Making academic knowledge media friendly

I attended a 2 day seminar last week run by the Centre for Research Excellence into Injecting Drug Use (CREIDU, or ‘cree-du’). The centre was launched mid-2011 and is based at the Burnet Institute, Melbourne. Day one focused on how to deal with the media. Day two focused on translating research into policy, and was run by the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP). The program was an excellent mix of perspectives and practice. For my own benefit and for anyone else who is reading, I thought it would be useful to summarise what I learnt from the workshop.

Tracy Parish, Deputy Head of Public Affairs and Communications at Burnet, showed us this video (an advert for The Guardian) to illustrate how stories can spiral outwards in our contemporary media landscape:

We got a good sense of the journalist’s perseptive on science/academics. The journalist’s role is to ‘decipher complex issues’. They need to synthesise information into small digestible chunks and usually they need to do this to a hard deadline. Journalists need news that hooks the reader in. Why should the reader care about our academic findings? We need to have a solid answer to this question prior to engaging the media on our issue.

A great tool for seeing whether we can front the media effectively is the dinner party test – can you fascinate a group of non-specialists with a short story about what you do? Or do they back away as soon as you utter your first sentence? Why should your parents’ friends care about what you do? What connection would they make with your work?

I really enjoyed the presentation by Jon Faine, Radio presenter of the ABC morning show in Victoria. His presentation style was captivating which I think illustrated his main point, that you are performing when you engage with the media and you need to tell a good story. He also noted that ‘the media’ is often described as one monolithic entity, but that commercial and non-commercial media have completely different mandates and practices which we should be aware of when we choose who to engage with and how. Regardless of what kind of media we are talking about, Jon’s message of ‘head, heart, hip’ is important – if the story can’t be directly related to the head, heart or hip pocket of the audience, it’s not a compelling story.

For the rest of this post, I’m simply going to list the tips I wrote down from the entire day – which came from a number of diverse speakers and audience members.

When dealing with the media, academics should…

  • tell a good anecdote because this will engage the audience (allowing them to ‘paint a picture’ of the issue)
  • avoid statistics although simple numbers/proportions are compelling if they are limited in number and go to the core of the issue
  • don’t assume any prior knowledge – this can be difficult for academics who mainly socialise with other academics, but think about the dinner party test (I was thinking about times when I found myself talking to my parents’ neighbours about my phd!)
  • use the word ‘you’ and ‘your’, eg. in your workplace, in your family, in your community (why should the audience care about this story if it does not relate directly to them?)
  • if you are taking a purely ‘evidence-based’ approach and are asked your personal opinion, you can say that you have an opinion but that it doesn’t matter because your role is only to provide the evidence (further discussion occurred regarding advocacy positioning)
  • stick to your stance and if the journalist continues to push against you, suggest they go to another organisation and if you know of a suitable one, name them
  • never say just ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the journalist is looking for quotes so you need to speak in sentences
  • you can say no to a request from the media – it is good to remember that journalists need content to survive and that you are actually helping them to do their job, so you can be in charge of it – whether to do it in the first place, where to do it, when to do it, etc.

Specific advice for when you are preparing for or engaged in a phone interview with a journalist (eg. for newspaper):

  • Ask how long the interview will be? Remember you are likely only to be quoted for one sentence or two at the most so you need to prepare those messages.
  • Prepare a cheat sheet of 1-3 messages and any numbers/facts you need to get right
  • Research the journalist and publication if you don’t already know them well. What other pieces has this journalist written/produced? What standard of work are they associated with?
  • It was suggested that you should ensure the journalist understands that if they are not prepared to show you the article prior to publication, you are not prepared to allow them to use your name. I have personally found that journalists feel this request questions their integrity and their ability to do their job, and can get defensive, so I’m not sure whether this request is appropriate in practice. The best solution to this problem is probably around cultivating long-term relationships with journalists (see below).
  • Stand up! Wear heals/more formal clothing – find a place that is less familiar than your office to conduct the phone call. These actions help you to remember during the interview that this is not a casual conversation, this is a formal performance. It is easy to lapse into casual conversation which is when you are most likely to sway away from your defined role in this process.

