, J. and Yngstrom, I. (2010) ‘Research makes the news: Strengthening media engagement with research to influence policy’. London: Panos

Political and institutional context are important in order to understand the capacity of the media to foster public debate about research and evidence, and to influence policy. What factors strengthen media capacity to do so? Journalists should be able to use research to create interesting and compelling stories that are related to policy making agendas. Meanwhile, researchers should produce policy – relevant outputs and work with knowledge intermediaries to give their research a format that the media can use. The relationship between journalists and researchers must be strengthened, while civil society activists should drive debate around policy related research.

Oronje, R., Undie, C., Zulu, E. and Crichton, J. (2011) ‘Engaging media in communicating research on sexual and reproductive health and rights in sub-Saharan Africa: experiences and lessons learned’. Health Research Policy and Systems, Vol. 9, Suppl.1.

Around the world, the media often fails to priorities sexual and reproductive health and rights issues or report them in an accurate manner. This is particularly true in Sub Saharan Africa, where media coverage of reproductive health issues is poor due to the weak capacity and motivation of reporting these issues by media practitioners. This paper is an analysis of the African Population and Health Research Centre’s strategy to engage journalists in order to increase media coverage of these issues by providing training and grants for exceptional journalism.

Kakonge, J.O. (2011). ‘The Role of Media in the Climate Change Debate in Developing Countries’. Global Policy Journal, Global Policy Essay, November 2011.

This study finds that journalists are uncomfortable in covering climate change issues as they are “generalists” and do not have training in science and environment. While they might be interested in such topics, training is expensive and in developing countries most media outlets lack the resources to send their journalists to attend specialized courses. This report suggests that as most developing countries direct funds to raise public awareness on climate change, part of this money could go to media organizations in order for them to publish climate change – related articles and stories that are easy to use by the general public.

Uceda, R. (2011) ‘Una extraña pareja. Relación entre los medios de comunicación y los centros de investigación en políticas pública’. In: Correa Aste, N. and Mendizabal, E., Vínculos entre conocimiento y política. El rol de la investigación en el debate público en América Latina. CIES, ODI, UP and EBPDN.  .

(In Spanish)

What is the relationship between the media and research institutions in Latin America? Editors from important Latin American media outlets report that they generally do not disseminate research produced by organizations such as think tanks. This is due to inappropriate research format for media outlets and the fact that journalism in this region is more attracted towards sensationalist topics. Editors feel that research has to be news worthy for them to use it in their publications.

Mendizabal, E. (2011a) New Book: Think Tanks, politics and the media in Latin America (in spanish). Onthinktanks blogpost, September 30th 2011.

The book Vinculos entre conocimiento y politica: el rol de la investigacion en el debate publico en America Latina was launched with the participation of Enrique Mendizabal and Norma Correa (editors), Martin Tanaka and Mercedes Botto (authors), and Antonio Romero from the Think Tank Initiative commenting during a Think Tank Initiative meeting of Latin American think tanks. This book is the result of a shared concern among a group of researchers and professionals interested in further understanding the links between knowledge and policy in Latin America. Its main interest is to explore the factors that influence the roles that evidence can play in the public policy cycle; in order words, to make that process a researchable topic. The book looks to highlight that knowledge producers like researchers and consultants have a partial role in the definition of the terms of debate on public policy and that it is indispensable to better understand how the media, political parties, state powers, public officials and social movements use evidence based on research during the policy cycle.

Mendizabal, E (2011b) ‘How to influence difficult publics? Lessons from the Chilean media’. Onthinktanks blogpost, May 25th 2011.

David Hojman’s study* of Semana Económica’s (Chilean newspaper El Mercurio’s editorial page) policy influencing strategy offers some lessons and practical advice on how to influence difficult publics. In his study Hojman focused on the messages that Semana Economica was trying to put forward; whether the message had changed over time; the identification of important individuals; and who the messages were addressed to, and what were their objectives. Messages should be consistent and specific and should coincide with real processes and events. He also assumed that even though the sender and the receiver have different agendas there must be some overlap for there to be communication, and that with difficult publics some message was better than no message at all.

* Hojman, D. E. (1997). El Mercurio’s Editorial Page (“La Semana Economica”) and Neoliberal Policy Making in Today’s Chile. In W. Fowler (Ed.), Ideologues and Ideologies in Latin America. Westport: Greenwood Press.

