Generally, researchers try to be as accurate as they can, as they attempt to produce consistent, robust, and reliable results to inform policy recommendations. However, we have to recognize that the media and researchers approach evidence from different sides of the problem, which can lead to miscommunication.
Researchers and journalists: Evidence use from different sides
Researchers tend to focus their attention on describing and specifying the problem in all its nuances, isolating all the variables that could introduce bias in their analysis (admittedly being paranoid if something is missing). As such, the analysis of the topic tends to lead to clear conclusions, leaving little space for counter arguments (although these do of course exist).
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the media. Reporters and journalists can seem like they want to know the end of the movie before they see it. This often means that researchers needs to capture their attention in no more than 30 seconds. The result is a ‘4D problem’ – the need to accelerate time and meaning in order for journalists to understand the entire story.
Reading results backwards
This is why I would suggest that, as researchers, we have to present our findings as history being read backwards, focusing on our conclusions and working backwards to unpack our evidence. This means we need to have an engaging conclusion that captivates the audience in order to encourage them to follow the full story.
Our experience in FUNDESA has led us to different ways of communicating results to the media. I have to admit that coming froman institution that focuses on diagnosing problems in a rigorous manner, there has at times been a tendency to assume that reporters and journalists will investigate problems in the same way and come to similar conclusions. This practice has given us a lot of awkward moments, as we have discovered that the media sometimes reports our findings from a very different perspective than the one we want presented to our audiences.
How we attempted to overcome the problem of miscommunication
Again, the problem has been miscommunication. The main solution we found has been to “put ourselves in the shoes of our ‘adversaries’”. The first thing that we have done has been to perform a very interesting ‘role play’ by meeting with journalists and reporters, presenting our ideas to each other as if the other one was making an introduction to different topics. This practice has proven to be a very enriching exercise in which each side has received feedback on how the evidence based analysis has been presented.
From that first meeting about five years ago, we have been working directly with a large group of journalists to present the findings and policy recommendations derived from our research. What has proven most impactful in improving the take-up of our research by journalists has been to present the story backwards, ensuring that the that they get a full and clear picture of what our argument is. This has enabled journalists and reporters to read our press releases without the need for any explanation from us.
The key to creating a story gets noticed
If you want to ensure a story gets noticed then you must make sure it has a powerful headline, with arguments that provoke the interest of the reader. It´s easier when we start with a headline and short summary of our research, because this gives the media the opportunity to react to our press release, and allows us to ensure we are making the research accessible.. In a world where news sources are in constant competition and day-to-day events dominate the headlines, evidence-based research must be presented in a smart way.
Three key lessons from working with reporters and journalists
These experiences have given us many insights, but here are the top three things that we have learnt:
- The media are interested in interesting stories, but a lot of time the whole argument will be judged based on the first idea that you share. Think about headlines instead of evidence – the evidence will come later. If you are not able to gain the initial attention of the audience, sound evidence and robust analysis won´t be read by anyone.
- Researchers are not trained to tell good stories, they are trained for doing good research. However, these capabilities could be learned. Practice and feedback are the best tools to improve media coverage. Think about how to explain your findings to your child. If you can capture their attention, you are heading in the right direction.
- Finally, good relations with the media are based on trust. Remember that reporters and journalists are evaluated based on how many people read their stories, not if they have learned something new from the interview they had with you. Never try to “teach them”, try to “work with them”.
If you would like find out more about how the ‘Strengthening Institutions to Improve Public Expenditure Accountability’ project developed policy options and created a tailored approach to research communication visit the ‘Strengthening Institutions’ mini-site.