Getting to grips with Grub Street

Jonathan Sullivan on how to improve the relationship between academics and journalists

August 28, 2014

Academics’ motivations for doing media work are refreshingly altruistic: 83 per cent want to increase public understanding

Academics and journalists share a common mission: to create and  disseminate knowledge. But their wildly contrasting approaches have given rise to a relationship that, when not characterised by mutual neglect, can be awkward and strained.

The growing pressure on academics to throw themselves into public debates and demonstrate the societal impact of their work, however, is demanding closer and more frequent interactions with journalists. So it is vital that we properly understand the underlying causes of the mutual frustrations.

A survey I recently conducted into the nature of interactions between scholars and journalists within my own field of China studies revealed that, for academics, the biggest source of irritation is receiving requests for interviews at very short notice; one respondent likened such requests to “late-night booty calls”. These leave the academics feeling like simply “space-fillers” for hard-pressed news researchers desperate to secure an academic, any academic, before deadline.

Academics’ other main complaint was being asked questions outside their area of expertise. If journalists do value scholarly contributions, they wondered, why do they apparently expend little effort to identify appropriate experts?

Further bugbears included being misquoted and pushed to oversimplify and give strong opinions.

The journalists, on the other hand, emphasised the value they place on academics’ responsiveness. “Understanding the immediacy of media”, one said, “is fundamental for good cooperation between journalists and academics.” If messages are not promptly answered, journalists move on.

Journalists’ other significant gripe concerned clarity. One correspondent stressed the need to avoid “jargon or academese”, while another said stilted writing styles have a tendency to “bleed over into conversation”. Column inches are limited, so academics need to be able to sum up their point succinctly.

However, my research did reveal cause for optimism. The enthusiasm among academics for media engagement is obvious. Despite already being relatively active, 44 per cent of respondents said they would like to do more media work. And their motivations for doing so are refreshingly altruistic: 83 per cent want to increase public understanding of issues relating to China, while only 14 per cent are troubled by receiving little or no credit from their institutions.

But academics urged journalists to “understand that it’s not 1955” and that professors have long lists of commitments that cannot easily be moved at the last minute. They also want journalists to invest more time in checking their expertise before approaching them on a specific issue. Several said that making advance contact via email, sending questions prior to interview and providing sufficient time for preparation would make a crucial difference to their ability and willingness to grant media requests.

Academics also wanted ongoing and personalised working relationships with journalists, rather than what one described as the “‘I am looking for a fast quote on a piece that is almost done’ scenario”. This would also leave the academic feeling there was an “open door” for occasionally sending unsolicited advice or a brief on a given issue.

Journalists stated that they typically drew on their existing pool of contacts for stories, or else relied on recommendations or looked for people who had spoken to other media on the topic. But many also encouraged academics to be proactive in introducing themselves, and said that the academic’s seniority or the prestige of their institution did not affect their willingness to engage with them.

Recurring advice from journalists was for academics to use Twitter to “stay part of the conversation” and to raise their profiles. One correspondent said he monitored the social networking site to see who had an interesting angle on a breaking news story. Twitter was also described as a good medium for demonstrating a talent for the journalistic attributes of concision and clarity.

So the message from journalists to academics is quite clear: if you have something to say, and you can say it succinctly, we want to hear from you.

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