The Impact Initiative for International Development Research led a practical workshop at the 2017 UKFIET conference to give education researchers expert insight into working with journalists. It was an opportunity for academics to learn more about what journalists need from academics and how and why researchers might want to see their research findings in the news.
The UKFIET Conference provides a forum every two years for universities, non-governmental organisations, policymakers, consultancy groups and professional associations to share ideas, knowledge and expertise on education and international development.
The panel included Sean Coughlan, BBC News education correspondent; Lucy Lamble, The Guardian’s executive editor for global development; Alison Kershaw, Press Association’s education correspondent, Professor Pauline Rose, Professor of International Education, University of Cambridge; and James Georgalakis, Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).
Around 40 delegates joined the session, including a number of grant holders on the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes and Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation programmes to find out what kinds of research journalists want to publish, how researchers can avoid misrepresentation, as well as to receive tips on how to write a good press release and communicate research to non-expert audiences.
The panel debated some of the challenges and opportunities for academics wanting to engage with media, highlighting that it can be frustrating, daunting, rewarding, time consuming and exciting for academics (all at the same time!). Yet it was agreed that the media can provide opportunities to engage a much broader audience than those non-academics operating within the ‘development’ bubble - UK and International media can leverage awareness of new evidence and knowledge far beyond the usual networks and dissemination channels.
However, development often gets a rough ride in the UK media. Recently, aid spending is coming under intense scrutiny and has been much criticised in the media. “Research is an under tapped resource,” said the BBC’s Sean Coughlan, “but unfortunately development is often the missing story and the demand is for the big-issue stories such as gender, sexuality and tuition fees.”
Lucy Lamble of The Guardian described the opportunities for academics, “…research does matter and we are keen to speak to experts or hear when new research is coming out. Researchers are closer to human stories than journalists can be. When media and researchers work together in partnership it can result in news, features and opinion that is much better informed by rigorous research and give a voice to marginalised communities and individuals.”
The panel concluded that researchers should not feel shy about sending research to journalists; and that reports are read, particularly when they are accompanied by a strong email/press release (see below for soe more top tips). Delegates were reminded that the relationship works both ways – journalists rely on experts and will more readily go to someone who they have been in contact with - or have built up a relationship - with beforehand.
ESRC-DFID grant holders Nic Spaull and Nompumelelo Mohohlwane have written a blog on their key take-aways from the workshop as well as some further insights to working with the media from a researcher’s perspective.
SUCCESS – Key points on engaging with the media
The Impact Initiative summarised the key points in terms of SUCCESS (taken from Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath):
- Simple – the panellists all talked about keeping things simple, avoiding jargon, complexity and abstract ideas. Don’t assume this means dumbing down – it just means getting to the core story.
- Unexpected – all the panellists mentioned the need to grab people's attention by surprising them. Readers are interested in stories which are surprising or are counter intuitive. This can lead to findings or learnings - especially for audiences who are interested but are very under-informed on the issues and body of research.
- Concrete – Alison Kershaw from the Press Association stressed the need to paint a picture to ensure an idea can be grasped and remembered later.
- Credible – Sean Coughlan from the BBC stressed that who an email comes from is sometimes the most important factor in a press release being read. Journalists need credible sources and this often means the brand of large well known institutions. Academics have tons of credibility – use it!
- Emotional – Development stories need a bit of human interest - help people see the importance of an idea or a research finding. Do not be afraid to link to human rights, equity or poverty alleviation issues.
- Stories – empower people to use an idea through narrative – this sometimes means dealing with the inevitable ‘So What’ question that is a favourite of journalists to ask academics
The panel also all stressed Topicality as another key factor – the need for a hook to make the story news worthy. New websites, new projects and new initiatives do not count! Look for external hooks that ground your work in the here and now. Perhaps an anniversary, a public awareness day or a political event (a country election, a new education policy published). Journalists will quite often be willing to collude with you to find an appropriate hook.
Contacting the media – some top tips from the session
- Where possible, let your University Press Office (if you have one) know about your research. They can read it and assess the news value. They can also help facilitate case studies, something which all journalists love to feature. But not all academics have direct contact with a press office, in which case email journalists in your field directly with a core idea.
- Be aware of what is happening in your field of research. Tell the press office or contact journalists directly if you spot a story and can provide a comment or reaction. But make sure you are available! Broadcasters, especially, will ask for a specific time to be interviewed which might be for a live programme.
- Do your homework before deciding which journalist to contact. Find out which journalists are writing on what topics and make sure it’s a good fit. Ask yourself: What will that editor be looking for? How does your work match this publication/outlet? How frequently do they publish?
- If pitching verbally to a journalist, remember it's a conversation not a lecture - you're ringing to pique the interest of editors or reporters who will be busy/distracted. Work with the journalist, talk to them, explain why the research is important.
- Be accessible and flexible, if the timing isn't right for the story now, use the call to build up trust for the future. Follow up with an email with the key points for reference. The journalist may well come back to you when they are actively seeking the expertise you have.
- ESRC'S Media training offers ESRC-funded researchers the opportunity to develop the skills, and confidence, to engage with the media. This one-day course is tailored for academics at all stages of a career, including academics with little or no experience of media engagement.
- Health Systems Global (HSG) and The Impact Initiative have developed a range of training resources on policy engagement and communications for researchers covering: presentations; engaging with the media; policy engagement; and using social media.
- The Impact Initiative's How to guide: broadcast media interviews provides practical guidance on all stages of an interview from preparation and giving a good interivew to following up after the interview.
- The Impact Initiative's How to guide: strategic communications provides practical guidance on all aspects of strategic communications from exploring what strategic is (and is not) and why strategic communications are key for organisations keen to influence policy and decision-makers to how develop effective strategic communications.