Advice for managing your overall engagement with media:

  • Jon Faine described the OMDB (Over My Dead Body) list. If a journalist does the wrong thing by you, don’t deal with them again. Have a white list and a black list which you cultivate over time. Don’t reward bad behaviour.
  • Cultivate long-term relationships with journalists and media organisations. Doing this reduces your chances of being misquoted or misrepresented because the journalist will value their relationship with you and not want to jeopardise it if possible. It means you have a list of people to go to when you do have a story you think is newsworthy who you are not ‘cold-calling’.
  • During your academic research, be on the look out for good visual opportunities – video or image – and record them as you go. These can be used later for media engagements. If you provide visuals, you are more likely to reach a television audience – without visuals, you are limited to radio and newspapers.

Conferences

  • Some journalists read conference abstracts and may follow up with academics from this material. While this practice may not be commonplace, it is therefore good practice to ensure that conference abstracts are not only written for the academic community but also contain media friendly messages – assuming you want to attract media attention to your story (you don’t always want this!).
  • Approach the media liaison at a conference and introduce yourself to them.

Alternatives to media engagement

  • Write it yourself as an opinion piece – this way you can’t be misquoted or misrepresented

The final message? You need to first decide whether you want to be an academic that engages with the media. If you don’t want to, you need to communicate your findings to someone who will do it for you. If you do want to engage, you need to commit to learning how to do it well. This takes a regular time commitment and needs to be factored into your job timelines. It may mean that one less academic paper gets written per annum or it may mean the media-engaged researcher has to do more overtime. A major problem the workshop identified was that academics don’t get rewarded adequately for community engagement. Will the media-engaged researcher with slightly less academic publications win a fellowship over the media-disengaged researcher with slightly more academic publications? I hope that public impact count for something and I think it should definitely count for more than it does now.

Should academics engage with the media? Even if they will sometimes get it wrong (or oftentimes get it wrong depending on who you ask)? I say yes, we must. When it comes to evidence-based drug policy, we have an obligation to make our evidence appealing to the public. Public opinion matters more and more in terms of what policies governments are prepared to implement. If we can’t persuade governments, we may need to take on public opinion to have an impact on drug policy.

8 thoughts on “Making academic knowledge media friendly”

  1. Great piece Monica. Thanks for passing on these very sensible tips coming out of the workshop. I’d agree with your position about seeking authority over unpublished articles. It’s unlikely to happen and is a good way to ensure that a journalist doesn’t seek you out in the future. It’s ultimately about the relationship and that requires trust.

  2. Yes Paul, I agree. Too often academics decide that all journalist are evil based on a few bad experiences, but I want to cultivate relationships with the decent ones so that there is a vehicle for getting important messages out to the public. Though, others at the workshop said that they are always distrusting because even if the journalist is a good one, the system they work in remains wedded to an agenda of law/order and prohibition regardless of the evidence. Maybe I’m just wearing rose-tinted glasses 😉

  3. A long time ago, in a different universe, I used to blackball entire outlets, and explicitly tell them why, if they misrepresented my position. Unfortunately, AOD issues are often given to ‘cub’ reporters, eager to make a name for themselves and get on in the career ladder, which means finding some sensational drug news to break. After a few times in the ‘naughty corner’ the offending outlets would send grown-ups, and more balanced reporting was achieved.
    Couldn’t agree more about writing out the 3 top points that you want to get across- double spaced- and if you fluff your lines, just ask to do another take! Trickier for live feeds…!
    Finally, Op-Eds are cathartic and fun- if you’re offered one- take it!
    see
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/pynes-pain/story-e6frea83-1111113660298

  4. Thanks Monica! Agreed – The Age article is a really good one – thanks for the link. I also think we have to engage with the media – remembering to exercise caution as we do so. And this applies not just to academics but also to services and user groups, who are often approached to comment on policy changes, new interventions, and so on. It would be great if courses such as the CREIDU one were also aimed at these groups – or maybe they are and I don’t know about it?

  5. We had a few representatives from community groups at the workshop but it was mainly aimed at researchers. I agree – all types of groups need to consider how they are engaging with the media and what their goal is 🙂

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