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Hidden In Plain Sight

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Rikha Sharma Rani looks at unearthing buried social sector knowledge and how journalism can help


Looking for a good way to waste millions of dollars? Earlier this year, the World Bank (WB) released findings from an internal study that looked at how often WB’s core “knowledge products” – research, policy and technical assistance reports – were cited or downloaded. The purpose of the study was to gain a better understanding of the impact and quality of WB’s knowledge work, which constitutes a core part of its mission. Among the findings: More than 31 percent of policy reports were never downloaded (not even once) and nearly 87 percent of policy reports were never cited.

Ironically, the finding that a substantial portion of WB policy research doesn’t get a lot of attention generated a lot of attention, much of it focused on the wasted time and resources put into lengthy (and costly) reports that are scarcely noticed. Journalists love to highlight waste, negligence and incompetence. But the headlines could have focused on the lost opportunity, and explored the question of how to make sure that vast troves of knowledge get tapped. To be sure, the WB’s research is a mixed bag. But, given the scope and breadth of WB’s work, which is both global and multisectoral, it is likely that among those forgotten reports are valuable sources of knowledge about what works to solve development problems.

As a Washington Post headline put it, the solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads. Hyperbole aside, there may be some truth to that. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the bureaucratic machine that is the World Bank, it’s hard to dispute the importance of the issues that it tackles – from poverty to global health to climate adaptation – and the knowledge that, through its work, it uniquely possesses. The lessons learned by WB are of value to all of us, particularly those of us who work in the social sector – a sector in which lessons unlearned – or forgotten – lead to the perpetuation of abject poverty, deaths from preventable diseases, and livelihoods lost to natural disasters. 49% of the policy reports included in the study had the stated objective of “informing the public debate or influencing the development community.” According to WB, more than half of these did not fully meet that objective.

WB is not alone. Many organizations – nonprofits, research institutes, foundations, think tanks – invest in research that is intended to be shared but never sees the light of day. Dissemination is too often viewed as something that happens organically after-the-fact, rather than as a component of the research process itself. As a result, a lot of potentially illuminating ideas remain hidden from view. One finding from the WB study in particular illustrates the difference between active and passive dissemination. WB found that reports released through their Online Media Briefing Center (OMBC), which launches press releases accessible to journalists before publication of the report, got significantly more downloads and citations than those that were not (nearly double the number of downloads and more than seven times the number of citations). If downloads and citations are a reasonable (if imperfect) proxy for readership, then clearly such efforts are worthwhile.

Part of our mission at the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) is to connect journalists with this dormant knowledge in the hopes that newsworthy stories about potential solutions will emerge. Of the reports included in the WB study, those not pushed by OMBC were cited an average of 0.9 times and those pushed by OMBC were cited an average of seven times. Of the latter group, one report was also accompanied by a New York Times op-ed by the author. It was cited 51 times. Journalism plays a uniquely powerful role in the spread of ideas.  At its core, it’s about conveying information – including information that can help drive social change. As SJN co-founder David Bornstein put it in his New York Times column Why ‘Solutions Journalism’ Matters, Too, “If we think of the ‘media’ as a feedback mechanism for society then – like any feedback mechanism – it can encourage or inhibit all sorts of things. Depending on what gets highlighted and what gets overlooked – and  how stories are framed – the media can accelerate social progress or do just the opposite.” SJN seeks to legitimize and spread the practice of solutions journalism: critical, clear-eyed reporting about responses to social problems. When done well, this kind of journalism provides valuable insights about how society can better tackle problems.

There are, as the WB study shows, storehouses of research that journalists can tap to produce important and compelling stories. Not every bit of research will have newsworthy insights; but some will, and those stories are being systematically overlooked. For this to change, organizations operating on the front lines of the social sector must be more deliberate about disseminating the knowledge that they produce. It’s about access, but also ease of use. For example, it’s well known in medicine that people understand absolute disease risks far better than relative risks. Presenting research in a way that is clear, trustworthy, digestible and memorable is especially important in a world where people are overwhelmed by information and the pace of communication is ever accelerating.

For their part, journalists must embrace a broader role for themselves than that of society’s “watchdog” whose sole purpose is exposing corruption and wrongdoing. In this re-imagined role, journalists are just as hard charging in understanding what has worked and why as they are in pursuing what hasn’t and why. One way to do that is to leverage knowledge from the social sector. The solutions to all our problems will never be found in a PDF, but an insight or two that get us closer to one may well be.

Many thanks to Rikha and Solutions Journalism Network for reminding us of the importance of making the research we conduct accessible. Be sure to follow Rikha and SJN on Twitter.

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