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Donors often determine the direction of media development research. But as DW Akademie’s Dennis Reineck points out, surveys must also address the interests of participants, as a program with youth in Palestine has shown.
It’s 12.30 pm in a sleepy little village in the West Bank and the sun is blazing down on a corrugated iron roof. In the room below, ten laptop fans are humming, trying as best they can to cool the computers down. The humming is accompanied by the low murmur of kids whispering among themselves. Ten Palestinian teenagers are standing a few yards apart and playing something. It’s a version of the popular game Rochambeau, or rock-paper-scissors and is pitting five boys against versus five girls. Every round is accompanied by outbursts of laughter and vows of revenge. It’s hard to imagine they’re taking part in a survey on media and information literacy.
Media research with children
There is a stark contrast between this scene and common conceptions of research in media development. The work is meant to be rigorous and exact, gathering objective facts and testing for impacts and effects. Researchers enter the field with boxes of surveys, ready to fill them with data they need to measure indicators determined ahead of time. But this kind of research often neglects the fact that measuring what people think and do is different from measuring the height of a tree or the temperature of water. In practice, surveys often cater to special segments of the population, like children, the elderly or handicapped people, and each group poses challenges to the researcher.
Researchers carrying out surveys and other interview techniques have to consider how the people taking part in them make sense of their world. Knowing what you want to find out is important; but knowing how to find it out is at least as important. To do that, it is crucial to understand the issues participants are interested in, their media consumption and the language that they use. This was the most important lesson learned during a pretest of a media and information literacy survey conducted in Palestine in June this year with young people between 12 and 14.
The participants, many from remote areas lacking basic services and with high unemployment rates, were recruited from UNRWA project schools involved in a media and information literacy program currently being implemented by DW Akademie country manager Verena Wendisch in cooperation with local NGO Pyalara (Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation).
Long questionnaires, short attention spans
The media and information literacy survey was made up of two parts. First, the students were asked to read, listen to or watch a media example. For instance, they watched a YouTube video about a soccer game in Egypt where dozens of fans were injured. Then they were asked to answer questions pertaining to things such as diversity of sources and opinions, accuracy or ethics. In the second part, students were supposed to use the internet to find specific information or show that they could use certain online applications. For example, they were asked to find out what the capital of Tanzania is using Wikipedia.
Doing surveys with children proved to be a completely different ball game than surveys with adults. The kids had difficulty understanding questions in High Arabic, the equivalent of Oxford English. They were also found to have quite short attention spans and several examples of media were inappropriate – the young people couldn’t fully understand them or the examples had nothing to do with the kind of media they encountered in their everyday lives. Additionally, some students thought the survey was tedious due to a lack of story lines or figures they could identify with. Examples involved anonymous figures and there were no motivational elements.
Given all of this, it sounds as though the survey could be summed up in one word: FAIL. However, plenty of elements of the test did work well. And fortunately, pretests are learning experiences. The lessons learned through the pretest experience are being used to adapt the questionnaire and make it better fit the interests of the participants before the main test at the end of September.
The lessons learned included:
Conduct activating exercises in regular intervals: The intro to this article is taken from the first day of the pretest, when members of our partners in Palestine, Pyalara, recommended playing a game after the lunch break.
Simplify the language: Journalistic jargon such as “sources” or “opinions” has to be paraphrased so that young people can understand it.
Choose motivating tasks: Online research tasks are boring by youth if the topic has nothing to do with them. Doing research on stars from the casting show “Arab Idol”, on the other hand, hits the spot for a lot of teenagers rather than searching for information like the capital of Tanzania.
Use recurring comic figures: Many children are fond of comic figures and inventing narratives that include a set of figures can be fun for participants, especially as they get to know their comic friends better and better.
Of course, there is no guarantee that these strategies will make any survey a success. But our impression is that we have certainly come a long way from the drab questionnaire that had laptops humming and students whispering to each other in that Palestinian village last summer.
The survey referred to here is being conducted as part of the project “Audience Research in Media Development”, funded by German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and currently being undertaken by DW Akademie. The project aims to gain further insights into innovative methods of measuring audience behavior, skills and attitudes, with research taking place in the Palestinian West Bank, Columbia and Kenya.