Blog: Getting to grips with the media

Picture credit: MrTinDC/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sep 2017

By Nic Spaull and Nompumelelo Mohohlwane

How to pacakge, present and deliver your research to the media 

The Impact Initiative recently hosted a workshop on How to package, present and deliver your research to the media at the recently held UKFIET conference. Education journalists from BBC, The Guardian and the Press Association provided advice, strategies and facilitated practical sessions to researchers from different parts of the world working in education.The two main insights from the workshop were:

  • Establish a relationship: Good rapport goes a long way. Use the opportunities you have to network and distinguish yourself as a credible researcher. Build a profile as an engaged, socially aware researcher whose work journalists should keep up with. This helps when journalists they get inundated with endless emails from all sorts of people including those sharing fake news.
  • Make your case: Do not assume that your story is important, make a case for it! Why should readers care? Why should the journalist care? How does this speak to a bigger agenda/concern/movement? Answer these questions deliberately and early on in your communication. If you get this right, journalists are often willing to take a chance with your story even if it may be beyond what is the typical article.
  • Consider multi-media options: Using videos, animations, graphs and infographics helps; these are often attention-grabbing, and easier to relate to for the public. Complement your research report with one of these, human interest stories and anecdotes can strengthen the larger empirical findings.

How to successfully engage the media on your research: a researcher's point of view 

As researchers we receive years of training in graduate school on research methods but next to nothing on research dissemination in mainstream media (often derogatorily called ‘common’ media). This is starting to change. Throughout the world there is now a much stronger emphasis on ‘impact’ and ensuring that research (particularly donor-funded research) impacts public policy and discussion. How should researchers engage with the media to ensure their research findings are actually covered in the media, and secondly that they are covered accurately? I include 7 informal pointers below that have helped us when engaging with the media:

  1. Do journalists’ work for them and they will happily cover your work. Journalists are busy people. If you send them an email with your 150-page research report and ask them to write an article they are very unlikely to do so. Instead you should write up a 2-page boiler-plate of quotable excerpts as if they had done an interview with you and include quotes from the report. This is often helpful if you frame it as a pre-emptive Q&A where you list questions they are likely to ask you and your informal ‘verbal’ answers. Write down your answers to questions like ‘What are the one or two take-home points from your research?’ ‘Why should the man on the street care about these research findings?’, ‘What was the most surprising finding from your research?’ Try and make your answers news-worthy (read: shocking/fascinating/sensational/ controversial).
  2. Trim the qualifiers or have the truth entirely butchered for you. As a rule, researchers are usually much more cautious about their results than media personnel. There are many more qualifiers and clauses explaining when the results hold, the level of certainty and that we (always) need more research. Typically the media don’t really care about any of these, and that’s largely because the public at large don’t understand things like statistical significance, external validity, confounding factors etc. As such you need to kill as many of the qualifiers as you can while still being academically honest. Don’t say “The intervention shows a statistically significant positive impact on enrolment for girls at the 95% level” Do say: “We can say with some confidence that this intervention lead to more girls enrolling in school.” Wherever possible convert metrics into units that the everyday public would understand. Rather speak about ‘years of learning’ than ‘percentages of a standard deviation’.
  3. Write an op-ed yourself. One of the way of getting around some of the above challenges is to simply write an op-ed yourself. That way you don’t have to worry about newspapers misrepresenting your results or quoting you saying things you never really said (it happens). The main challenge here is to write in an accessible and engaging register. That is to say a totally different register to an academic journal. You still need to hold off on many of the qualifiers and technicalities. If your grandmother wouldn’t understand it you probably shouldn’t include it.
  4. A rose by any other name: you have no control over your title. If you are writing your own op-ed you very rarely get any say in the title of the op-ed (unless you are a really big-shot public intellectual). Copy-editors typically decide what your article will be titled at the last minute and won’t have time to get your approval. This is more of an FYI. I try and get around this by suggesting three or four that are catchy without misrepresenting the article itself.
  5. Catch your reader early. If you’re writing an op-ed you typically have 600-800 words to convey a lot of information. If you can't catch your audience in the first two sentences they're likely to keep scrolling or turn the page. Go and look at the best newspapers or journalists and read the first two sentences in each of their articles. Go forth and do likewise.  
  6. The news-cycle: it has to be new or framed as new.  Generally, newspapers, radio-stations and especially television news programs only publish results if they are new. Sometimes this means you need to rebrand your findings. Even if the data you analyzed is 3 years old, you can still say “In a report published this week…”. For this reason you should also make sure that you invite media personnel to the launch of your research or give them early embargoed access. You should also be aware of their publication cycles. If they are a weekly and they release on Friday they probably go to print on Wednesday. If you release the results on Monday or Tuesday they are unlikely to cover it since the daily-papers will most likely have written about it and then it’s no longer new. The best way to find out about this sort of thing is to ask the journalists themselves.
  7. Sign-posting is a good practice. Sign-posting is what I’ve done in this ordered list. You summarize the paragraph in a single line and make it bold/italic. It tells your reader very quickly what the paragraph is about and allows them to decide whether they want to read it. Having endless pages of undifferentiated text is a bad strategy if you want to get people to read something when they don’t know if they want to read it.

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and DFID: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or DFID.


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