Stand up and be quoted

October 25, 1996

How should academics deal with the press? Take it on the chin, Ronald Amann tells media-shy social science researchers, or you're not doing your job properly.

In order to carry out their projects at all social science researchers have to construct a delicate balance of negotiated relationships with their human subjects - a balance which can be all too easily disturbed by publicity.

Of course, some publicity is desirable, but the degree and type of media exposure can vary hugely. The dissemination of research results in academic publications combined with non-controversial press coverage poses few problems. It forms the basis of researchers' scientific standing among their peers and is an integral part of the job. Researchers are also fairly happy to contribute non-attributed background to policies and decisions. This allows them to expand their network of "real world" contacts and to enjoy a modest degree of power without responsibility.

The real difficulty comes when the media make explicit reference to the researcher in connection with specific policies or political pronouncements. Here "truth meets power" in the full gaze of public attention. Given the differing timescales and perspectives of politicians and journalists, inexperienced researchers may feel that they have been unfairly misquoted or misinterpreted. (Sometimes, of course, their fears are justified.) When attempts are being made to influence human behaviour directly in sensitive personal spheres such as health, crime and education, researchers can display an assortment of ethical inhibitions. In particular, they can be reluctant to be closely associated with positive advocacy of lifestyle changes - in drug taking or sexual behaviour, for example - which are based upon values which are external to the individuals being studied. Social scientists are much more comfortable observing behaviour at arm's length without making value judgements.

Although not all social science researchers will encounter all these problems, many will, and the unlucky ones will find the experience discomforting and difficult to cope with. Faced with politicians whom they perceive as misquoting them for their own purposes, respondents who feel betrayed and professional colleagues who think them "unprogressive", it is not at all surprising that, when the going gets really tough, researchers may seek shelter in shifting the blame on to others or distancing themselves from the results of their research. They may even persuade themselves that the use of social science research is actually someone else's job.

Clearly, it is not. The use of social science research in all its various forms is based on a partnership between researchers and non-academic users in which both sides are fully engaged. A research council can play its part in developing user networks and offering relevant training in communication and negotiation skills. But the challenge must be met. Without in any way diluting the primacy of basic research, it is the social science researchers themselves who are inevitably in the best position to advise on the use of the rich insights that such research generates. As Mikhail Gorbachev once said in another context, "If not us, who? If not now, when?".

Ronald Amann is chief executive, Economic and Social Research Council.

Keep it simple, advise two seasoned media-handlers, and keep your cool

Gerry Stoker

After months of research, Gerry Stoker and his team in the politics division at Strathclyde University released their findings to the press and the journalists returned the favour by ignoring nearly all of it and concentrating only on a tiny slice of the study. Less seasoned academics would have jumped up and down and branded the press academic cannibals. But Stoker, a politics professor who has been playing the media game for years, notched it up as another victory.

My job is to carry out the research and the press's is to alert people to it. You can't expect them to repeat everything you say or even take the same perspective as you," he says. "Provided they tell people that the research exists, you will be able to get across more subtle and complex messages when people contact you directly after they've heard about it."

In fact, the press coverage of Stoker's local governance research, which latched on to the issue of locally elected mayors, generated an avalanche of requests for a leaflet that explained the study in more detail. It also caught the eye of Tony Blair, who wove some of the results into a speech.

The fact that Blair put his own political spin on the findings didn't bother Stoker. "If you're going to get involved in policy debates, you have to recognise that, like academic debates, they are communal processes that involve exchanging information and ideas. You are just one contributor. As long as the information is reported accurately, you can't be too precious about your work. The rules are also different. Politicians have to operate in different time frames and face practical limitations, for example whether a particular recommendation is politically feasible.

"If policy-making was left to academics nothing would be decided." And if policymakers didn't have academic input, the quality of the decisions would be poorer. It's a question of compromise.

"If you want to get involved in policy debates and publicise your work in the media - and I believe that anyone who caries out publicly funded research has a duty to alert the public to their findings - you have to accept that they play by a different set of rules."

Andrew Dilnot

Every year the Institute for Fiscal Studies generates mountains of media coverage, not by dreaming up wacky headlines or by being deliberately provocative but by being "boring".

"We make a point of writing reports and press releases that are so dry they are almost boring," says Andrew Dilnot, the institute's director. "If you want to win the respect of the media and policymakers, you have to be very careful that you don't overplay what you've got."

Presenting the information in a sober and matter-of-fact manner also minimises the risk that the information will be twisted out of context. "If someone wilfully distorts our findings in a major way, that isn't a particularly big problem. We will publicly say that they have done this and, because we have a high profile, people will usually listen to us. The difficulty comes when the research is slightly twisted. If you start complaining, people will say that you're over-reacting. The best way to avoid this problem in the first place is to state your findings in black and white."

The institute adopts an equally low-key approach to its comments about public policies. "We don't make recommendations about policy objectives nor say that a particular policy is inherently stupid. Instead, we say that if the objective of the policy is to achieve X, our findings indicate that it is likely to be either effective or ineffective."

And the IFS certainly does not shy away from making its voice heard on policy matters. "When a policy issue comes up it's crucial that comments we make about that policy are informed by our research,'' says Dilnot. "If researchers really are uncovering the truth in their work, they not only need to test these truths in academic journals, but also feed them into policy debates. It might sound slightly pompous, but what social scientists are doing is important for people's lives."

Dilnot believes that, while some academics might be deterred from putting their heads above the parapet by exaggerated fears about the problems of dealing with media and policy-makers, funding constraints too are dampening the dissemination of research results. "Until there's explicit funding for these types of activities, it will be hard to get a lot of academics involved in this process."

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