Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

No Time to Get Hacked Off

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

No Time to Get Hacked Off

Article excerpt

Engaging with media is not a minefield, Fern Riddell argues, but a manageable opportunity and an increasingly important civic duty

It has been widely noted that many of the people who voted Leave in the UK's recent referendum on the European Union were motivated in part by distrust of the "experts" who attempted to warn them off.

But academic voices in the media are needed now more than ever if we are to overcome the rising climate of fear and xenophobia that was born, at least in part, of misunderstandings of history, politics and economics.

Education does not happen solely in the classroom or lecture hall. Mass education happens daily in newspapers and on the airwaves. Yet, despite the impact agenda, many academics continue to regard talking to the press as dangerous.

This was amply demonstrated last month by the Twitter outcry over the misrepresentation of an academic's views in The Daily Telegraph. In a piece headlined "Why are most internet trolls men?", the view that "we can't be certain but there is 'lots of anecdotal evidence' that most trolls are male" was attributed to Claire Hardaker, lecturer in forensic corpus linguistics at Lancaster University. In fact - as she subsequently made clear in a scathing blog post - the whole thrust of her response to the journalist's emailed question was that anecdotal evidence is not enough but no empirical evidence exists.

Clearly this was not great reporting. However, the outburst of anti-journalist sentiment that followed was deeply worrying. Academics were encouraged to scuttle back to their ivory towers and decline interviews, while those who refused to do so were slammed. This climate of fear does nothing other than decrease public access to academic expertise.

The trick to engaging safely with the media is, first of all, to understand what journalists want from you. More often than not, they have written a story and they need soundbites to liven it up and provide expert opinion. Most will tell you they just want a "few words". They mean it. They do not need a long explanation of the context of the findings. They do not need several paragraphs of existential crisis while you try to piece together what it all means. They need your professional opinion, simplified into a sentence or two that doesn't push their article way over the word limit.

So treating correspondence with journalists as if you are writing to a colleague or friend is a mistake. View it, instead, as if you were writing an abstract or article title: what is the key message? …

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