I see another one of those articles about hopeless academics is doing the rounds again. You know the ones – we academics live in la la land and wilfully speak in big words that no ordinary person can understand. We talk to ourselves and so our work makes not a blind bit of difference to anyone. Shame on us. If only we would… If you haven’t seen the piece I’m referring to, it’s imaginatively called – “Academics leave your ivory towers and pitch your work to the media.” Here’s a little extract to give you the gist.
She told me about a live radio talk show she’d appeared on to discuss the drawbacks of e-cigarettes.
“I immediately got a stern email from somebody who thought I was wrong,” she says. “I knew for a fact that I was not wrong, but you can undermine everything with one wrong statement.
“I even brought a cheat sheet with me so I had the facts ready. It’s hard when you take your data and you want to make a statement about it. That part is scary.”
So could the issue simply boil down to professors being afraid of speaking to the public? Yes, says Kim Yi Dionne, an assistant professor of government at Smith College in Massachusetts and a blogger for the Washington Post. For many scholars, she explains, writing for the public “really is a fear of the unknown”.
Stephanie Coontz, a faculty member at the Evergreen State College in Washington state and a frequent contributor to publications including the New York Times, agrees, saying that writing for the public forces researchers to work in unfamiliar ways.
“You talk to academics who love these big words … they nod and agree and recapitulate the same three- and four-syllable words and very abstract, complicated phrases”, she says. “It’s not until you force them to explain it in plain English that you realise they don’t even understand it.
So the problem is:
(1) academics love big words. It’s not until you ask them to speak in plain English that you realise they haven’t got a clue how to do this, and
(2) academics don’t want to change and speak plainly because they are afraid to talk to people. (Echo chamber effect here… Afraid. Afraid.)
Get it? If only we would get a life in the “real world” we would learn to speak like everyone else. We’d stop being verbose scaredy cats. If we all just conquer our nerves and learn how to write a few press releases, then the nirvana of public impact will be ours.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got no problem suggesting that it’s good to communicate to a range of audiences and use a range of different media to do so. I don’t have any difficulty saying that we academics need to make our research available to the public, and to media. But doing this isn’t anywhere near as simple as this article, and others like it, suggest.
I do have a big problem with simplistic problems and solutions.
First of all, there are already a lot of academics getting out and getting public about their work. It’s not like no one does. Indeed, the academics that the writer of this latest piece of recycled dumbed-down advice talked to were engaged in public communication. And take a look at any weekly radio or television programme and you’re likely to see some kind of academic influence somewhere.
Secondly, and most importantly, it’s definitely not as easy going public as glibly saying ” Get over yourselves. Just do it”, as if working with media is the same as putting on a new pair of running shoes or changing a light bulb.
For a start, not all media are the same. Different media have different audiences and different stances on topics. Wanting to speak in public means having to choose whether to engage with a sensationalist tabloid or an aggressive breakfast programme which works by creating simple binary controversies – or looking for a journalist who has an interest in your topic, has published on it before, and who will take the time to find out about the complexities of the work and be able to put it in context.
See what I did there? I started to do a bit of analysis about who covered what kind of material and how, and who might deal well with my work. And that beginning analysis points to exactly why talking to media and talking in public is not just about getting over alleged academic desires to be tiny shrinking violets talking only in multi syllabled jargon.
My contention… We have to be knowledgeable about media as well as about our topic.
Simply ‘doing it’ in media can get speakers into big trouble. Why, only last week the architect Zaha Hadid walked out of a morning breakfast radio interview because of the way the questioning went – see one analysis here – and the BBC had to subsequently issue an apology for sloppy inferences that were made. And there are plenty of academics who can tell similar stories of being misquoted, of having interviews cherrypicked, of being subject to an artificial controversy, and so on. So there is some reason to be wary. But these stories of misunderstanding/mistreatment are not a reason to refuse to engage with media at all. However, they are a reason to say that there is more to engaging with media than ‘just doing it’.
Such as, I hear you ask? What more?
Well for a start, most universities have press relations staff whose job is to communicate what the university does well – and that’s our research. Academic conferences and research funders also often have public relations staff who can help get the word out. An academic doesn’t have to do the work of writing a press release or contacting the media alone, by themselves, in a vacuum.
Then, there are training courses on how to talk with, and on, different kinds of media – in the UK for instance Research Councils run media training courses for early career researchers.
There are half-way opportunities, like writing for The Conversation and Chronicle of Higher Education, where academics can practice writing in a different voice and style. Some broadcast media also offer opportunities for researchers – Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed for instance.
Many of us also have access to journalism colleagues whose research covers aspects of media and who actually used to work as professional journalists. If we want to find out about the hidden rules of media then who better to give us a few well educated pointers?
And there are many brilliant research projects which examine the ways in which making knowledge public actually works – see my colleagues’ Making Science Public project for a start. These kinds of projects help us understand the challenges and ‘discursive dilemmas’ we might face. (Apologies, discursive was a big word).
And of course, there are friendly, ethical journalists out there who know quite a lot about our topic – we can meet on twitter and through various social media and policy fora and chats. A quick email or DM can set up a conversation which may then go somewhere.
So to sum up – my argument, contra the irritating article about ivory towers (yawn), is that there is some reason to be cautious about media. And I do genuinely really truly think we ought to be more than a bit afraid of just launching ourselves, eager and unprepared, into media-land. I’m not saying we ought to turn our backs on more public exposure for our work. Far from it. I’m saying we need to prepare ourselves for it, that’s all. And there is both good information and help available for us in doing so.
And, dare I say, a little fear may in fact be a good thing when launching into media – to get a little bit Bourdieusian about it, media is another world where the game is, for some, sometimes, to provide entertainment at all costs rather than entertainment and good information. (Apologies for the gratuitous reference to social theory.)
For me, it’s not a binary case of whether academics take up media or not, but rather, which media, when, about what, and how….