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Communication innovations to inform public debate: PLAAS’ Fact Check series

This post was written by Rebecca Pointer, Information and Communication Officer, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape.

Land reform is one of the most hotly debated political topics in the South African media terrain, so getting media coverage for relevant research is not too difficult. However, despite much research evidence, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) found that many myths about land reform circulated in the media, among politicians, and in the public domain. These myths seemed impervious to the evidence being presented by our researchers in media interviews, in policy dialogues and in various publications.1

At our regular Monday dialogue and communications strategy meetings we decided to try a new communications approach to see if we could have any impact on tackling the common myths directly. We wanted to introduce ‘fact sheets’ to engage the media so that journalists would have the facts more readily to hand when speaking to politicians and other policy role players (e.g. lobbyists). We wanted the fact sheets to be useful to civil society organisations that needed access to research in order to take their own agendas forward, and we wanted to target politicians with limited reading time.

We decided on one-page documents with each document tackling a separate myth, and undertook a process of development. Through the process of development, we realised that it might work well to present information as infographics, instead of just as text, so we engaged a design team to make these infographics work. The result was four documents in our Fact Check series, each tackling a different myth about land reform – e.g. the myths that land reform projects had a 90% failure rate; that there were vast tracts of state land available for land reform so expropriation was unnecessary; that there was low demand for land; and several myths about the distribution of land in South Africa.

Producing the myth-busting fact sheets involved several stages of development, as well as a lot of discussion between researchers and the communications team, because we needed to condense much, complex information into succinct, clear and short fact sheets that communicated myth-busting messages in a powerful way. It was quite a challenge to present nuanced information about the complexities of land reform in a way that was accessible for almost any audience, and at the same time drew attention to the contentious facts. We worked closely with the design team through several iterations to arrive at the final products.

Once these were printed, they were initially launched at a major conference commemorating the centenary of the 1913 Land Act – a piece of legislation that has left deep scars on the South African landscape, and continues to affect the distribution of land in South Africa today. At the conference, a well-known lobby organisation representing white commercial farmers immediately took issue with the fact sheets, and on promoting the fact sheets on twitter and face book – the publications led to some heated discussions and debates.

Immediately after the conference, we set about promoting the publications more broadly – initially sending them in an HTML email to our whole mailing list, and using different messages on twitter to draw readership to the publications. Apart from the controversy the fact sheets stirred up, they also received much acclaim, with several readers commenting on the usefulness 2of these products – including other research communicators, media practitioners and journalists, and activists. One media outlet (Leadership magazine) picked up on the mailing and produced it almost verbatim in an issue of their magazine. Thereafter, we also developed a mailer that specifically targeted journalists and we mailed paper copies to journalists, politicians, political party research units, and civil society organisations – and several journalists have since indicated that they find the Fact Check series very useful.

In addition, we received report from two (unrelated) civil society activists that they had found the Fact Check series very useful; one activist had used them as educational materials in a township workshop he was running, while another one had used a case study in one of the Fact Checks to start a similar process of engaging local government to identify suitable municipal commonage land for use by their community.

However, tracking land reform issues in the media to establish whether the series is having any impact on the reproduction of land reform myths is going to take longer. Hence, it remains an open question: Can we change media messages about land reform by presenting the facts in a user-friendly format?