Academics and journalists: a difficult relationship

academics vs journalists

Over a year after working in two social science research projects – one focuses on China-Africa economic relations and the other, more recently, about democratic development in countries around the world – I undeniably realize the importance of not solely relying on what the media, in general, will inform us. Already reading dozens and dozens of research papers (I can’t count how many Hong Kong dollars I’ve spent this year), I manage to retrieve information, oftentimes very fascinating and real, but which the media frequently fails to capture.

An ideal world where academics and journalists can work together is this: the former posits a hypothesis, experiments it, and suppose it works (repeatedly), submits the outcomes through papers and articles to journals, and the journalists, in their most embodied responsibility to disseminate the outcomes – already repackaged into news highlights – to the whole society, summarize in brief what the academics have accomplished beforehand.

How much more peace such symbiosis can bring to the world!

The reality is not as fascinating as meets the eye, we must confess. Ezra Klein, one of a handful of ‘brand-new’ journalists, struck the point precisely in this Bloomberg View op-ed about the existing ‘disconnection’ between the two supposedly mutually-reinforcing occupations. The point is: albeit we are living in a world where information is growing at an exponential pace, why does such phenomenon still occur? Why, oftentimes, is the information conveyed by journalists almost completely different from what the scientists, or academics, inform?

There is simply too much data in the world. And as we have to be frankly honest, we don’t yet know how to store the entire mammoth of such capacity in recent times; that could explain why big data industry is still largely on its infancy stage. This is also inevitable in the academic world, when researchers actively post the papers into tons and tons of journals. One simply has to go to SCIMAGO Journal Ranking (among countless websites offering almost limitless archives of journals), and voila!: more than 22,000 journals (from the most prestigious to those good ones you barely heard of to those completely obscure) are readily available in one single click. Narrow down further, say, to ‘Political Science and International Relations‘, you are pampered with over 390 selections. Each of the journals (depending on whether they are completely open-access or subscription-based) could be traced back, say, in between 20, 30, 50 years, or even close to a century. I bet you can’t ever finish, in your lifetime, just to simply read and critically summarize each of the articles having been published in one single journal. It is something unthinkable, even as far as a decade ago. If an academic journal sounded like a lavish item to as close as our parents, Internet has rendered such phenomenon largely obsolescent, in a blink or seconds.

data growth


Taken from a presentation slide in Slideshare.

Which brings us to a new issue that Ezra Klein raised further in the op-ed: how to synchronize academics and journalists altogether? At one point, academics lament that they feel ignored by the journalists, while simultaneously, the journalists also complain that it is still difficult to gain access to their work. What the heck is wrong then?

Subscription fees (some journals charge you with exorbitant fees, say, 25 US$ for one 16-page research paper) are a secondary concern; the real concern, nonetheless, is what shapes the academic integrity of these papers themselves: the rigorous (sometimes notorious) peer-review process. When a researcher wants to publish a paper in a journal, it is inevitable, totally, that their pre-published work has to be reviewed by a panel of anonymous experts. While that is certainly a good thing to reduce the probability of scientists creating something out of a pipe dream, there is one major consequence, however: peer-reviewing process takes an extremely long time, and given the fact that information, as well as numerous scientific breakthroughs – no matter how minor or major they are, can happen in months. When a paper is published, it could have been ‘4 or 8 months, or maybe even a year or more backward’ compared to the real milestones achieved in the present moment. And we know journalists will never put them on the newspaper main cover for your tomorrow’s breakfast.

Actually that is not the worst thing, though. What academics will most certainly denounce, we have to be honest, is that some journalists have the tendency to ‘sensationalize’. Which brings us to the differing perceptions between the two occupations: the former will force you to use your logic, and the latter, done in part by some people driven by numerous agendas, tickles with your emotions and responses. Thus comes the major conflict: with over millions and millions of papers published every year, why does the whole world only pay to attention to, say, 5-10 shocking events that journalists like to cover, or most likely, only a few, very best, selected papers? Let’s say, why do people still believe that Chinese companies only bring Chinese workers and resources to Africa? Does the emergence of middle-class really spark the birth of democracy, or simply because the middle-class wants to replace a regime with a technocratic one, while granting so much freedom? Or even how many people in the world really know that Nigeria actually beat Ebola?

Perhaps journalists and academics need to have a joint consensus. Or more likely, maybe, to become both.

Which is why I am gradually distancing myself from mainstream media, now maintaining an equilibrium between reading academic journals, think-tank papers, and alternative media sources (Vice News, Vox, Quartz, Big Think, AJ+, or some other Youtube channels of popular thinkers). To make long short, just balance out anything that you read.



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