Unsensational news

A specialist journalistic organisation could allow academics to explain their work without distortion, suggests Peter Geoghegan

September 29, 2011

In 2004 on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, scientists discovered a polar bear bone reputed to be more than 100,000 years old. Ólafur Ingólfsson, of the University of Iceland, and Øystein Wiig, from the University of Oslo, published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the story was soon picked up by science correspondents across the globe.

"Scientists say polar bears have survived climate change before", announced a headline in one UK newspaper. According to another, Ingólfsson and Wiig's research found that "Polar bear is 'new' species". Some sub-editors adopted a more phlegmatic tone: "Ancient polar bear jawbone found" and "Fossil jawbone hints at polar bear past".

Academics are rightly encouraged to disseminate their findings to the widest audience possible, but in doing so often find themselves caught between Scylla and Charybdis: research that is deemed "too academic" attracts precious little media interest; work that has news value is quickly pounced upon, spun and even adduced to support positions contrary to the researcher's own.

Once a piece of research perforates the media's collective consciousness, any control of the message is lost. What began life as an analysis of a Svalbard polar bear's jawbone in an academic journal can quickly become part of a sceptical argument about climate change, for example. Any inaccuracies in the reporting of the research are lost as the researcher, the producer of the knowledge, is effectively written out of its dissemination.

The primary interface between academia and the media is the university press office. Press relations officers - often former journalists - are tasked with repackaging academic research into bite-sized chunks that can be fed whole to hungry reporters. Their goal is both to disseminate knowledge and to increase the university's profile among the public and, most importantly, funders and potential students.

Press officers are adept at attracting the attention of editors with catchy releases, tapping into news agendas to ensure that a piece of research makes the leap from dusty journal to national newsprint. Where they are less effective, however, is in producing a hyperbole-free precis of academic work. If you're after a distilled version of a piece of research - its key findings and methodology, rather than its most headline-grabbing aspect - university press officers often have little to offer. As a result, the bulk of academic research goes unreported anywhere that the public could realistically stumble across it.

So what could be done to rectify the situation? One option is to create a platform, most likely a website, that is staffed by experienced journalists but dedicated solely to publishing academic work. This approach is currently being pioneered in Australia, where The Conversation site, funded by universities, government and the private sector, was set up in the spring. On The Conversation, a team of about 20 journalists - led by Andrew Jaspan, former editor of The Observer - curate, commission and edit research, analysis and opinion from academics on everything from current affairs to the environment.

Leaving aside the impact requirements of the research excellence framework, the value of a space in which the lay reader can directly access information and insights produced in the academy is pretty clear. Instead of research being filtered through the lens of editors-cum-gatekeepers and national and regional news organisations - which, whatever their political leanings, have a tendency to dumb down content - researchers would have the opportunity to publish in an environment where a commitment to maintaining the integrity of their work is explicit.

At a time when the academy's role and usefulness is under near-constant questioning, a UK-style Conversation could connect the public with research and insights from the university sector in a way that is absent.

Although the cost of creating such a forum - even if it is hosted only on the web - may not be insignificant, the benefits are potentially enormous, as the success of a small blog set up last year by the University of Nottingham's politics department attests. Written by staff and postgraduate students, the Election 2010 blog, which ran for five months, was estimated to have generated coverage for the university worth more than £4 million.

Broadening the conversation won't necessarily end the "Boffin says" headlines, but it would allow academics and the public to interact in more fluid, reciprocal ways. Whether universities and the government would work together to fund such a news organisation is, of course, another story.

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