The media, power, and participation

Castells, M. (2007) ‘Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society’. International Journal of Communication, Vol. 1, pp. 238-266.

This paper uses existing literature and case studies to argue that the media is where power relations are shaped and decided. Messages that do not exist in the media do not exist in the public mind, which is why the media is the social space where power is established. However, the emergence of new spaces for interaction such as social media and the internet have created what is known as mass self – communication and has permitted the entrance of political actors that wish to subvert established power relations. The political actors that make up society like corporations and interest groups are aware of this power struggle, and so attempt to control what is presented through the media. This has consequences for media politics and its relationship with political legitimacy as well as the role of mass media in producing culture.

Podesta, D. (2009) ‘Soft Censorship: How Governments around the Globe Use Money to Manipulate the Media’. Washington D.C: The Center for International Media Assistance.

Censorship of the news media is now manifesting itself in very subtle ways, a phenomenon that can be referred to as “soft censorship”. This consists of influencing news coverage by financially pressuring media companies that are seen as overly critical of a government, and by rewarding those media outlets that portray the government in a positive light. There are three manifestations of this phenomenon: 1) local and national governments use advertising to financially support media outlets; 2) corporations are pressured by the government to advertise in certain media, and 3) journalists are paid directly to write positive articles.

Smith, D. (1996) ‘Democracy and the Media in Developing Countries: A Case Study of the Philippines’. Leeds: University of Leeds.

This case study on the Philippines finds that the role of the press in this country has been closely bound to the interests of the ruling elites, who have considerable control over the public and media agenda. Philippine media continuously reports corruption and crime, but the misdistribution and abuse of economic and political power remains unspoken about, which leads to elite economic and political activity to be free from accountability as elite ownership affiliations impedes the media from discussing it.

Broadbent, E., (2012) ‘Research-based evidence in African policy debates: The contemporary debate on genetically modified organisms in Zambia’EBPDN Case Study 3. London: EBPDN/Mwananchi

This case study considers contemporary discussions surrounding Zambia’s acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The study found that while the debate was framed by development narratives such as human rights and national ownership, much of the research-based evidence being cited in support of GMOs was private sector-financed. Importantly, the researcher found that Zambian journalists had received training on how to report on biotechnology issues by the pro-GMO USAID and private companies. This draws attention the wider issue of who undertakes and funds capacity building for the media when this can be instrumentalized in ways that reflect political and economic interests.

Puddephatt, A. (2006). ‘Voices of war: Conflict and the role of the media’. Copenhagen: International Media Support

This report suggests that the media can either take an active role in the conflict and is responsible for increasing violence, or it can stay independent and out of the conflict. This is determined by the kind of relationship that it has with the actors in conflict, and with the power holders in society. The media can also become a rallying point for combatants, who will try to shape media output to present them in a favorable light. Policy makers should thus focus on how the media be used to foster the public sphere in ways that will allow nonviolent resolutions of conflict.

Darley, W. (2005) ‘War Policy, Public Support, and the Media’. Parameters, Summer 2005, pp. 124-131

What has been the role and influence of the news media on public opinion and national policy? While critics have accused the media of editorial bias that undermines public support for military operations, several studies have shown that public opinion is not particularly influenced or swayed by media coverage of conflicts. The public has shown to consistently support conflicts engaged by the United States, which according to the author is due to nationalism.

Guides and manuals

Directorate-General for Research (2010). Communicating research for evidence-based policymaking: A practical guide for researchers in socio-economic sciences and humanities. Brussels: European Commission.

This guide instructs researchers on communicating their work in order to make an impact on policy making in the European Union. Researchers and policy makers must communicate with each other, and researchers have to make sure that policy relevant issues at the heart of their research are clearly defined and communicated. It also promotes two – way knowledge transfer in which dialogue is cultivated with the recipients of researchers’ work, and instructs researchers on how to build a communications team, and on using web sites, interacting with the press, etc.

Mwesigye, P.G., Lugalambi, G.W., and Okao, J. (2008). Media Handbook for Development Researchers. Kampala: Panos East Africa.

This guide comprises a set of tools, resources and strategies to help development researchers establish continuous dialogue with the media in order to disseminate their research. Importance is placed upon the need for researchers to understand the roles, functions, opportunities and limitations that the media has in development and in public policy. It also suggests that researchers need a better understanding of journalistic values and media practices in order to turn her or his work into material that the media will find interesting and accessible for their audiences.

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