Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Research, Esearch and the Journalistic Craft in Our Times

A keynote address, delivered at the 4th Annual Media Research Conference, Kathmandu University, Dhulikhel, April 2, 2013

Thank you. And thank you for the opportunity to be able to speak in this forum.

Dear colleagues from the academia and the industry, researchers and scholars, teachers and students, distinguished members of the media and the wider community-- it's an honor to be here. I truly appreciate this invitation, it gives me an opportunity to be able to share with you some of my thoughts that I believe resonate with many of us today. The Kathmandu University is indeed a pre-eminent forum to be able to deliver a keynote speech and to be able to reflect on some issues regarding media research and journalism in our country today.

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I am, of course, familiar with some works or facets of the organizers. My overriding image of Chautari is of a place where you are invariably forced to sit down cross-legged on the floor for intellectual discussions, instead of perhaps a more comfortable roundtable! Is it the KU effect that I don’t see floor cushions around here today? I feel very tall, and unsteady, to be standing up and speaking before you all! But I am very happy to be here.

Photo by Rajneesh Bhandari

Chautari is a unique group, with a broad declared mission to enhance quality of public dialogue in the intersecting areas of democracy, development, civil liberties and social justice. What have fascinated me the most over the years is your discourse and research works in the fledgling communications discipline, in media, in journalism. By your unceasing efforts in these tasks, you have helped to create a ground basis for media research in the country, via your media archives, journals, books, and the much needed bibliographies. I recall the days while in the US as a journalism faculty member at the Georgia Southern University some years back receiving copies of Media Adhyayan and being very grateful because at that time there weren't that many journals on media coming out of Nepal. Following my return to Nepal, I have had some opportunity to collaborate with Chautari and some of its staff members.

Similarly, I have had the opportunity to maintain some academic links with KU. As a visiting faculty in 2008, I taught a reporting and writing course in the newly instituted undergrad program in Media Studies. Since then, I have been asked to sit in the Research Steering Committee of the School of Arts, and Media Studies Subject Committee, although, frankly, I must say that there is very little I have to do in terms of input into these committees! However, as a past visiting faculty, as a mentor to some KU grads, I have found that the students here are searching, resourceful, and goal-oriented. I believe today’s conference is one such manifestation of KU’s stated “thrust” on research-cum-teaching.

It is against this backdrop that I would like to make some observations and remarks about media research as it relates specifically to the profession of journalism in Nepal. But before I do so, a bit on the nature of my keynote today.

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I must warn you, I could be a dire speaker. I have given only a couple of keynotes in the past, and they were barely few minutes long. I am more of an informal, conversational type; a project-oriented workaholic, toiling mostly behind the doors. In fact, seclusion is a key theme of my latest media research project called the “Media Gufa”.

I just returned to Kathmandu on Sunday from the experiential gufa, a simulated newsroom-like seclusion for journalists that was held in Malepu, a village in Dolakha. Six peer-nominated journalists of considerable experience were challenged to report on stories, brainstormed with villagers and selected via lot, under supervision from a team of researchers, one of whom happens to be a faculty member at KU. Participants were required to report on the stories in the old-fashioned shoe-string approach, and new technologies such as mobile phones or social media were banned. The idea is to assess the reporting, sourcing and attribution practices in our journalism, without the aid of the increasingly hyped new media.

I wish I could continue to describe the gufa and its proceedings in more detail, but I am here today not to do a research presentation or to bore you with intellectual monologue. Etymologically, “keynote” implies a note of musical scale, a “leading idea” or “theme”. So I am here to speak from my heart, however husky the music within, and to perhaps reflect on the theme, just the “theme” for the day.

Guy Kawasaki, the former chief evangelist for the US technology company Apple Inc. and a celebrated public speaker wrote that it took him 20 years to get comfortable with public speaking, because no one taught him this art. Here is a distilled nugget from him: Have something interesting to say, and you have won 80 percent of the battle. The other is: Speak at the start of an event because the audience is fresher. I’m doing this almost at the beginning and that is such a relief!

But when it comes to having “something interesting” to say, I am not that sure.

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I agree that it is hard not to perceive contemporary times largely as stagnant, cynical, and hopeless. Pessimism, a gloomy musical note, runs wide in our country, and it seems that the thing we cherish most is indignity. It’s only by looking closely, wider, and deeper, one is able to see some encouraging signposts, something interesting happening in our lifetime.

A young person—and this I say emphatically because my audience here comprises mostly of the younger generation—is caught today mainly between two options, either to whine about the miserable state of affairs in the country or to simply remain indifferent. But there is yet another alternative that is slowly emerging, a perspective that views our progress in evolutionary terms, in a more positive light. Let’s recall the nation some sixty years ago, during the youthful times of our parents and grandparents. That is very recent for a country with a history of many thousand years.

In 1950, our country had barely one percent literacy rate, and our average life expectancy was less than 27 years. In terms of the media landscape, we had a couple of newspapers, and a radio station, a handful of journalists, and virtually no media researcher or scholar. We have made a leap in these areas in recent decades, with dramatic expansion in the type and number of platforms, media professionals as well as members in academia, compelling the need for media research and more nuanced analyses of communication processes and practices. We will be the first to witness cent percent literacy, and cent percent penetration of the most democratic communication channels so far, such as mobile phones and the Internet.

