Academics and journalists both seek to communicate the truth through their writing. Communications experts Stephanie Mullins and Jamie Hose from specialist PR consultancy BlueSky Education explore how researchers and reporters should be close partners, striving for the same goal in different mediums, yet for many members of faculty in higher education institutions interacting with the media is a low priority.
Participating in an interview or writing an opinion article takes time, time which could be spent working on a new paper, but this doesn’t mean it’s a waste. Engaging with the media is mutually beneficial for professors and journalists – not to mention for readers.
Research from Bigham Young University in Utah analysed the scientific and non-scientific impact of more than 800 research papers published from 2007-2008. They compared the level of media attention each paper received against the number of citations it generated. Their findings show a strong positive correlation, suggesting that more widespread press coverage results in a greater number of citations.
Frequent citation in other researchers’ work is one of the many ways academics are able to demonstrate thought leadership in a particular field of study, which doesn’t hurt when it comes to seeking funding for future projects.
Ultimately, the impetus behind many pieces of research is to provide insights which educate and enhance social development. For example, research from Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) found that dark patches on night-time radiance images captured by satellites can be used to reliably locate underdeveloped communities. A broad media circulation of pieces of research such as this increase the likelihood that it will reach the attention of organisations able to implement it effectively in providing aid and infrastructure to those regions that desperately need them.
This is where journalism and academia are able to feed into one another. Journalists typically work to tight deadlines and produce content at a swifter pace than researchers. This content is also often easier to digest for a larger part of the population. Academics, by contrast, publish a handful of research papers a year and, as such, have time to delve into a subject in much greater detail.
A journalist can showcase a research paper with its most salient points and deliver this in the form of a highly readable article to broad audiences outside of academic circles, and by including research or comments from an academic expert their article gains added legitimacy.
This “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement has been especially prominent in the media since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, when much of the world’s population relied on receiving expert opinions through the media to decide how best to keep safe from the virus.
However, this doesn’t mean that once Covid ceased to have top billing in the news headlines, the media was done with academic experts – it simply opened the door. From seeking out technological insights to perspectives on supply chain management, international media is now in the “age of the expert”.
Most recently, the escalation of the Ukraine conflict has brought to prominence the role of academics. The Financial Times recently interviewed Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, following Vladimir Putin’s comments that Ukraine is “not even a state”. Other publications have sought comments from experts on how the conflict will affect the cost of living or tensions between the US and China over the island of Taiwan.
Academic research facilitates learning, highlights key issues in society and can promote the growth of businesses. It’s therefore important that each piece of research is read by as many interested parties as possible. However, the sector is also highly saturated. Thousands of research papers are published by hundreds of universities and business schools every year. Even the most relevant, fascinating paper has the potential to go unnoticed – unless researchers, in-house communications professionals and their expert consultants take it upon themselves to actively engage with journalists. That way, we can all become a little bit smarter.
See more articles by Stephanie Mullins.