Small fraction of professors ‘dominate contact with media’

Just 10 per cent of academics account for half of all engagement with the media, according to a survey of more than 1,000 Swiss professors

June 5, 2021
Source: iStock

A small group of senior, frequently published professors dominate academic commentary in the media, according to a Swiss study that also shows that politicians only draw on a narrow band of researchers for advice.

Based on a survey of more than 1,000 Swiss professors about contact with journalists, politicians and industry representatives, the analysis finds that just 10 per cent of academics account for half of all engagement with the media.

“There are a few that dominate and have a very strong media presence,” said co-author Adrian Rauchfleisch, an assistant professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism.

A follow-up analysis looking at which academics were ultimately quoted in the media found an even more extreme skew, with just 3 per cent of Swiss professors accounting for half of all mentions.

“Is it better if everyone gets the same space and number of mentions a year? It really depends,” Dr Rauchfleisch said. “I think it’s problematic if you have these pundit guys who, no matter what the topic is, they will say something, [taking] a very broad approach, even if it’s not their specialisation.”

University managers and academics with lots of publications reported a particularly high number of contacts with journalists, as did those who use social media intensely. “Journalists source over Twitter,” said Dr Rauchfleisch.

One hurdle to expanding the pool of quoted academics is that journalists are under intense time pressure, he explained, meaning they “don’t have the time to do the research over who is the real expert”.

“It’s sometimes a problem that scientists are way too slow to react,” he said. “But I think this is changing with the younger generation.”

Interactions with politicians and industry were also dominated by a handful of academics. Seven per cent of professors accounted for half of all contacts with politicians. Nine per cent of professors were responsible for half of interactions with industry.

Subject made a big difference to engagement, too; social scientists and political scientists reported being particularly engaged with journalists, while economists and engineers were the most in contact with industry.

Natural scientists, on the other hand, have “fewer outside contacts than other professors on average”, according to the study, which was published in Plos One.

This could simply be because there are more news stories about politics than science, said Dr Rauchfleisch. “It’s a general problem that there are not enough resources for science journalism…That’s one explanation.”

The survey, conducted in 2017, does not take into account the pandemic, after which media attention in Switzerland switched dramatically to natural scientists, he said.

Despite the concerns about a small fraction of academics dominating external debate, the survey nonetheless shows that most Swiss professors appear to be plugged into journalistic, industry and policy debate.

Half reported contact with a politician in the past year, while 84 per cent said they had interacted with a journalist, and nearly two-thirds with industry. “That’s pretty high,” said Dr Rauchfleisch.

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