Granted that freedom of the press remains unfettered, we will soon have a media landscape that is one of the most diverse and pluralistic anywhere in the world, reflecting our many languages, ethnicities, and cultural practices in a polyglot, secularizing and federalizing nation. The indigenous adaptations of new technologies, including the development of local applications, standardizing digital broadcasting, launching Nepal's own communication satellite in orbit, emergence of new media barons and transnational media corporations will characterize our future media landscape. As I have written elsewhere, with proper legislation, Kathmandu can emerge as a regional media capital with channels like the Al-Jazeera brand from Doha. As a neutral territory for the region with the SAARC headquarters, we offer an ideal location. In about two to three decades, print in Nepal will decline giving way to online media. It is in this light that the research needs of our journalism should be addressed. Already, some experts have pointed out that Asia is increasingly superseding the US in media growth. Our neighbors China and India are leading the rest in embodying the future of news. Our emerging media paradigm echoes regional trends and issues, such as dramatic growth, increasing commercialism, and concerns for quality and standardization, etc.

The issue of quality centers around the idea of “truth-telling” which, in an increasingly complex society, involves not only factual accuracy but also the context of facts, social realities of the day, truth of physical and natural sciences and ethics--truthfulness in the news gathering process (Edmund B Lambeth, Committed Journalism, 1992, p. 24-27). In recent years, cases of fabrication, deception, plagiarism and distortion of news have increased in Nepal raising questions about the news gathering process. And the ease of manipulative tele-reporting via mobile sets, and “esearching” or the indiscriminate practice of cut-and-paste from Google have contributed much to this malady.

Thus, social science methods, as adopted in data journalism, advanced online search techniques, precision journalism or computer assisted journalism, as well as statistics, econometrics, computer programming are becoming essential in the profession today. Individual journalists are aware of these research skills. In a recent nationwide survey (2012) conducted by Media Foundation, a large percent of respondents (33.75 percent) said they need advanced-level journalistic techniques involving research, investigative/interpretive methods, social science as well as math in journalism. Unfortunately, lacking in-house programs or other meaningful institutional support, most journalists reported they do not have access to such knowledge or skills.

It’s true that research on journalism and research approaches in journalism are different things. However, applied rigorously, both will benefit from the social science techniques.

Regional media hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore and Manila have shown that industry's expansion and growth goes hand in hand with research, academic practices and innovation. However, in Nepal, there remains a huge gulf between the academia and the news industry. This is mainly because there is little effort to collaborate, the industry still remains indifferent to R&D, and the research output from academia lacks rigor and is often theoretical and hardly focused on the immediate needs of the industry.

The umbrella term “media” that is used today in our research community is too broad to offer a focus on journalism.

Many from my generation learned journalism via the traditional approach of trial and error. It was only during mid-career that I went to journalism school in the nineties. Journalism programs still focus on the creative craft part and little on systematic research. Until recently, this was true of some of the world’s leading institutions, such as the Columbia University in New York. Now many such schools are focusing on the advanced degrees in the research sequence also. I believe that in this age of information implosion, convergence, and media ubiquity, research techniques of synthesis can help journalists turn into “kernel-ists”, the seekers of substance out of the content chaos.

I hope my focus on journalism is not out of place here. A cursory glance at today’s conference paper titles also reveals an exclusive bias towards news media.

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Obviously, there are many issues to be addressed in journalism and research. However, for today, I would like to end with three main ameliorative thoughts: Just as we talk about national restructuring, we need to restructure our research system overall.

New approaches: Many research articles in journals and publications we see in Nepal are rehashed from term papers, theses or field reports. For quality and validity of findings, it is essential to adhere to rigor, to establish and sustain a culture of referred journals. Attention to details and compliance with style must be encouraged. How about developing our own styles, say Chautari or KU style, just like they have the APA or MLA or Harvard style in the US?

Potentials for ethical lapses and manipulation can be removed through the establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) that assess the quality of research proposals.  

Increased collaboration is needed between the academia and the industry to help bridge the existing gulf that I referred to earlier today.

Thematically, we abound in institutional histories and grand-narratives, nothing unusual for a formative media system, but soon we have to shift focus on social, cultural and critical issues from the perspectives of citizens or media users, and our indigenous values.

In terms of output, there is a great need to translate highly specialized academic research into professionals’ language. We need to take a knowledge-based approach, with emphasis on “Research You Can Use” to improve the practice.

Institutional infrastructure:  Money is the bottomline, especially in research. We cannot depend on meager grants, or international donors for perpetuity. Today’s need is large grants, fellowships and sophisticated databases for easy retrieval of references on local or indigenous knowledge. We need Nepali versions of mega databases like ProQuest, JSTOR, Ebsco, Lexis-Nexis, etc.

The government, academia and the private sector must see a reason to invest in this area. China and India are competing in their research race and they have also significantly expanded their R&D spending. I have often emphasized on the need to establish a Social Science Research Council in Nepal.

A cultural change: We may carry three sets of mobile phones, chat online or tweet, but by and large we are still a traditional society. Attitudes have not changed much. Systematic ways are often looked down upon (e!!!search, as in the contemptuous gesture in Nepal) as esoteric practices, time-consuming and fruitless. We continue to love conspiracies, cling to hearsays. A cultural change is imperative in the way we perceive things, organize our thoughts and express them rationally.

Only then we will become a knowledge-oriented society that values evidence over hearsay. This orientation should start early in our lives, through schools and colleges, through term papers and theses, with a strong focus on research and critical thinking, and a strong support via supervision and mentorship.

Thank you! 

Keynote speech
Dharma Adhikari, PhD, Media Foundation
April 2, 2013


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