Wonkery in the media

There’s a challenge possibly unique to the mainstream press to make wonkish stories accessible and of interest to the average person. And the widely-documented shift towards digital news and engagement via clicks, falling sales of print journalism, and the rise of non-established sources and ‘fake’ news, only exacerbate a timeless problem. When it comes to competing for clicks or producing splashes on sector issues that can draw the average non-wonk, the press must strike a balance between rigour and accessibility.

Wonks have had a fair few run-ins with the press over the last few months: David Morris went head to head with the Sunday Times’ Andrew Gilligan over the use of HESA data in a Sunday Times front page on international students ‘crowding out’ domestic students this summer. Earlier in the year, there were the headlines on fees following an Institute for Fiscal Studies briefing on higher education funding; that three quarters of students would never repay their full student loans was the chosen headline by a number of nationals. Dominant in the public consciousness were notions of a broken system of failed repayment rather than the possibility of a progressive one that acts as a safety net for lower-earning graduates. Though there isn’t often a definitive method of converting wonkery into coverage, the challenges lie in digesting policy issues, translating, and packaging them. How can wonks work with and within the press to strike this balance?

Wonkfest headliner, economist and journalist Tim Harford made the case against fighting fake news head-on with facts to avoid allowing a lie-and-rebuttal to take over the news cycle and entrench the very lies they aim to dismiss. The University Alliance’s Head of Communications and External Relations Gabriel Huntley is in discussion with Wonkhe’s Louis Coiffait and Tricia King, Vice President of Global Engagement at CASE, on the editorial side: in the age of fake news, how do you face the PR challenge of making sure your content feels authentic?

David Kernohan, Associate Editor of Wonkhe and panel member of our ‘How to make sure your story makes a splash’ masterclass highlighted the role of expertise in creating fresh content: “A new angle on an old issue can really enhance the quality of debate. One recent example was Levi Pay’s piece on what happens when a student dies – this put an entirely new complexion on the role of student services and changed the prevailing debate, which as the time was focused on the “wasteful” growth of non-academic staff”. Keep an eye on the Guardian stage for more related sessions.  

An important part of Wonkfest is to unpick where there are tensions between policy and its representation in the media, and how to mitigate it. For an agenda set to explore the role of wonkery in the media over the two days, we would recommend the following:

Your Wonkery in the media agenda for Wonkfest

  • The Guardian stage: Fake news and PR – how do you make sure content feels authentic? Gabriel Huntley, Louis Coiffait and Tricia King.
  • The Guardian stage: How to make sure your story makes a splash.
  • The Guardian stage: Registrarism with Paul Greatrix – how virality can come with quirky stories.
  • The Guardian stage: How to write an opinion piece that gets people going – Rachel Hall, Sonia Sodha and Nona Buckley-Irvine.
  • The Main stage: Rejection of the expert – Team Wonkhe.
  • The Main stage: Fighting back with facts – Tim Harford.
  • The Debate stage: What’s the point of public affairs? And what should universities do about it? Sean Fielding, Paul Mylrea, Justin Shaw and Laura Burley.
  • Wonk Corner: Branding and differentiation in higher education.

You can access the full Wonkfest programme here.

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