Breaking the news mould

Journalism with academic analysis can create material with impact - but will the REF consider it? asks John Mair

December 1, 2011

Imagine that you are a cub reporter sent out to a story about an equine accident by your news editor. You get to the scene, the horse has bolted, the stable door is open, and all you have left to report is dirty straw. This would not cut the mustard in any local paper, so why should it pass muster in journalism-academe?

"Hackademics", as journalists-turned-academics call themselves, get hugely frustrated with the glacial pace of academic publishing. By the time they have their story printed - on, say, the Arab Spring or phone hacking - what they say is largely historical. Their work has no effect on practice.

The 2014 research excellence framework will not help. What will it measure apart from weighty tomes from those in ivory towers, treated with little respect by the media industry? It does seem to be Old Boys judging fellow Old Boys. Tellingly, the two most influential journalism books in the past decade - Andrew Marr's My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism and Nick Davies' Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media - were both written outside the academy.

But there is another way. Let us call it the "hackademic" text. You take practitioners and academics and put them in the same intellectual pot through a conference, then a book. The practitioners write about their experiences on the ground, and the academics bring their expertise. (Some journalists manage to combine both perspectives - one frontline war reporter produced a fully referenced paper, but he did have an MA in media.) Contributors are selected with great care, and are given a tight deadline and a word count. Their work is rigorously edited and re-edited before publication, and some of it never makes the cut. Mirage in the Desert? Reporting the 'Arab Spring', edited by myself and Richard Keeble, is a recent example of this genre. It features a stunning piece of first-hand reporting by Sky News' Alex Crawford on being the first journalist to get to Tripoli with the rebels, and a piece of deep analysis by Simon Cottle, professor of media and communications at Cardiff University. The two sides - praxis and theory - complement each other.

REF 2014 is said to be about impact. This book has it in spades. It was launched with a (polite) debate between the foreign news editors of Sky News, ITV News, Channel 4 News, Al Jazeera English and the BBC, about just who won the media war in the Arab Spring. It has since has gone to an almost instant second edition with new contributions from senior figures who wanted to be part of this book-of-record. Now that is impact.

But there seems to be confusion about what is "REF-able" and what is not. Is Mirage - and our three other "hackademic" texts in the past year alone - REF-able? Some think yes, some think no. Or is the REF reserved for erudite papers in erudite journals and for long-range and out-of-date books? (As I always mischievously remind my colleagues, Robert Maxwell made a fortune out of publishing obscure academic journals that nobody read.) With the REF in mind, one university director of research tried to dissuade one of our authors from contributing. Luckily, she failed. Will the REF reflect new modes of production such as digital publishing and even entirely online work? One can but hope.

Unlike that cub reporter in the stable, I for one will not be left gazing at the straw and analysing the detritus of the biggest media story of the moment - the phone-hacking scandal. Keeble, professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln, and I have already begun work on our next "hackademic" book. It started with an excellent Institute of Communication Ethics conference. We spent a long weekend pulling together the cast from our contacts; they have a month to write, we have a month to edit. It will be published in January - just as the eye of the public and parliamentary storm gathers and before any criminal charges are laid. I bet we get to the bookshops and newsrooms a year or two before our colleagues.

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