The power of research and the research of power: what do we know about communications and empowerment?
Keynote address for Working Group 5, Communication research and civil society. 10th biennial conference of the African Council for Communication Education: "Communication and the empowerment of civil society in Africa", 15 - 22 November 1996, Peninsula Technikon, Cape Town
Disclaimer: The original focus for a paper as agreed by the conference organisers and the author was for Working Group 7 on training. Due to a late switch in programme, I agreed to switch to this session, meaning that my original theme became inappropriate for this session. A new paper consequently had to be produced at short notice. This resulting document should therefore be taken as an outline of preliminary points towards discussion rather than a comprehensive academic paper. Nonetheless, I trust it will meet the purposes required by a keynote input: notably to provoke some thought and discussion about the context in which the papers in this session will be given.
In Africa, Nkrumah's dictum of seeking the political kingdom as the priority quest had turned sour in many instances as post-colonial governments across the continent wielded communications power in the guise of nation-building to entrench corruption, conceal abuses, justify human rights violations and suppress dissent. Popular stirrings against all this gave rise to a vibrant communications environment in many cases, replacing the one-way, top-down flow with independent newspapers led by editors like Zambia's Fred Mmembe and Cameroon's Pius Njawe as well as a host of cultural forms (songs, poetry, dance) asserting themselves as oppositional communication practices (see for example, Chimombo and Chimombo, 1996). These had not been seen before, except in some of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
South Africa had its fair share of struggles in this period, but ran into severe repression from 1960 onward when the apartheid state banned the liberation movements, jailed thousands, banished hundreds and set up a tight communications law regime complemented by a major propaganda thrust. By the time the struggle had reconsolidated as a mass movement in the mid-1980s, it coincided with democratic thrusts in many other African countries by those disenchanted with their particular post-colonial political kingdoms.
As South Africa headed towards democracy in 1994, the question arose as to the shape and role of civil society once the struggle had been won. Those committed to civil society hoped that street committees would become new organs of local governance, that trade unions and workers' councils would determine industry, education would be people's education drawing in parents, teachers and scholars, the justice system would see a major place for people's courts, popular culture win state resourcing, and the alternative press become the new mainstream.
There were some who began to stress the central importance of a strong state as an instrument of transformation of society as a whole, downplaying the role of civil movements. The argument was that civil society ought not to be romanticised because it included a host of forces outside the state that were patently reactionary: taxi mafiosi,crime syndicates, racist white farmers, etc. State power was needed to deal with these.
What emerged out of these two differing tendencies, was neither one nor the other, but a bit of both, and also something of a hybrid. Under the new dispensation today, it is hard to say which side of the power equation is hegemonic: state or civil society. There is no doubt that despite its legitimacy, the present South African state has less strength in many (but of course not all) important respects than its predecessor. There is also no doubt that key sectors of civil society, whether in the form of political parties, business groups, trade unions, student movements, the church and so on, are not as strong as they used to be in the struggle days, even if they retain a lot of influence. Relations between state and civil society fluctuate, and to some extent have been institutionalised in a new political space somewhere between them. Thus, we have in this society today, bodies like the Independent Broadcast Authority and the Truth Commission, which are neither part of civil society nor the state, but act as semi-autonomous buffers between the two. The Public Protector's Office, the Human Rights Commission, even the SABC board can also be seen as falling largely into this twilight zone. On top of all this, we have a bill of rights and a constitutional court that represents the rule of law above not only civil society, but the state as well.
Part of this picture goes around communications, of course, and especially mass communications. We have, simplistically speaking, communications emanating from the government and state, communications emanating from civil society, and communications emanating from what for want of a better word, and definitely different from the Habermasian sense, I would call the public sphere. What a fascinating terrain this is, as communicators in all three sectors engage in external and internal communications, with the variety of rationales they bring to bear as producers and consumers of distributed meanings.
It is interesting to contrast the emerging media landscape in South Africa with that in the rest of the region. Here, one can distinguish public media, corporate media and community media as key features. In neighbouring countries, there is government media and small independent media. Slowly, however, as a black middle class grows in South Africa, independent media is emerging; while community media is taking root in the region with new radio licences, for instance, being given in Mozambique, Nambia and around the corner in Malawi.
And of course all this is taking place at a time of globalisation, of the information highway, of economic, transport, energy, water and educational restructuring. There are new developments in health systems and aids awareness campaigns, massive emigration, demographic and residential shifts, and so on. Southern Africa may be uniquely in flux on the continent right now: that is not a given. But even if it were, the changes across the rest of the continent are no less gripping.
We have, in short, a researcher's paradise in Africa.
2. A paradox of riches and poverty
The point is that relative to North America for instance, Africa lacks communications capacity. The productive capacity of communicators in this continent is hindered by a lack of means of communication, strict operating environments and political constraints in many places, and by cultural-linguistic factors, amongst others. The job of communications researchers on the continent would be made easier in the first place if there was more media, and more diverse media, available to put information, ideas and opinions on the public table.
