By Nic Spaull and Nompumelelo Mohohlwane
How to package and present 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 UKFIET conference. Education journalists from BBC, Guardian and the Press Association provided advice, strategies and facilitated practical sessions to researchers from different parts of the world working in education. The three 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 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 a 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
The rest of this post (by Nic Spaull) provides points to think about in general if you want to successfully engage the media on your research.
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:
- 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).
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Dr Nic Spaull is a Senior Researcher at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He blogs at Nicspaull.com and can be found on Twitter @NicSpaull.