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Which is heavier, kilo of cold stone or of soft cotton?

We had a fight with Dr James Kabata last week.

A Catholic priest, professor of philosophy and researcher with a growing heap of scholarly work on addiction and substance abuse, Dr Kabata lectures at the Catholic University of East Africa.

We clashed over an article in The Standard a month ago, titled “Unread Eulogy for a neighbour who died from too much drink.”

The story, the good doctor opined, was not based on research; and that the very fact that it was published ought to be the subject for future research.

He said we, media, do not conduct proper research before rushing to write stories on research that are shallow and subjective.

We fought back, arguing that it was not up to the media to conduct research. Our work is to report research and if researchers want their research reported well, they needed to drop their highfalutin language of ‘isms and esms.’

“Or you might as well go write the stories yourselves!”

In hindsight, Dr Kabata made sense.  It is indeed the duty of every journalist to conduct proper research before rushing to ‘bang’ a story.

If and when the journalist does not know where to start searching for a good research story, a good starting point would be a good contact list of researchers in that field.

The buck of reporting any research stops with the reporter. It is the reporter who must convert a kilo of stone-heavy research into a kilo of soft cotton, without reducing the weight of stone to cotton by even a milligram.

The rule of thumb is simplicity. It behoves the reporter to report any research in a style and content that the ordinary Wanjiku understands.

And herein lies the challenge.

Much of Kenya’s research work follows a traditional, rigid academic style of writing that gives little room for simple language. The isms are such that the bulk of Kenya’s research reports can only be understood by the researchers themselves.

Therefore, even simple research on problems that affect Wanjiku on the streets such as food, water, and clothing, is written in language and style that Wanjiku herself cannot understand.

It gets worse when a reporter for the local newspaper, radio or TV wants to write a story based on a research report written in Greek. With deadlines to beat and a professional requirement that all reporting must be in simple language, few reporters have the time and patience to break down research reports.

Even fewer reporters have the time and patience to see the story in much of research reports that our very able researchers churn out daily.

Yes, our researchers have read more books than the average journalist out there, but until they are able to write those excellent research papers in a language that makes it easy for the average journalist to explain to Wanjku, then a sizeable number of excellent research reports shall continue to gather dust in our university shelves.

What to do? Perhaps we need to deliberately create a meeting point between research and research reporting, between media reporters of research and research.

To do this, researchers and media reporters must be ready to cede some ground. The researchers must be ready to climb down an inch from the ivory towers and patiently explain their research.

Media reporters on the other hand must come down from the ivory towers of the Fourth Estate and seek to understand what researchers are trying to say.

There is a shortcut in this climbing-down-the-tower business, namely, making basic communication skills a key component in the training of our researchers.

Another shortcut would be insisting that all reporters of research have a research background. This means making research a key component in our journalism and mass communication training.

The result will be a win-win situation where good research gets good media coverage and the media gets good human-interest stories from good research.

Back to our fight with Dr Kabata. We called a ceasefire and agreed to a meeting. Hopefully, the good philosophy professor and us shall strike a golden formula on how to convert a kilo of stone-cold research into a kilo of soft-cotton news or feature article.

2 thoughts on “Which is heavier, kilo of cold stone or of soft cotton?”

  1. I am in agreement with you. I always tell my students that theological jargon belong to the academy but they must be communicated to the ordinary readers in a language they start. I always remind them that the problem of Theology is language and if they have to make impact to society, they must create a language Wanjiku aka Wagio can understand. All in all, you have made an exceedingly pregnant point and I trust you and Dr. Kabata shall be the best midwives.

  2. Dr Boniface Wunywa

    Two groups who are bound together by the proverbial symbiotic umplical cord. Researchers and communicators need each other and they have no choice being joined at the navel as it is.

    The main perpose of research is to create new tools that solve societal problems.

    The new tools must be communicated to the end users for adoption and absorption.

    Without communicators, the new tools sit in files slowly gathering layers of dust on research shelves.

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