This sorry picture becomes more dismal when one looks at our communications research capacity, as evidenced by what is coming out of the continent - or, rather, not coming out of it. Some very important monitoring of press freedom does take place, by a variety of NGOs, but apart from this and apart from market research by corporate media in countries like South Africa, there seems to be a dearth of research output. As an indication of this, one can take the following kind of checklist, and measure it against the published research output in key academic journals over the past five years, not least those produced in Africa:
- political economy of media (ownership, advertising patterns)
My sense is that even where articles on these topics are to be found, the emphasis is more on the theoretical and conceptual than the empirical. I am the first to stress the importance of theory, and especially of conceptual work to help ensure that theory is relevant to conditions on the continent. However, the point of theory, in my book, is to illuminate the empirical. If theorisation does not reach the point of generating information at lower levels of abstraction, it does not help us to know about the state of communications in Africa. There is a definite imbalance in journal articles towards the conceptual contributions side.
To make matters worse, what empirically-related research is done, is sometimes nothing short of appalling. A recent article in the South African journal Communicatio (Claassen 1995) uncritically transposes claims about growing "cultural illiteracy" in the USA directly to South Africa. It fails to interrogate this rather ethno-centric conception, let alone define it. Then, a study is cited in South Africa purporting to show a similar phenomenon here. That this study is, by all indications, only of a sample of Afrikaans-speaking white teenagers, is not seen as significant enough to even mention. The conclusion drawn from this research is that we need to tighten entry standards to journalism courses at tertiary institutions. The fact that young black teenagers might be politically knowledgeable, but fail questions like "who painted the Mona Lisa", and could be denied access to training by the type of conclusions made in this kind of research article, is not noticed. Nor does the article pose the question as to whether "literacy" about youth music and dress codes, is not perhaps a key condition for trying to produce media that will address young audiences, few of whom seem to find that the existing mass media speaks to them. Then again, its author is probably, like me, quite illiterate, on this score. (cf Berger 1996)
What this case demonstrates is that on the basis of such shoddy research, far reaching policy positions can be made. But perhaps an even more disturbing case can be found in a recent report on government communication in South Africa. A commission, drawn from civil society, was appointed by deputy president Thabo Mbeki last year, and asked to review and recommend on government communications strategy and structures. Known colloquially as Comtask, the group contracted a specialist NGO dealing in communications research, known as the Media Monitoring Project. The MMP duly surveyed a mass of newspapers and radio stations coverage, conducted a number of interviews with interested parties, and produced its report. For unspecified reasons, it looked at coverage in its entirety over a particular period, when many researchers would have rather recommended a study of how a particular story or communications campaign had played - and played not only in the media, but amongst the consumers of that media and society more broadly.
According to the MMP findings, which were widely publicised, something like 21% of coverage of government is positive, 30% negative and 49% neutral. In addition, 80% of government information generated in parliament did not reach the public via the mass media.
Well, what is meant by negative, positive and neutral coverage, and how do you quantify and evaluate information generated in parliament? I can't tell you, because the MMP don't know either. Negative for whom and in what way? Is it negative to report an opposition MP criticising government? Is it negative to report on a government investigation that has uncovered corruption? Is it negative for government to report critically on one individual in government? Who can tell? Not the MMP. Ironically, this research outfit, which has hitherto enjoyed some status as a "progressive" agency, admits in its report that government (and the public?) could find a report (on Thabo Mbeki's fitness to be the next president) to be negative because of the headline, although the article itself is quite positive. What the MMP makes of this, methodologically, is left untouched. And, what do these dubious proportions about positive, negative or neutral actually mean? The MMP makes little comment here, but it does not take a rocket scientist to know that what bothers politicians is not the extent of favourable coverage they receive: what stands out for them is the damaging stuff, no matter its percentage of total copy or airtime. Ironically, this sensitivity appears to be anachronistic given the way that dirt no longer sticks in this teflon trade. At any rate, the MMP is a long way off from gathering or analysing this level of information.
What of the MMP's statistic about parliamentary information? It emerges from closer inspection of the research document that this - presented as a fact in the MMP summary of findings - comes from a member of the SA Communications Service, without any substantiation or explanation. The SACS itself does not exactly enjoy high credibility for its information work in this country, and indeed is likely to face a recommendation from Comtask that it be closed down. Little wonder that a publisher at a conference convened by Comtask asked the MMP whether the public even wanted 100% of the information generated in parliament, and suggested that the point of the media was to sift the wheat from the chaff (and publish the chaff!).
More fundamentally, the MMP fell into the trap of assuming meanings inherent in messages and as being independent of audiences' understanding of them. This is probably its greatest research weakness, and indeed one that is really unacceptable given the way this issue has been discussed extensively in communications research literature over the past ten years. What does this kind of research mean for civil society\? It means that government is faced with making policy decisions about communications in general, on the basis of flawed research emanatuing from civil society.
