Introduction

There are both opportunities and risks from engaging with the media. By building up relationships with journalists and providing materials in an accessible manner, you will increase media understanding of your research and reduce the risks of being misrepresented. The media needs you: A press officer can be relied on to handle the media, but it is your in-depth understanding of an issue that journalists and broadcasters are really interested in. As a researcher, you add credibility to a news story. You can get across complex issues and at the same time bring human interest obtained from case studies.

In some instances you or your institution may specifically court the media, wishing to interest them in your research and findings. In other instances the initiative may come from the journalist, seeking informed comment, opinions and perspectives from people with known expertise. Either situation can serve to raise the profile of the research, and to inform public debate. In some forms of social research, especially participant research and work with underprivileged or vulnerable groups, wide dissemination of findings and the raising of public awareness may be an important part of the research cycle and necessary to fulfil obligations to the groups researched.

Wide dissemination of research findings beyond the confines of academic discussion can also be useful to the researcher her/himself, the institution and the funding body. Media dissemination raises the profile of the researcher, such that the media will look on him or her as a person to contact for comment on topical stories related to their area of expertise. It also raises the profile of the institution, with potentially positive results in terms of attracting students to particular courses and attracting further funding for the research and related work. Funding councils also consider media dissemination to be highly valuable, because it allows publicly funded research to be seen as relevant and useful. Funding councils are more likely to fund work in institutions that have a good record in this regard. Researchers, therefore, have a degree of obligation to their colleagues and to the institution that supports them to engage with the media where this is feasible and appropriate.

Press Offices

Academic institutions see raising their profile through media dissemination of research findings as important. Institutions are in competition with each other to get good quality attention from the media. For this reason, academic institutions – and sometimes faculties within institutions – have Press Offices, who play an increasingly important role in raising and maintaining the research profile of the institution. Press officers have expert knowledge of the mass media and journalism, and researchers are well advised to avail themselves of this expertise. The press officer’s role includes:

  • Maintaining a positive relationship with media and keeping media ‘on side’.
  • Seeking ways to disseminate research.
  • Liaising between media and academics.
  • Advising and training academics on media interaction; and developing academics with ‘media credibility’.
  • Enhancing and protecting the institutional reputation.
  • Targeting appropriate dissemination for particular pieces of work: finding appropriate local or national media, offering an attractive angle and identifying ways to present material to different audiences.

Dangers and ethical issues

For journalists, informing the public about matters - the knowledge of which s/he considers to be in the public interest - is a major ethical driver. Anything that involves public funds is seen as falling within the domain of public interest. If a journalist becomes interested in a piece of publicly funded academic research s/he will therefore consider that they have a legitimate right to investigate and will expect co-operation from those involved. Researchers should therefore bear this in mind. However, it should also be borne in mind that in many cases the journalist’s primary agenda will be commercial and that producing a satisfying story for the readership is the overarching aim. In this regard a degree of conflation can take place between what is in the public interest and what interests the (particular) public. This can lead to the story being presented with a news angle which may be at odds with the researcher’s understanding of the social relevance of their work. Information can also be distorted simply because the journalist lacks either the time, resources or capacity to understand what is involved (some practical tips for minimising the likelihood of inaccurate or distorted reporting are give in the next section). In this regard radio reporters are generally more reliable than newspaper journalists as they are likely to have more time to research and check information. A further basis for distortion and misinformation can arise because, for journalists, a disagreement between two experts can be a good angle for an interesting news story. Journalists do not necessarily understand the academic system of peer review (i.e. not all experts are equally credible) and that just because someone can be found to express a contrary opinion it does not necessarily mean that this is useful. Where the contrary opinion is credible, valid and useful there is still the danger that a hard-pressed, non-expert journalist may not properly understand the area of disagreement.

Whilst as general rule it is important for academics to maintain a good relationship with the mass media, keeping journalists ‘on side’, there can be situations when it may be inappropriate or even dangerous to publicize research. For instance, in some cases when working with vulnerable people the dangers of mass media publication to the individuals researched or to the general group involved might outweigh any possible benefits (see Vulnerable Groups: Anonymity, Confidentiality and Danger and Global Context: Obligations to Those Researched. Also, a press officer might consider media dissemination to be inadvisable in cases where it could be damaging to the institution and the researchers. The University, for example, is obliged to consider reputational risk and risk to students and researchers may need to consider risk to safety (e.g. where they may have been conducting research around criminal activity or terrorism etc.). In such instances, where the media expresses interest, but dissemination is considered inadvisable, the press office can prepare a statement.

