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Media and Academia: do they speak a common language?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 17:04 UK time, Thursday, 22 September 2011

This week I was invited to Cambridge to take part in a European Society panel, which discussed the above mentioned question at the Central Asian Studies conference.

The discussion took place in Churchill College and the presence of the legendarily sharp-minded British Prime-Minister was felt everywhere: in bas-reliefs and coined phrases on the walls, during debates and in the wit of the seminars, and in the intellectually thick air of the entire conference.

Therefore, this piece on media and academia will obviously be peppered with Churchill's quotes, though it is not academically long, since the 'very length defends itself against the risk of being read'.

So first all of all let's set up the scene. Journalism and academic research are in a way opposite trades.

Churchill once said that 'broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all' and this phrase is quite applicable to those two trades.

I'm deliberately simplifying it, but if journalism is by it's definition speaking about the 'here and now' events ('jour' is 'a day' in French, isn't it?), academia on the other hand seeks universality, aiming for findings that can be applied 'ever and everywhere'.

Interestingly, the current dominating tendency is that the life span of that 'here and now' of journalism is becoming shorter and shorter.

With the blossom of social media in shape of Facebook and Twitter we are now talking not just about 'journalism' but rather 'houralism', 'minutealism' and 'secondalism'.

At the same time the academic research is moving in the opposite direction, towards the increasingly more detailed specialties.

So if we revisit Churchill's former saying, in essence: the short is becoming shorter, and the old is becoming older.

To put it completely in a Churchillean manner: Journalism is becoming a trade which knows something (not saying 'nothing') about everything, whereas academia knows everything about something (quite specific and particular, sparing again the word 'nothing').

Alexander Pushkin, the most famous of Russian poets said: 'It's impossible to put a horse paired with a hesitant doe to draw the carriage' and on the surface it seems that the journalism - the fast and furious horse in our metaphor indeed can't be paired with the hesitant academia full of doubts and reflections, unless both of them turn into some kind of mules.

Even if we leave the field of metaphors and talk pragmatically about how to bring together the two forces of two trades, there's a great deal of hidden rejection between those two professions: journalists label researchers as 'talking heads', whereas from the researchers' high-brow perspective the journalist must look like a 'headless chicken'.

However Churchill comes to mind again: 'A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty'.

Journalists and researchers covering Central Asia have decided to not just discuss the issues which separate them, but also to find ways how to cooperate for the sake of audiences in Central Asia, and the English speaking audiences.

As the witty Sir Winston would say: 'It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see'.

So what would be the middle ground where academic researchers could meet the journalists and vice versa.

We journalists could make our half of the way by covering not just the news, but also tendencies and trends, which are behind the news.

We could expand our genres to those, in which the specialists and experts could take part: discussions, panels, question and answer sessions, thematic packages, blogs, etc.

The researchers could also make their half of the way, writing not just academic books, which cost hundreds of pounds, but also blogging, engaging with the broadcasting audiences through the short and succinct summaries of their findings, being more accessible and available on daily topics of the target area.

'Personally, I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught' - Churchill said famously.

Even though both journalists and researchers need some kind of 'Guide for Dummies' from each others' perspective, maybe the best type of learning would happen around a small project on the themes and issues which interest both sides.

Taking the example of the same Central Asia for instance - why the increasing number of Tajik brides are getting married to Chinese grooms and Uzbeks to Koreans?

Or why do the Kazakh nouveau-rich buy land on the further Southern shore of the Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-kul lake, rather than on the closer and more convenient Northern shore?

There, at the ESCAS conference we were also discussing more pragmatic things like creating a database including both media outlets, covering Central Asian news and current affairs, and researchers dealing with this area, forming ways of cross-fertilising our trades, creating a web-portal accessible to everyone interested in that area.

And to finish this piece on a common language between media and academia on a tongue-in-cheek note I'll slightly rephrase the unforgettable Sir Winston Churchill: 'A researcher needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And a journalist - to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen'.

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