Of almost equally questionable value in South Africa is another recent study conducted by, and I need to double check this, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), into audience reception of a developmentalist TV soap opera called "Soul City". Let me immediately say that I have only read press reports on the survey, but the conclusions reported therein jump out immediately as lacking plausibility. The conclusions went along the lines of something like 3 of every 5 South Africans claiming to watch the programme regularly, and most of these saying it had changed not merely their knowledge, but their actual behaviour, around health issues. People familiar with the literature around development communications and media effects will share with me a lot of scepticism about such findings.
I would also be suspicious until proved otherwise about recent communication research claims about the power of radio in precipatating genocide in Rwanda (cf. Article 19 book). Given the results of research into the role of media elsewhere, it seems to me to be questionable whether one can really point the finger at radio and say with certainty that it made a difference.
Finally, maybe even worse than bad research is an absence of research altogether. Huge amounts of money were poured into a campaign in South Africa, dubbed the Masakhane campaign and which aimed at invigorating civic participation including the payments of rates and rents, before any evaluative research was done. In the Eastern Cape province, where literacy and English language competencies are amongst the lowest in the country, money is poured every month into a government newspaper with probably 95% of content being in English and where much is also devoted to "speech journalism" - i.e. the rhetoric of provincial leaders. But no attempt is made to assess its spread, readership or impact. Because it is a free paper, distributors have no built-in imperative to make sure it gets out, meaning that in my town at least, piles of copies accumulate in one semi-public spot. And here, one is talking about not high-flying semi-scientific research projects with scores of fieldworkers, but simple low-cost mechanisms to find out about the role of the paper and to use this knowledge to improve the product's effectiveness. The publication's contents may in fact meet a need and fulfill the purpose its producers intend; the problem is they don't know either way and the returns on taxpayers' money are uncertain.
South Africans earlier this year read in the press an amazing story about Sarafina 2, an anti- Aids play that was commissioned from playwright Mbongemi Ngema, by the department of health. Costing a whopping R14m, this contract became a symbol of the gravy train in terms of which inordinate wealth could be gained from the new government. The real scandal in my view was less the amount of money involved and the fact that the tender process was problematic, than the fact that no evaluation of this anti-Aids communications campaign was either planned for or called for.
3. Searching for reasons for the ruinous state of research
3.1 Drowning in production skills teaching ...
I should also mention access as another problem facing communications researchers in Africa. A revealing anecdote: one of our MA students was unable to investigate radio coverage during the abortive Lesotho coup last year, because she was refused permission to interview the journalists or peruse the archives.
3.2 Blurred knowledges.
If one sees the big picture as being communications, within which one can identify the mass media as one part, then journalism is an even smaller part of this media category. Naturally the knowledge derived from study of each of these, (as opposed to the learning of applied skills appropriate to them), is important for the skills of communicators whether dealing at the interpersonal, institutional or journalistic level. But one can have the knowledge of the area without the skills - and vice versa. One can also have this separation whether the focus is solely on journalism, or on media or on communication. How knowledge and skill tie up is not always clear to our students.
This reflects the fact that, at the level of study, we do not have equivalent knowlege of all three areas - into communications, media and journalism. I do not think that we have these distinct areas as clear as could be, and nor do we have a clear conception of their potential inter-dependencies or of priorities within them all. To take an example close to home, we have students and staff in my department researching health communications, which is a very worthy and important exercise. However, we are not researching the changing character of journalistic decision making in the mass media to the same extent. Some of our students may go on to become health communicators, but many more will be wrestling with ethical and power issues in a mass medium with less background knowledge than they might otherwise have either generated or benefited from having access to.
3.3 Distance from dynamics
4. Reinvigorating research
4.1 Teaching less, and getting time for research, means teaching more.
Making time for research is not difficult if you think about it. The kind of training we do - of journalists in particular - accords directly with research. Journalists need to know how to find information, sift it, evaluate it. Journalists need also to know how to interpret the findings that others have come up with. In short, journalists need to know about research, and what better way to enhance this skill than by teaching it, and in so doing creating some research output about communications, the media and journalism itself? I am not one of those who thinks that only information collected for a PhD programme under the strictest methodological supervision constitutes research.
If good journalism deals in specifics, in showing the general as present in the particular, in saying not only that man bites dog, but in finding and recording the name of the dog, then we as researchers need to learn from this. Our research too needs to get down to the level of specific creatures!
Another point is that with the development of online communications, it is now possible to develop a critical mass of interested colleagues around the globe as a bid to build momentum and raise the quality of research on the part of hitherto isolated individuals with a specialist focus.
4.2 Putting journalism to the fore.
4.3 Critical engagement.
Berger, G. 1996a. Educating the journalism educators (forthcoming),
Communicatio, Vol 22 (2)