There are multiple ways for researchers to engage with mainstream media. The roles we take can vary from giver of expert advice through to public commentator. But what we do might also vary according to the kind of media involved – print, radio or television.
Here I’m talking about one option – the unseen advisory role that academics can take by providing expert ‘background’ advice. This is where you, the academic researcher, is either rung up or emailed and asked if you will speak to someone about a particular topic in order to help a media company or person develop a programme/article/piece.
Most magazine media formats and documentary media – for example, newsprint magazine articles, documentary films and current affairs extended features in print or television – begin a new project with some kind of semi-structured inquiry. This might be conducted by a print or radio journalist or by a specifically employed social researcher.
Media researchers look for key debates, conflicts, figures and explanations that they can use to construct some kind of narrative amenable to either audio or audio-visual production. While this is not rigorous research in the ways that we advocate in the higher education research community, it is nevertheless a form of inquiry. It is one always conducted within very tight timelines and budgetary constraints.
The media researcher usually starts by doing a bit of web-based reading, and then contacting someone they know, or someone they have found in an existing media archive/via google search/on social media. After this initial contact has been made, they often then use a snowballing technique to find more people to talk to and to find references to things they need to read.
Academic researchers contacted for background advice by media researchers are NOT being asked to speak on the record – on the record is where you are either the ‘talent’, a commentator or a ‘talking head’. However, it’s always important to check at the outset how your words will be used. If they are going to be on the record, then this is not background advice.
The background academic adviser usually has only one or two interactions with the particular media researcher. Background advice is NOT an on-going involvement – on-going advisory involvement in television and film is usually contracted as expert consultancy, and is paid and acknowledged in the credits. However there are sometime occasions when background advice goes on and on. Then it feels more like on-going consultancy. The academic researcher has to consider whether they are prepared to continue on an ad-hoc and unofficial basis or whether they want to formalise the arrangement.
Academic researchers contacted as expert background advisers may find that they have to spend half an hour or so explaining things that seem pretty obvious to an expert in the field – particular history, contexts, debates and the ‘evidence’ that exists – but this is because the media researcher is a beginner to the topic. What the media researcher is seeking is a concise, short-hand introduction. They want to know the key things that you know in as short a time as possible, and they want your steer on the topic in hand as plainly as you can say it.
Media researchers have some patience with the kinds of caveats that academic researchers generally put about their judgements but in the end, they do want you to take some kind of stand. This is so that, after talking to a number of academic researchers and others involved in whatever it is, they have a sense of the different positions and interests involved.
Media researchers sometimes present views which an academic researcher will find problematic because they are ‘common sense’/derived from very partial points of view/stereotypes. It is not helpful to deal with these in a hostile or caustic or condescending manner. The media researcher after all is not just an intelligent member of the public, but has also been trained by the scholarly community, often to doctoral level. They may either not yet know enough about the topic, or they may very well just be playing devil’s advocate in order to see how a rebuttal can be formulated. Either way, rudeness will be counterproductive to their grasp of the immediate topic. They may also of course decide you are unhelpful and you never know what this might mean for future contacts and opportunities.
Sometimes the media researcher will ask for something that is not possible or unethical. They might want you to present them with some kind of literature review which you have no time to do. Or they may want you to reveal something about your research location or informants, something academic researchers are not able to do.
So how does this work? Well here’s an example.
I often get contacted by people who want to write or film something about young people excluded from school. They find me on google via the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website where there is an executive summary and report of research I did with my colleague Lisa Russell about the provision of alternatives to exclusion. JRF obviously has good tags and key words as the report seems not too difficult to locate. The media researchers never know that I used to run a community school which catered for kids who were kicked out or walked out of mainstream schools. So I always tell them this at the start of our conversation so they know that I know about the topic from more than one angle.
I usually talk to the media researcher interested in exclusion one time only and for about three quarters of an hour. Most of this time is explaining the rules about exclusion, what schools are supposed to do and what happens in Pupil Referral Units – in other words it’s pretty basic information. The rest of the time is spent summarising the findings of the JRF research about what makes for good practice and then fielding a few questions about why this kind of practice isn’t uniform across the country in all services.
I always try to make two points very strongly – I have got something to say in no uncertain terms – namely, that I am interested in excluded young persons’ entitlement to education , not just their welfare, and that there are too many young people who are fobbed off with part-time courses which assume that they are at best only suited for and likely to get semi-skilled work, rather than them being offered choices which include on-going formal education. So I do have a message which I want to get across.
But the last time I was contacted I was also asked if I could refer the media researcher to some places where there was bad practice. They had no problem finding good practice I was told, but they needed to show the opposite in their documentary film too. I refused to do this on ethical grounds but I know that the same media researcher continued to ask other colleagues in the field the same question. It is important to recognise that Formal Ethics was not the only ethical issue at stake here. My colleagues and I were being asked to be complicit in a deception, since any site we nominated as bad practice would simply be asked if they were prepared to be filmed, not that they were being set up to be the example of what not to do. They would find out about this designation only when the film went to air. It was important for all of the academic researchers to recognise that this was what was at stake in this request for background information.
The lesson here is that it is crucial not to be too dazzled by or too cautious about any request for background advice. It doesn’t pay to be over-suspicious but on the other hand, it is not a pastime to be undertaken naively. Above all, academic researchers need to see the provision of background advice as a contribution to a better informed media and a better informed media product. This doesn’t equate to giving away or giving way on the things that we hold to be important and ‘true’.
Post script: Perhaps I ought to put on record that I have had various kinds of involvements with media. In another life I was a long-time broadcaster on community radio and also acted as spokesperson in my position as elected president of an Australian school principals association. These two activities led to a continuing research interest in media and various aspects of education, looking at both policy and the ways in which schooling is represented.