Practicalities for working with journalists

In order to raise public awareness of research findings it is necessary to develop an effective dissemination plan. Press officers have the perspective, expert knowledge and contacts to help with this. Four key questions to consider are:

  • What are your objectives?
  • Who is affected most by this research?
  • What is the best way to reach your target audience?
  • How should the process be handled?

You must then decide which media to target, the main categories being:

  • National newspapers
  • Specialist publications
  • Network radio and TV
  • Regional and local newspapers
  • Regional and local radio and TV
  • Online media

The media you choose to target will depend on who you want to reach and how you want to influence them.

It is also important to have some understanding of how journalists work. However, there is no such thing as a typical journalist. Journalists have different agendas and operate in different contexts depending on whether they are employed by national or local newspapers, national or local radio stations, or network or regional television stations. However, there are two qualities that all good journalists have in common: (i) they are anxious to preserve their independence and integrity; (ii) they are always on the lookout for a good story, or an angle to make a story interesting. Journalism is a business and the journalist's primary task is meeting the needs of his or her customers – rather than helping you to put your message across. It is vitally important to understand what audience or readership the journalist is writing the story for. For mass media journalists a story has to:

  • be relevant to the people it’s aimed at – it has to affect their lives in some way.
  • be topical and happening right now.
  • have a strong message.
  • be interesting.
  • have human interest.

If you plan to meet a journalist, make sure you understand the content, treatment and style of the publication or the radio or TV programme. Then adapt your message to match these criteria. Again, press officers can assist with this. In general, journalists will want content that will bring a story to life.

  • Newspapers will want some interesting quotes.
  • Radio will want a good interview.
  • Television will want good pictures.

Journalists will use their "news judgement" to look for an “angle”; and if you do not give them one, they will find one on their own. For this reason it is always important to present your findings in a clear, unambiguous way that cannot be misinterpreted. In this regard, newspapers are somewhat more unpredictable than radio or television, because you do not know what the reporter is writing down and how he is going to use it. Radio and TV reporters need your contribution to make it work, so if you do a good interview, that is what the public will hear and see. Radio and TV reporters edit their material, but only to make it fit, so if you speak in complete sentences and give short answers you can be reasonably sure that is what will appear. Keep in mind that journalists are only a conduit for you to speak to the people you want to reach. If you target your material in the right way there is every chance that you will get your message across.

TV and Radio interviews

The contemporary broadcast industry is very fragmented. There are hundreds of radio and television stations (national, regional and local), targeting specific audiences: most provide some form of news and information, but the quantity, subjects, emphases and depth of coverage may vary considerably. For instance, Radio 4 would typically give longer and more in-depth coverage than a local commercial radio station.

Clearly the nature of the interview will depend on the nature of the subject, and in particular whether the reporter is interested in your research per se or is seeking expert input in regard to another story. A radio or TV reporter may want to elicit information, or opinion, or more rarely emotion. However, it is worth keeping in mind that radio and TV reporters work under the general rule that:

INTERVIEWER = INFORMATION
INTERVIEWEE= COMMENT

This means reporters will want to collect and disseminate the facts themselves and will conduct the interview to elaborate on the facts. They will normally choose someone to interview because of their status in the hope that they will provide them with an informed opinion.

It is important to understand the reporter’s aims and intentions in conducting an interview with you and you should ask:

  • What programme is it for?
  • What is the theme of the piece?
  • How long will the interview be?
  • Who will be doing it?
  • Will anyone else be interviewed about it?
  • Is it live or recorded?

And before the interview begins, don’t be afraid to ask:

  • What kind of questions will you be asking?
  • What will the first question be?

However, you should not expect to be allowed to see or hear the interview back after the recording, as journalists are trained not to allow this.

In the interview you may have only a few minutes to get your points across, so avoid trying to say too much. A good strategy is to aim to get across three main points and to make them the basis of everything you say. In general it is best to:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Use short words and sentences.
  • Give examples to illustrate what you mean.
  • Avoid jargon at all costs.

Obviously it is important not to let the interviewer shape things too much. In this regard you should tell yourself – and keep in mind – that you are going to say what you want to say, not what the interviewer wants you to say.

You should be aware that what you say may be shortened if you talk for too long. In this regard, live interviews are better than recorded interviews because you can be sure what you say will be broadcast without editing.

The interview may take place in a studio, but increasingly interviewers prefer to conduct interviews on location – either in or near your office or at the location of your research or of the story – as it is more interesting for the listener and viewer if there is something going on in the background while the interview is taking place. Press offices in academic institutions sometimes have their own studio, where interviews can be recorded if wished.

 

 

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