Sex work research and the media
The true test of development research is whether people use it: for reference, for influence and, most importantly, for change. Too much research stays within the confines of the academic community that produces it, and is locked away in reports and articles that are only read by a handful of specialists. Many research communication specialists advise using the print and broadcast media. The media can be a ‘knowledge multiplier’ – allowing you to reach a much larger audience.
Downsides of working with the media
However working with the media to communicate your research is not without its risks and downsides. Findings may be challenged and critiqued in a way that researchers are not comfortable with, or they may be ‘coopted’ and misused by others to pursue other agendas. Also, journalists may not be best placed to judge the ethics that underpin research or its relevance and quality.
Recent media debates in the UK on the criminalisation of demand have run into just these problems. In one case in the UK Guardian the source for the proportion of women working in UK brothels who are trafficked from elsewhere was challenged leading to a correction and an article from the Reader’s Editor explaining why. The research methods used in a piece of research from the Poppy Project called Big Brothel, and the way it was promoted in the media, prompted UK academics to publish a critique in which they state:
Due to considerable media attention and exposure given to the report, there is the danger of simplistic misrepresentations impacting upon very important social and public policy issues. At this particular juncture in the history of regulation/management of the sex industry we need rigorous research that offers clarity and knowledge about the complexities involved in order to develop social policy for the 21st century.
Trying to get it right
Whether they mean to or not the media ultimately shape public opinion. Ignoring the media is one option but engaging to raise standards may be more productive. Guides have been produced by sex worker rights organisations to try and overcome the problem of unethical and inaccurate media reporting. For example, the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia website explains how to run media sensitisation workshops and has a factsheet of Tips for Sex Workers Giving Media Interviews. Given that accuracy, fairness and timeliness are the most important aspects of sound, credible journalism the PLRI will be open to this communication mechanism but mindful of the challenges.