Articles Why journalists and academics should like each other more

Why journalists and academics should like each other more

 

In the guest blog by Sue Littlemore, a founding patron of the Education Media Centre, explores the potential value that academics and journalists could gain by engaging with each other’s field.  

A sure way of insulting academics is to compare them with journalists. I made that mistake – once. In an interview for a trustee’s post before a panel of academics, I suggested good journalists and academics had much in common. Blasphemy! I meant both shared a purpose in wanting to discover the truth about the world, but I might as well have remarked the panel were overweight and badly dressed – this audacious suggestion offended them and, perhaps not for that reason alone, I was not invited to take up the role.

Journalists can be snide about academics too, yet both vocations have a lot to gain from engaging with each other – and plenty to lose from not.

A newspaper article, informed by robust research findings, which cuts through biased opinion; or an academic expert who, on radio, neatly identifies the nub of an issue, are examples of positive collaboration.

The journalist gains in authority; and the academic extends his or her reach and opportunity to make a difference. Regrettably the academic culture sometimes values “making a difference” less than loftier “blue skies” investigations or “research for its own sake”. Were that ever justified, the demands of public spending restraints and accountability make it less so now.

The LSE Professors Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson put it well, “..social scientists have an obligation to society to contribute their observations to the wider world – and at the moment that’s often being done in … pointlessly obscure or charged-for forums, in language where you need to look up every second word in Wikipedia, with acres of ‘dead-on-arrival’ data in unreadable tables, and all delivered over bizarrely long-winded timescales. So the public pay for all our research, and then we shunt back to them a few press releases and a lot of out-of-date academic junk.”

The Former Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, is leading a group of educationists with an interest in academic evidence to set up an independent and impartial Education Media Centre to make research more accessible to journalists. My own experience made me keen to lend support.

Starting with the frenetic “education, education, education” Blair years, I was a BBC Education Correspondent. Schools were regularly in the news, but as policy announcements flowed I rarely turned to academics for an off the record steer or on the record comment.

I’ll offer two main reasons: plenty of the academic education research sent to me was irrelevant to the public debate; and those whose work was pertinent were often regarded as partisan. Education academics were either off the main agenda or peddling their own, and were therefore often ignored by journalists and to some extent by everyone else.

Today academics are asked to demonstrate real world impact. Addressing the down to earth public concerns covered in news and current affairs is one test of that. I’m not suggesting the news agenda should drive the research agenda – just they shouldn’t be worlds apart.

It’s unreasonable to complain some academics are partisan when we know lots of journalism definitely is. Understandably that deters some from approaching the media, yet it strengthens the case for doing so. Who better to challenge the many dubious headlines and media comments on education than experts in objective research evidence?

Some academics avoid the media because it compresses years of careful work into sound bites and headlines. At their worst journalists do mislead, misrepresent and get it wrong. An Education Media Centre would help to minimise this, as the Science Media Centre has done for a decade, but there is a wider purpose which outweighs this risk. At its best the media takes closed, complex issues and opens them up to a wide audience of voters and taxpayers with an entitlement to know. Shouldn’t academics want to do that too?

 

The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.