A long time ago, when I was still living in Australia, I wrote a conference paper* about a dispute between researchers; I’d read about it in the news and heard it on the radio. One was a university based poverty researcher. The other was a full time researcher for a right wing think tank.
The dispute centred on the claim made by the academic researcher that poverty was increasing. The think tank researcher’s counter claim was that the academic’s statistical method was flawed. There were also politicians and a high profile welfare organisation involved in these claims and counter-claims but here I just want to focus on the researchers.
The academic struggled in print and on the radio to explain the complexities involved in measuring poverty and the various kinds of poverty measurements and their merits. She acknowledged that all statistics were ultimately dependent on arbitrary decisions about definitions, and that no measurement was perfect. The think tank researcher hardly bothered to engage in this academic debate, but instead offered a set of sound bytes/bites about left wing bias and shoddy research.
Over about ten minutes of radio time, the poverty academic’s measured refusal to arrive at a simple essentialist and crude measure was continually ridiculed by the think tank researcher. Each attempt to explain a highly complex measure was simply met by further dismissive derisive comments.
I was interested at the time in thinking about situations like this one, media events which rely on rough and tumble and quick sound grabs – as in the news or in current affairs contexts where the dominant genre is the creation of starkly opposing points of view. My conclusion then was that such news and current affairs programmes might be a dangerous place. It might be easier, I privately thought, for academics to get their message across in magazine style programmes where they had time and space to explain what they were doing and how they reached the conclusions they did. Acting as expert advisers and as expert commentators would offer similar kinds of more appreciative contexts. I also wondered at the time whether only some kinds of academic and some kinds of academic work were going to be up for and to engaging in the kind of tussle I’d analysed.
I’ve seen or heard nothing since to dissuade me from this view. Since being in the UK I’ve enjoyed being on regional talk back radio discussing everyone’s favorite and most despised head teacher for example and the various kinds of ghastly and good headteachers found in children’s fiction. I’ve been frustrated by media requests to break ethical agreements and name my sources in research I’ve done about inadequate alternative programmes for excluded young people. No source no coverage. I’ve admired my colleague Professor Harry Ferguson’s continued public efforts to de-demonise social work and social workers on twitter and in public media.
But I’ve also heard some academic research dismissed (and dissed) out of hand by policymakers, with some very familiar sound bites – the sample is too small, the research was done a while ago and it’s now out of date, even that these researchers are chardonnay swilling, guardian reading, chattering middle class ideologues.
In idle moments I foolishly think that if academics are to be charged with having impact on policy and engaging with the public, then this ought to be a two-way street. If we are expected to engage then we ought to at least be listened to. However these are idle thoughts – I know we need to earn a hearing from the public and that expecting a radical change of behaviour from news media and most politicians is never going to happen.
But, given this, it seems to me that we need to very carefully pick our arenas for public engagement in order to maximise our effectiveness. It’s obviously harder to get any kind of message across if we are just engaged in a katy-did-katy-didn’t argument, or worse, if it’s just about who’s got the best thirty second sneering slogan. And if we are going to be critical – to answer back to power so to speak – we also need to think pretty carefully, and ahead of time, about the ways in which what we are trying to say might be subject to an ignorant and hostile reception.
I’m not against engaging with media at all. It’s just that it’s not our home turf and it works to different rules. For that reason I’d like to see a lot more discussion about public engagement which disaggregates the field by medium and genre, and which gets to grips with some of the trickier and potentially more personally difficult and maybe counter-productive possibilities.
What do you think? A morning wrangle on Radio 4 or an hour long BBC documentary???
* It’s not a very good paper and I never published it. It was however a good presentation and a way to begin thinking about policy and media; some subsequent work on this has been published. However you can find the original not very good paper here.
Update. See University of Melbourne academic Margaret Simon’s blog about her shabby treatment by media.