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Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Academics in the Media in the UK and the USA- Contrasting Agendas and Differing Skill Sets

That's me in the white jacket on BBC Breakfast back in 2006 

I've published a few pieces about academics and the media, such as a THES one a few years ago. This piece was written in February this year. 

Can UK academics and journalists learn about what works best in media engagement from our American counterparts? 

Toward the end of my spring sabbatical at the University of California, Irvine, there was a minor social media storm around the role of academics in current affairs TV and press. 
The topic trended on social media following a New York Times op ed piece called Professors- we need you! by Nicholas Krystoff. The polemic was ostensibly supportive of greater academic engagement in media, but it accused professors of isolating themselves by wrapping their thoughts in arcane language and pursuing esoteric research topics. The Puritan ethic is alive and well in the USA, and simplicity and clarity of expression are highly prized, even when the logic of argument may be deeply flawed. Krystoff quoted Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean at Princeton, saying that all disciplines have become more specialised and less accessible. The argument is that academics, in effect, have marginalised themselves from mainstream media.

American Professors Tweeted and blogged with tired irritation, pointing out that Krystof has recycled this topic before as a sure fire boost to his social media analytics. Professors are still here, they said, but journalists don’t call us. 

Fewer academics get media exposure in the USA than in the UK, and those few, usually medical or legal experts, tend to be recalled time after time. This is inhibiting the infant impact agenda as it dawns in US universities. It is even creating divisions: outside of a very short list of serious experts, US academics who gain media exposure sometimes fulfil their colleagues’ worst prejudices about media engagement with loud and self-serving populism. These faculty promote their handbooks telling people how to be happy or how to make-a-million dollars and fuel widespread resentment in universities at a US media machine that gives academics outside medicine and the law little opportunity to speak to better quality research.

The situation is rather different in Britain. It is axiomatic for the more one-eyed of us Brits that the BBC and our other great organs of record are more balanced and rigorous than those in the rest of the world. In the UK, American media tend to be selectively held up to ridicule, and some media brands such as Fox News provide plenty of satirical material. But, after some months of watching US TV, I felt that there seemed to be a quality of logical engagement and an interest in genuine debate, even on populist shows like the (now canned) Piers Morgan show or the more serious Anderson Cooper show on CNN. Most strikingly, American TV interviewees were given time to make their point, which they usually did with fluency and clarity. If they miss the point of the question or evade it in their answer, the interviewer politely brings them back to it. 

On UK TV current affairs shows, in contrast, star broadcast journalists take an adversarial position and interrupt guests, creating a breathless atmosphere that usually results in everyone talking past each other. Often, guests are shoehorned into a format that allows for little interrogation. On occasion, I've been shoved in front of camera without a word of warning from producers about who my fellow interviewees will be or even what line of discussion the interviewer will take. It's a rent-a-quote format that generates exposure and energy, but little genuinely engaged debate.       

The impact agenda is regarded as a wasteful distraction by many UK academics but at least HEFCE rules ensure that impact only generates funding if it is grounded in good quality research. But, while it is common for academics, even obscure ones like me, to be contacted by broadcast journalists in the UK, it is rare for them to be asked to comment on serious matters of politics and policy. The UK media has a huge appetite for academic input to boost space-filling stories superficially reporting findings on health, psychology or lifestyle issues. There is a risk, in the context of HEFCE’s impact agenda, that this media bias toward attention-grabbing research could distort research agenda toward the short-term and the sensational. Some would say that is what has already happened.    

One of the few academics who appear regularly on US TV is Lawrence Summers, an economist who moves easily between posts at Harvard and senior positions with the Federal Bank. In one March 2014 TV interview on US economic policy he gave a masterclass in giving a straight answer to a question and following up immediately with a telling analogy conveying the principle at work with economy and clarity. Summers showed that communicating effectively on broadcast media demands a rare skill set. Academics need to be able to assimilate complex information aurally and to translate that verbally into terms any reasonable person can understand in a moment. In other words, they need the skills of a top academic, and also the skills of a top journalist.

In discussions about academics in the media there is little mention of the rare skills that are needed to be effective and credible. British academics, and our media, could learn from the American scene, where ace communication skills and logical debate are valued. American broadcasters could use more academic input, but the the standards of broadcasting fluency and intellectual authority they expect from academics to contribute to policy debate are punishingly high. At the other end of the scale, US media seem prepared to give exposure to some academics who want nothing more than to self-advertise. There is a need for academics to make a greater contribution to public life through the media in the UK and the USA. Academics and journalists need to understand each other’s agenda better before this can happen.