Findings from the study of the social diffusion of ideas, products, and practices, suggest that innovation can be cultivated by building bridges that link previously disconnected networks and communities of practice. CommGAP supported a project in Kenya which could very well be undergirded by this idea. Implemented by the Panos Network's Relay Programme, the project has been documented in a recently published case study entitled “Reporting tax research: Connecting researchers and journalists for improved media coverage and debate in Kenya”.
The project’s overarching objective was to strengthen the capacity of researchers, media, and civil society “to interact productively to increase coverage of tax and governance issues in the Kenyan media.” More specifically, the desired result was to improve media coverage of tax issues in the country. The logistics of the project were relatively simple: bring together civil society representatives, tax researchers, and journalists over a two day workshop for information sharing and to collaboratively develop story ideas. But some of the underlying problems the workshop attempted to address were much more complex. For example, low levels of trust and lack of professional respect among the various groups were prevalent prior to the workshop. And these attitudes and opinions are not exclusive to the Kenyan context. Summarizing Relay’s experience in various countries, here’s how the case study describes it from the journalists’ perspective:
One of the main challenges that journalists face in reporting on research is their lack of confidence to report on new and potentially complex subjects… What journalists do need is enough understanding of the subject area, combined with the confidence to ask the right questions of the right people, so they can communicate key messages to the population at large.
Researchers, on the other hand, have their own share of challenges:
… lack of understanding about how to communicate their findings clearly to non-specialist audiences such as journalists. There is a widespread belief among researchers that journalists are at fault when they fail to understand detailed research on a new subject area, when this is simply a problem of communication. Researchers also frequently do not trust journalists to report accurately on their research.
It is easy to see from these characterizations that these two professional communities do not engage each other in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration. But it is also quite easy to come up with reasons why they should. Transparency and accountability, for instance, require public understanding of the processes and practices through which public authorities exercise stewardship over the people’s purse, on both the revenue and expenditure sides. Informed media coverage and popularization of technical research findings on taxation (and other) issues might be considered two sides of the same coin.
By cultivating trust and fostering collaboration among the participants, the two-day workshop resulted in news articles on tax issues that were more informed and evidence-based (see pp. 16-17 of the report). In terms of sustainability, promising developments include ongoing efforts by participants to build a multi-stakeholder network that seeks to improve media coverage of tax issues. Relationships established during the workshop have also been sustained over time, with journalists consulting researchers on a one-on-one basis for story assignments that include some aspect of taxation.
From a pretty small project arose new practices that fit the local context and aspire to global norms of good governance. By building bridges between previously disconnected communities of practice, a progressive innovation in the media coverage of tax issues has emerged and, from several indications, seems to have a chance at being sustained over the long haul. Surely there are limits to what can be achieved in 48 hours but, done thoughtfully, connecting local actors can be one of the first few steps on the journey toward massive social change.