Bad research can backfire disastrously, as was evident in the work done for the Human Rights Commission (HRC) by Claudia Braude and the Media Monitoring Project. Their studies gave a lot of people an excuse to avoid dealing with the real issue of racism, and discredited the HRC inquiry severely. The effect was a looming boycott by many journalists of the hearings, which in turn led to subpoenas being issued to media who had been named in the research. As everyone knows, in turn, the subpoena issue led to major polarization around racial fractures in the media. For example, one of the major flashpoints raised at the hearings was that five black editors had not been consulted by international media organisations that had condemned the subpoenas. In short, the research led to a larger han necessary rift within the media, and made it more difficult to build bridges across the divide.
Another effect of the HRC research, however, was to discredit the role of academics as contributors to contemporary issues. It would be hard to find many journalists (or media studies academics) - of whatever race - who would feel respect for the work that was done by Braude and the MMP. To undo this damage, academics need to take extra special care to produce quality research. The Durban Seminar was a first step in this process because it entailed peer assessment of current media research. By initiating an ongoing network of researchers, further quality assurance can be anticipated.
The fact that Independent Newspapers was prepared to engage with academics by supporting the seminar, notwithstanding the HRC research debacle, is testimony that industry-academy relations can be salvaged. If researchers can build on the learning and sharing of the Durban seminar, their status and value can be reclaimed. Future research may continue to be critical of industry, but it will be listened to, rather than shot down for its internal flaws. On their side, academics will be able to play an increasing role in working with the media to meet the challenges facing the sector.
The Durban seminar was a milestone, coming after the HRC experience. But the journey needs to continue, so that not only a community of quality researchers is developed, but also a community of interest between them and industry in the generation of research per se.