Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

Researchers, here’s how to reach an audience you’d never dream of speaking to

Media savvy researchers see television as a particularly useful way to reach new audiences. IxMaster/Shutterstock

A former dean of Sydney University’s Faculty of Medicine, where I work, once appointed me to a role where I was to try and increase the news media profile of our staff’s research and to encourage them to offer their expertise as commentators on news developments in health and medicine.

The dean emailed all research staff urging them to list their areas of expertise and provide contact details for a subject-indexed expertise list.

From a total campus and hospital (clinical) academic staff of around 1,000, some 70 responded to the invitation. And many of these refused to provide their mobile and after-hours contact details. One told me “look, I don’t want some journalist calling me up on a Sunday morning.”

I was not surprised by this indifference nor by the ignorance of even basic rudiments of media routines. Throughout my career I’ve had many conversations with colleagues which quickly reveal ambivalence about media engagement, with many being deeply distrustful.

The values implicit in the Sir William Osler’s 1905 advice to doctors that they should not “dally with the Delilah of the press” sadly remain alive today in academic research circles.

Concerns are often muttered about the impropriety of research colleagues actively engaging with the media to publicise their research and, particularly, to advocate for policy – an activity said by some to “politicise” science.

An early study of first authors whose research had received press coverage found that, while most authors were satisfied with the coverage, a substantial minority thought that media attention “gives the impression that the researcher is seeking publicity” and “creates jealousy among colleagues”.

Such concerns were echoed in a major 2006 study undertaken for England’s Royal Society in which 20% of British scientists believed colleagues who appeared in the media were “less well regarded” by their peers – seen as “selling out” or seeking “self publicity”.

To this minority, public engagement was something “light” or “fluffy” and “done by those who were ‘not good enough’ for an academic career”.

The potential pitfalls of media engagement are well documented, focusing on concerns about sensationalised framing and the misrepresentation inherent in reducing scientific and conceptual complexity to a seven second sound bite.

Consequently, it is common to hear instances of poor relations between researchers and journalists. For example, 60% of British researchers want to engage with politicians about their research, but far fewer (31%) want to talk to journalists, despite common knowledge that politicians are voracious consumers of news, where they daily encounter expert and public opinion directly relevant to their portfolios.

There is also a generalised perception among researchers that they are ineffective public communicators. The Australian government’s Inspiring Australia report noted that:

Communicating science to audiences other than their peers is not a performance expectation for most scientists, and many find it difficult to explain their work and its value in lay terms. Few scientists are properly trained in media or public communication skills.

In recent years, colleagues and I have published research on how public health research translates into health policy and practice (see here, here and here).

Policymakers we interviewed, including politicians and senior bureaucrats, told us repeatedly that a high and compellingly framed news media profile of an issue was almost essential (although not sufficient) in progressing any health policy.

They also emphasised that credible, accessible researchers – who believed firmly that research was not just for the pay-walled consumption of other researchers, but should be widely disseminated and discussed – were vital to the advance of policy reform.

In one of our papers, from 2012, we investigated the views of 35 Australian researchers in six fields of public about whether and how they sought to influence public health policy.

These researchers were voted by their peers as the six “most influential” Australia-based researchers in their respective fields.

In long interviews, we asked them broad questions on the role of researchers in influencing public policy (for example, What role do you believe researchers should have in relation to public health policy?); the nature of researcher influence; and strategies to achieve influence (for example, What strategies, if any, have you used to increase policymakers’ awareness or use of your research?).

With very few exceptions, those researchers, voted by their colleagues as being most influential, firmly believed they had a duty to increase public awareness of their work and to try and influence public policy on its implications.

Importantly, they were active responders and initiators of media contact (see table).

They emphasised the sheer reach of media:

I spoke on [a radio program] last night for example, and there probably would have been, at minimum, 100,000 people listening to that which is an audience that you would never dream of speaking to in a scientific conference.

Television was seen as particularly important:

If you want to see change, the television screen is really the way to do it. The television screen of the mid 20th century has changed more health policy than the Guttenberg revolution of the mid 14th century has or ever will.

Many we interviewed were aware that they had developed an advantageous media profile that, once established, became almost self-perpetuating with the media returning regularly and the researcher gaining further opportunities to promote research:

They see that you can articulate an issue and so you tend to get called and that kind of snowballs into becoming the ‘go to’ person.

They developed these reputations by having skills in being able to simplify complexity for general audiences, having framing skills (being able to clearly explain what the salient issues in a complex argument were, often by arguing from analogy), and by not hesitating in discussing the policy implications of their work.

Some interviewees had encountered colleagues who believed researchers should just “stick to the facts” in interviews. This position was echoed by just two of our 35 researchers who agreed that:

It is not appropriate for me to express my opinions about public health policy.

However, the overwhelming majority (94%) disagreed, arguing that the public expects experts to go beyond reciting and clarifying facts to provide commentary, to translate data and explain its meaning for policy:

They want to see what professor so and so says about it [because] people always want to know what the policy implications are.

In my experience, the “what needs to be done” questions are almost always asked by journalists after they have dealt with your findings.

If a road injury researcher published compelling research on speed cameras reducing crashes but then refused to answer a radio journalist’s question “what do you believe the government should do about this information?”, most listeners would be incredulous.

With most public health research being publicly funded, the moral imperatives are strong for researchers to investigate questions which are likely to have utility to policy and practice reform.

If research is inaccessible, hidden behind journal paywalls and conducted by teams who see that they have no responsibility to talk about the implications of what they have found, such research will tend to disappear without trace.

George Lundberg, former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association agrees:

In our society public media are irreplaceable as a mechanism for moving a problem to a solution.

Further reading: Better to be looked over, than overlooked: eight essentials for media advocacy