Thursday, 28 May 2015


Communicating Policy Research: Perspectives from Vernacular Media

Vaqar Ahmed
Deputy Executive Director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad

Saleem Khilji
Senior Editor (English), Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad

Think Tanks (TTs) from around the world struggle hard to master the art of communicating policy research in a manner that ensures uptake and diffusion. Some well-resourced institutions have even gone ahead and partnered with specialised media houses to deliver research at the policy practitioners’ doorsteps. They in fact ensure the continuous pounding of information until the message gets embedded.

In Pakistan, the situation is very much ideal, as media engagement here means ‘media management’. Since the last one and a half decades, the policies of vernacular press are being looked after by the owners who are mostly the editors as well. The owner usually takes care of his own interests with a narrow range of targets. So the owner-editors would sell the contents of their own choice and interest like a niche, which ultimately affected larger benefits for them in terms of revenues and to some extent a little share in power. Like the owners of kiosks, they would sell only those goods which have more profit margins. Politics is a more lucrative and profitable business, so vernacular media is more inclined towards it. On the contrary, issues like research, development and policy uptake are less profiting.

The human mind is a recipient of what is available. General readership and viewership in Pakistan is now addicted to three types of stories which the vernacular press carries overwhelmingly. These are: statements from government and opposition sides, financial, social & moral scams, and entertainment material. This is all what has been and is being provided to the readers and viewers as their food for thought. So naturally they would evolve a specific mindset. The media gets benefit of it making it impossible for the policy research institutes and TTs to influence it.

There are perceptions that the media management by certain quarters, on the one hand, yields benefits for the owners and on the other it provides a soft blanket to our ruling elite, including policy makers and bureaucracy, to hide the real issues of an exploitative class society. Research is an absurd area in the eyes of our ruling elite. They only focus on day-to-day issues. Unfortunately, over the years media has aligned itself with the same quarters due to its ‘short-sightedness and intellectual bankruptcy partly due to the deteriorating standards of education and partly due to low wages of vernacular media workers leading to corruption.

When we ask colleagues from vernacular media on what it may take for policy research Think Tanks to get their work (and more importantly messages) published, the first question they ask us is that how different are the clients of local-level media products. These are communities willing to settle for a policy announcement and can wait patiently for reforms agenda to change their lives. They may not be (apparently) concerned with how macro level policy reforms may change their lives over a distant long-term horizon.

They may also (apparently) seem smaller players in the development change but they are the biggest clients of change. This appreciation is less declared in policy Op-Eds that get published in mainstream media. That’s why the readership or viewership longing for local media is also the most consistent voter base and less open to change of face when it comes to political leadership of their vicinity.

So what are the messages here for a researcher willing to sell thoughts to this spectrum? First, the vernacular press is constrained with space. If national dailies can provide on average of 800 to 1000 words slot, only expect a less than half of this space from local ones. Second, be objective but in a non-technical manner. Third, do not try to squeeze more than a single idea in a single piece. Instead emphasise the same idea with local level and widely understood examples and anecdotes. Finally, build readership, as well as friendship with editors. Getting radical or questioning local mind sets in your first piece may result in your early exit from the vernacular press. Try posing questions in some of the early pieces and once there is respect for inquiry and readership is gradually blossoming, only then interject with small and easy to understand ideas.

*Authors work at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (

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