The belief that it is far better to anticipate, lead, and take control of media opportunities (rather than suffer in response or serve as a moaning bystander) is one of the main findings that has emerged from interviews with some of the UK’s most committed “media active” academics.
They have informed a new report on increasing academic-to-media engagement, a topic that has fascinated me for 30 years.
Back in the day
When I started out in UK higher education – originally as a university press officer – my impression then was that, at most, ten per cent of academic experts in UK universities were ready and willing to be externally engaged via the mainstream media.
Over the last three decades I have seen very little change in this level – and therefore (based on HESA data of our total academic population) there are likely to be in the order of 200,000 UK academics whose expertise is going unreported and unnoticed by journalists. Indeed, a survey of 2,500 UK researchers led by the Wellcome Trust found that 82 per cent have “never been interviewed on radio” and 77% have never been “interviewed by a newspaper journalist”.
To me this is a staggering waste of opportunity – and exists despite a huge growth in media channels (owned, earned and created), a much easier reach into global media, greater media appetite for sourcing independent experts as commentators, an increase in the levels of media relations resourcing in universities, and the availability of a range of dedicated media immersion and media coaching programmes specifically for academics and researchers.
Addressing the challenge
Over the summer, I set out to explore what we can do to address this challenge. I interviewed 30 of the most “media active” academics (such as David Starkey, Cary Cooper and Claire Callender) drawn from a range of subject areas and from different UK universities. I asked them about “why” taking up media opportunities is so important to them, what the benefits are, and what they would say to encourage their more media-hesitant or media-averse colleagues to take up these opportunities.
This work is funded by a global channel for promoting academic experts – called ExpertFile – which partners with 15,000 newsrooms to secure more interest in academic expert voices. The resulting report is just being released this month.
A significant finding is that these academic media advocates simply now regard working with journalists as part of the job. Not only that, but they also stress that it is now (more than ever) a duty and an obligation – especially in an era of growing media input from the subjective and the “ill-informed” (most commonly defined as: shoot-from-the-hip politicians or rent-a-quote personalities drawn from reality TV shows).
While their journey as a go-to media expert has been challenging, and certainly there are some hard lessons to learn on the way, they say that we have now come to a point where academics just have to be bolder, must stand-up and project their knowledge, their evidence, their experience, and they must simply just seize the initiative. Without taking this stand then academics will be crowded out as the voices of reason:
So often politicians and policy-makers present things as facts, but there’s no evidence base for this, so I feel obliged to point out that there is a big body of work and evidence that isn’t being drawn upon, just being the critical voice to say “have you thought about the implications of what you are saying?”. The value of it is that it allows the public to have a more rounded view of the situation, so they can make their own minds up, based on evidence.”
There is a need to speak the truth and inform debate. The proliferation of media channels and social media is a good thing, but the problem is that there is a lot of ill-informed public debate. So, the opportunity, responsibility and challenge for those of us who have had public money to do our research, is to engage, share and inform a wider audience. That has become really, really important, never more so, to help people understand the complexities, and inform attitudes, perceptions and behaviours. Although there is a bit of an anti-expert culture out there at the moment, it makes it even more important to speak out from an academic point of view.”
The respondents make references to the benefits of media coverage in generating “impact” in increasing public engagement and in communicating the results of significant public investment in their work.
Many also talk about the media as an effective way to expand their knowledge of their particular interests (by connecting with those with similar expertise and engaging with ‘users’ or those affected by the subject matter). It also provides the perfect platform to challenge – something that is “just in the DNA of an academic”.
Alongside this there are lots of references to the personal development benefits of engaging in media opportunities – such as being able to articulate the subject matter in new ways, being able to perform better as a lecturer (by connecting with a diverse range of students more readily) and – in several cases – by securing investment in new roles as public engagement champions.
The skills to be an academic are not that different from being a journalist. You have to assess information, you have to assess reliability, analyse and convey the analysis. The form of writing is different, and with audio or visual, the way of conveying it is different, but the basics are the same. If there is a will, there is a way.”
This stood out as a particularly powerful comment for those academics who are watching from the sidelines and are unsure how they will be treated by the media.
