Hacked off

Social Scientists meet the Media
May 12, 1995

Social scientists and journalists are both engaged in the same enterprise - trying to understand, analyse and describe our society - but with differing deadlines. In other words, they are two versions of the same animal and, like many close relatives, they fight because both think they know, but do not quite approve of, what the other is up to.

Academics undertaking a research project feel duty-bound to explore every possible aspect of a problem under investigation until they feel confident to frame a hypothesis, reject an existing assumption or reach a conclusion. Journalists, however, undertake only just so much research as will be necessary to write an article, script a broadcast or produce a programme. Journalists, on being told that they really ought to speak to so-and-so to get the final word on a subject, might think, and sometimes even say: "I don't think that's necessary. I have enough information for my purposes." A social scientist might have such a thought but would certainly not utter it, and would be unlikely to risk conducting research accordingly.

A book that sought to explore this difference and offer guidance as to how the two warring factions might edge closer would be most welcome. Unfortunately this is not it. This book never really gets to grips with the substantive issue and nor is it particularly helpful as a guide to would-be academic media stars. For this book is a tale of academics whose every utterance has apparently been picked up and "misrepresented, misquoted and edited out of all recognition" by a salivating media, hungry for any morsel of wisdom that might drop from the plates of such researchers.

This is not the real world, at least not the world in which the majority of social scientists live. Why the discrepancy? One explanation lies in the title of the book, Social Scientists Meet the Media, which is, in the words of one of the first media dons, Professor Joad, true only "up to a point". Of the 11 social scientists who contribute to this collection, one is an international relations scholar, three are sociologists and seven are psychologists. This is important, because the relationship between the media and psychologists is different from that with other social scientists. Psychology is close to what the contributors unhelpfully describe as "hard science" - in contrast, one imagines, with the presumably soft or even flabby science that constitutes the other social sciences. Psychology is also of intense popular interest, since everyone has raw data on the subject. And, despite this familiarity, psychology deals with the slightly mysterious - what journalists call a "sexy" story - the study of the inner recesses of the psyche containing the dark secrets of the soul. To interest the media in psychological research is therefore not difficult. But just try to raise interest in the latest research offerings in econometrics, social policy or cultural studies and the response is likely to be very different.

The British Psychological Society has a well-deserved record in the dissemination of psychological research and in the training of psychologists in media techniques. But readers of this book might be forgiven for thinking that it is alone in this field. The Economic and Social Research Council and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example, insist on seeing researchers' plans for dissemination before the awarding of research grants, and both bodies devote significant resources to encouraging and training their award-holders to engage with the media. Their researchers would have told a different tale.

On one hand they would have steered clear of some of the pitfalls described by the contributors, who seem to betray a surprising misunderstanding of the role of journalists, particularly those in the popular press who fill their newspapers in ways that will most interest, anger or titillate their readers. But on the other, these academics might have told of their difficulties in interesting journalists on broadsheet newspapers and in the electronic media in their own research areas.

So the problems with this collection are twofold. First, with the exception of the insightful and stimulating chapters by sociologists Graham Murdock and Eric Dunning, the fundamental issue of why relations between journalists and social scientists are so problematic is not seriously addressed. And second, for any researchers anxious to learn about how to get the best out of their dealings with the media, this collection seems to represent a huge "No Entry" sign; it suggests that even the most streetwise social scientist should decide that "dissemination in the wider media" is something to be safely confined to the research grant application form.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London, and is media consultant for the Economic and Social Research Council and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Social Scientists meet the Media

Editor - Cheryl Haslam and Alan Bryman
ISBN - 0 415 08190 4 and 08191 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £13.99
Pages - 2pp

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