Knowing your audience

Engaging the media for policy research: Four critical questions to consider

By 26/03/2014

It is a common refrain among all: “The media don’t care about research.” This is both a problem statement and a statement of the problem.

If we see the media as a homogenous mass, it is not surprising that our one-size-fits-all approach bears little fruit. Secondly, if we assume interest in our research simply because it is important, then we will not spend time and effort to make sense of research for our target audience.

It is true that powerful, earth-shattering research needs to be presented as simply as possible for a storyteller or reporter. But more nuanced, issue-based research reports, with incremental changes and contributions to ongoing debates, also need to be packaged and delivered in accessible and strategic ways. This can happen by asking four critical questions:

  • Who is the target audience?
  • Where do they usually get their information?
  • What information is needed that is either interesting or important?
  • How do they want to engage with and act upon that information?

Who is the target audience?

The media we target to disseminate research is simply a channel to reach the target audience. We therefore need to consider who that audience is and how they read, listen and speak. Through identifying these key communication elements, we can then craft a message that reaches them powerfully, evades skepticism, and increases coverage across many sources. A clear understanding of who needs to hear the message allows us to be more targeted in our approach – which greatly increases our changes of successful coverage. It allows us to identify the media which reaches the target audience most effectively, craft a message that considers their interests and concerns and provide supporting documentation for skepticism.

Where do these target audiences usually get their information?

Research reaches out to a wide range of potential audiences. We might want to inform research participants of progress in research, promote the findings to other academics, advocate by reaching out to policy makers, politicians and government officials, solicit support from funders, or raise awareness of the general public.

Media platforms, particularly print, radio, television and online, are used by audience groups for various needs and purposes connected to ease of accessibility, value and fit. Therefore, each platform approaches storytelling differently and may play a role in determining how to tell stories.

  • Print Media: Print media is positioned as a main influencer in framing news given its increasing role in setting the agenda for what is discussed on other media such as radio and television. As print media gets picked up by other media platforms, it reaches an audience that is not only literate but one that can also afford subscription fees. While this fee structure may seem limiting, print media’s long-shelf life and ability to capture complexity, context and detail still makes it a desirable media.
  • Radio and Television: While radio is a free platform, apart from its initial cost of purchase, it is increasingly becoming a background activity. We listen to the radio while we complete other tasks including driving or cleaning. And if we miss the broadcast, we miss the information. But radio is accessible, interactive and engages large numbers of people in simultaneous conversation. Through television, on the other hand, we do not just hear a story but can also visualize it. This makes television a more powerful medium preferred by many.
  • Online: Access to electricity has broadened access to television and the internet. The internet provides a direct and much faster route to news. Social media particularly allows for relationships with existing audiences to be more interactive and direct while also building relationships with new audiences.

What information is needed across these media channels? What would they define as interesting or important?

Let’s consider at the start, the definition of news. The Collins Concise Dictionary defines news as: “Important or interesting recent happenings; information about such events as in the mass media; interesting or important information not previously known.”

Few research-specific stories have universal appeal and these are generally event-based. For example, the release of research results with significant findings, a contradictory finding, or controversial view. Most of the time, however, research is issue-based and the new information is difficult to find. “Interesting or important information not previously known…” is often in the eye of the beholder. Research takes long to appear in the public domain and therefore runs the risk of becoming old news.

Moreover, a long detailed analysis will work well on print media but not on radio or social media. The question which then emerges is when do we need detail, graphics, photographs, audio, or video? In answering this, consider the differences between what each of these channels and research emphasizes in terms of people, controversy, facts, questions, solutions, and supporting documentation as well as the available space and pace of timing they each operate.

It is no longer sufficient to simply produce research. We need to package and deliver research so that the target audience – the journalists and ultimately their readers, viewers and listeners – care enough about the information to repurpose it in useful ways.


This blog post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec

Image courtsey of “Newspapers B&W (5)” by Jon S