Me me me
A lingering concern they have is the cynical culture that often still pervades academia when it comes to the media: that being interviewed by journalists is just self-promotion and vanity – and that it is “unworthy” of being an academic. Their message back is: it is just as important part of academic life now as any other role.
On this point, they say that university leaders and managers must do far more to support their media efforts – through, for example, dedicated time allowances, providing stand-in resourcing for competing demands, and creating more of an appreciative culture for such external engagements.
I think it is very important for people who are active in the media for this to be acknowledged as part of their role and account taken of the time they put into this when designing their work programmes or teaching loads, to think about it strategically.”
My interviews have also drawn out recommendations for those working in university communications roles and press offices – based on the nature of additional or improved support that could be provided. The comments made are about generating a more pro-active and sustained approach to working with academics, the provision of more detailed context (not only by relating their specific expertise and interests to the bigger current affairs agenda but also adding additional insight that would be useful to project in interviews), establishing media mentors (matching longstanding media experts with novices), and thinking more visually about the imagery that can be used to support messages emerging from research findings.
In more general times, it would be good for university press offices to provide preparation for academics who are looking to do more media work, help them to know what to expect, how to prepare, how to structure your answers, etc. Universities need to avoid leaving academics to stumble blindly into media work. We know what the pitfalls can be, and we can help people to avoid them, and make the experience better for everybody.”
To address the need to increase more academics involved in media opportunities, I am planning a campaign that will aim to double the proportion of academics engaging with the media over the next five years. I’m hoping that our various higher education bodies will support the initiative, which will also explore the need for greater social diversity of academics in the media. Watch this space.
2 responses to “Why aren’t there more academic experts in the media?”
Justin Shaw makes some excellent points here about the need to increase media engagement by academic experts and the benefits of universities leading and trying to taking control of the news agenda rather than declining to comment and then moaning afterwards when the ‘wrong’ stories appear.
Encouraging academic experts to get stuck-in is one of the best ways to generate publicity, not only for the researchers themselves – but also their institution.
But if he is right and only ten percent of academics are ready and willing to engage with the mainstream media, that means there are a lot of missed opportunities.
University public relations people (of which I was also once one) should be the middle men and women – signposting interested journalists to the best experts for informed comment and developing a one-to-one relationship with key journalists. But that’s the ideal world.
With specialist education reporters now few and far between on both the nationals and regional media, news staff are over-stretched and rarely have the time to get out of the office.
And despite universities often hiring good journalists to fill their PR roles, too often they fail to utilise the talent they are paying for and restrict their room for manoeuvre by insisting that press officers and comms professionals concentrate on “safe” activities and ‘key messages’, like producing dull press releases about an academic being one of 350 speaking at some conference somewhere in the world.
University bosses also need to support their staff when they offer informed opinion to counter the ‘rent-a-quote’ mob and ‘fake’ news brigade. Without such backing, it is perhaps hardly surprising that only one-in-ten are prepared to stick their neck out and really engage with the media world.
And higher education top brass should listen to the PR professionals they are hiring about what kinds of stories the media really want and build trust between the institution and key journalists. That will always come in handy when a crisis occurs and the university is struggling to get its point of view heard. If it has a reputation for saying ‘No Comment’ or giving minimalist information, it may struggle when trying to get the media to listen to its story when it really needs the public on side.
Some good points. Yet, as an academic I would caution any colleague who is not one of the “celebrity academics” like Starkey et al. to naively engage with UK media (especially news and current affairs). This is because you will be exposed to the toxic, manipulative and anti-intellectual climate that dominates UK public discourse with little protection and backing from your employer if something goes wrong or out of hand; especially with controversial topics or issues (which is easy to happen due to the social media fueled hyperbole and hysteria of today). This does not only apply to the usual suspects (Daily Mail and co) but also the BBC or other “reputable” outlets.
In other words, if you do not want your words reported out of context, truncated into meaningless soundbites, twisted during interviews, or misused for some ideological project, you stay way clear of the journos and their ilk and brethren in PR (sorry).
The main motivation for most media guys these days (apart from a few journalists who still deserve that professional label) is the generation of “newsworthy” content in order to generate sales and/or clicks and for PR guys to manipulate an agenda according to their preferred frame for strategic or tactical purposes. Serious debate is a secondary concern at best for most.