Writing for the media
Jane Ogden, Professor in Health Psychology, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. Email: J.Ogden@surrey.ac.uk; @jane1Ogden
As an academic my main focus has always been on teaching students and writing research papers for publication in academic journals. Over the course of my 30 year career, however, I have also been involved in writing for the media and taking part in a number of different outlets outside of the University ivory tower including TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. In October 2018 I ran a writing workshop for BSPHN as an attempt to inspire others to do the same. This paper covers the main ideas addressed in the workshop including why we should become involved with the media, how this can be achieved, what the differences are between academic writing and a more journalistic style and some of the tensions that might arise when we step out of our academic comfort zone.
Why become involved in the media?
I think there are six reasons why academics should become involved in the media.
Over the years I have been involved in many different excursions into the media all of which have been great fun. I have had time away from my desk and met a wide range of interesting directors, camera crew, presenters and minor (and sometimes not so minor) celebrities. I have learned a huge amount about how documentaries are made so that even though there is only ever one camera, many angles and cuts between takes can be made and I have had fun designing TV programmes and thinking how best to make academic research visual and interesting. I have taken part in radio chat shows with opinionated people without getting cross, learned to speak clearly and concisely so as not to be edited out and learned to write for a lay audience to minimise the input of pedantic editors.
- Instantly rewarding
Academia can be a very unrewarding career and any rewards that do come our way can be slow and sometimes painful to obtain. Research studies take months (or years) to complete, research papers take ages to be accepted and even longer to come out and grants are mostly rejected. In contrast, the rewards from working with the media are often instant and hugely satisfying. Articles in the print media take only days to write and are often in print within the week and although they may disappear as quickly as they appear, it is great to see them in cafes, newsagents and being read by friends and family. Even more exciting are online papers which often have real time counters of hits, retweets and downloads when you see can your work spreading around the world. Obviously, not all feedback is good and it is always best not to scroll down to see the trolls, but if you ignore this then it’s worthwhile. And TV and radio shows make your parents understand a bit more about what you do in your life and friends from your past sometimes pop up to say they saw you in their living room last night!
- As a public sector employee
We are paid by the tax payer and as public sector employees I feel we have a duty to get our work out into the public eye and away from the ivory tower. This is not to say that we should disseminate everything we do, as not everything is worth it. But a decent study or a novel idea should be made available to those who pay our salaries.
- As a University staff member
30 years ago when I first did media work I was told by a colleague to keep it quiet and take it off my CV. Nowadays, universities have woken up to the value of impact and value any contribution that widens their reach, broadens their reputation (in a positive way!) and gives them the chance of an impact case study for the REF.
- Developing new skills
Anyone who knows me will know that I am creature of habit who loves routine and am strangely conservative at heart. But I also try to push myself out of my comfort zone and over the past few years have taken up singing, tennis, running, painting and jewellery making all to a perfect level of mediocrity. Working with the media has been a great way to get out of this comfort zone and develop new skills. I can now walk and talk to camera; walk and talk not looking at the camera; walk on camera without talking and still walking normally. These are achievements. I can also write succinctly and clearly and get an idea across in a way that keeps the reader until the end when the cues to check twitter or Facebook, or read about the latest celebrity scandal are popping up all over the margins.
- Entering the modern world
The world has changed hugely since I started my academic career and if we are not careful we are in danger of being left behind. Whilst we are assessed in terms of citations, h indexes, impact factors and REF scores the modern world is made up of hits, likes and downloads. And their numbers are MUCH bigger than ours. Working with the media is a step in the right direction to staying relevant in this modern world.
So although working for the media may seem a different world from that of academia, these six reasons should hopefully show why it is worth it.
How do you get involved in the media?
There are many different outlets and different types of media work that welcome input from academics. The Conversation is an online forum for academics to write about their work for an educated lay audience. They rely upon input from academics and provide support if you are new to the game. You can also write columns or thought pieces for magazines or newspapers, provide expert comments for journalists to include in their work, appear as an expert on the TV or radio or get more behind the scenes and help to design and structure TV programmes through consultancy. Over time, you will become known and journalists, TV and radio producers will use you as their go to person if you are supportive and open to media work. But to get started there are several things that can help. First, you can make sure your name is with the BPS media data base with a list of your areas of expertise. You can also tell the marketing department at your University that you are interested in media work and they can send journalists in your direction. To be more pro active, make sure you tell your marketing department of any upcoming news friendly research studies that you have coming out so they can write a press release. You can also pitch ideas to magazines and see what they say but its best to have something new to offer (a new study) or to have a hook to hang your ideas on like a news item or recent policy change. But the main trick is to be ‘journo friendly’, respond to any calls for help and welcome the chance to talk to someone about your work.
What are the differences between academic and more journalistic work?
As academics we are trained to write in a detailed and thorough way describing each step of a study, referencing relevant research and embedding our work in existing theory. We are also encouraged to be tentative in our writing style saying ‘research suggests that’, ‘it could be argued that’ whilst highlighting the methodological limitations of our work. Further, we mostly recognise that research is incremental, that our contribution, at best, will be a small part of the jigsaw and as a result many (not all academics) are quite humble. Media work is a stark contrast to this and can therefore feel daunting and uncomfortable. For example, the word counts are tiny compared to what we are used to and as a result magazine or newspaper articles can seem superficial and trivial with no space to cite others, use theory or be tentative. Further, the style required is punchy, definite and sometimes a strong message is required which can also feel a bit over stated and prescriptive. But more than this, in the media you are competing with endlessly distracting adverts, pop ups or reminders of social media which can absorb the reader in an instant, so writing has to be engaging or it won’t be read. No lecturer, essay deadline or drive for a publication is there to make someone read your work. If they don’t like it, they will just flick to something else! So if you want to write for the media you need to embrace a whole new way of expressing yourself and enjoy knowing that if you succeed, what you write might actually get read to the end!
Working with the media can therefore be fun and rewarding and helps us to get our work out to the general public, who after all, pay our salaries. There are many differences between academic work and media work which can be challenging. But there are also some tensions that arise that might put people off.
What tensions arise from working with the media?
Although I have very much enjoyed the work I have done with the media, there have been times when I have wondered whether it is the right thing to do. Journalists and broadcasters always want a simple message when I know the answer is complex; they also want a solution when I know that it would be premature to offer one as the evidence base is not there yet; and they often want me to be prescriptive whereas I am far happier not telling people what to do. And sometimes they want me to have views way outside my area of expertise (‘no I am not a clinical psychologist’ and ‘no I know nothing about bereavement during war’!). And I worry about doing harm, making a joke that can be taken out of context, saying something sensible and being misquoted, saying something stupid and being accurately quoted, and just doing too much that I lose any academic credibility. But my advice would be to know your professional boundaries, fact check what you have said, proof read what you have written and get a thick skin when things go wrong as it will have gone away by tomorrow.
So that was the workshop!
Getting out of your comfort zone is good for the soul and working with the media is a great way to stretch your horizons. So embrace any chances that come your way, give something back, learn new skills and have fun.