Bridging research and policy with the help of Pinocchio
Head of Evidence
Phoenix, Arizona. Highlights from the recent International Communications Association (ICA) annual conference: a gathering of the world's media and communication scholars.
Here's one of many interesting statistics I picked up from the conference:
'Over one in four Americans cite entertainment TV as being among their top three sources of health information, and half said they consider the health information contained in these programmes to be accurate.'
The statistic made me think. If, in the 'information age', when Americans can access multiple public and private health service providers, they are still turning to mass media for health information, what does this mean for developing countries? For countries like South Sudan, where radio is for many the only media they can access and a 15-year-old girl has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing school – could a radio show be the difference between expert advice or no expert advice, being informed or not informed, or dare I say it – life and death?
American academics know people turn to the media for health information, particularly on embarrassing topics such as sexually-transmitted diseases. That's why scholars at the University of Southern California work with the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and Hollywood script writers to help write accurate health storylines in hit shows such as Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives.
Whether it's a storyline about a sexually-transmitted disease, heart disease or diabetes – the researchers can tell you what audiences are learning and whether they are more likely to change their behaviours as a result of watching. They are even looking at whether narratives work better than fact-based programming to deliver health knowledge. As Dr Sheila Murphy, Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, said: "We can all remember why Pinocchio's nose grew, but can we remember our first primary school teacher's name?" Probably not. She hypothesises that narrative content not only helps convey health information, but also helps us remember that information over time.
I also noted the following:
More qualitative data was presented than previously
When I first attended ICA in 2008, I couldn't believe that many people at a conference could really follow and understand Structural Equation Modelling or other advanced statistics. Despite my training (mathematics), I was simply mesmerised and, to be honest, a little intimidated, by the statistical firepower in house. This was still on display at Phoenix, but there was also a more granulated, probing side on show too – I saw more interview data, more case studies, and even anecdotal storytelling woven around the statistics and experiments.
There was a tangible shift in language, concepts and paradigms
For example, there was less talk about mass audiences and a greater emphasis on increasingly networked, dynamic transnational communities. A shift from media systems bound by nation states to transnational media flows which challenge our traditional understanding of the public sphere. Perhaps the increased presence of narrative-based qualitative research at ICA reflects scholars' efforts to capture the fluid, nuanced resetting of the public agenda seen by events and mobilisations such as the Arab Spring.
'Big data' is big news and is causing researchers to rethink traditional audience metrics. Our tastes are markers of our identity and our identity is being shared through analytics. Now advertisers (the financial backbone of private media) are cashing in online. Powerful algorithms based on what you buy online predict what you might want to buy in the future. This new data is intriguing and challenging media researchers. The old audience metrics, such as reach and ratings, are being overhauled (eg engagement or social engagement scales) to meet the changes in our information ecology. Yet, consensuses on exactly what we should be measuring are still to be determined.
An area that we are constantly debating here at BBC Media Action is the use of self-attribution. If an audience member tells us that they have learnt something from the programming, is it a valid measure? Ideally, we'd also measure actual knowledge (eg whether mothers know the benefits of breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby's life) as well as whether they say they've learnt about exclusive breastfeeding from the programme.
Yet that can be hard, especially if we don't know exactly what health information they will take away or if we are covering lots of health topics in our programmes. Similarly, people often don't remember or know when they learnt something or why they changed their behaviour. We do need to value what our audience values and we can't ignore self-attribution but we should seek to validate it if and when possible.
Finally, ICA reassured me that despite our differences and the different languages that we speak, many academics are interested in finding innovative ways to collaborate with practitioners like BBC Media Action. Bridging theory and practice by undertaking collaborative research projects will inevitably improve the evidence base around media in a developing world context - and that’s one of our central aims over the next year.
Anna Godfrey was invited to speak on a panel titled 'Media Research in Transnational Spheres' at the International Communications Association conference. Her talk was based on her work leading the Africa Talks Climate project. Africa Talks Climate was a BBC Media Action research and communications project looking at the public understanding of environmental issues across 10 countries in Africa.