Making Headlines: When Your Research Becomes the News
One morning this summer I awoke to find my friend’s picture splashed across the front page of several international newspapers. His research, part of a broader collaborative archaeological project, had made headlines and would be the subject of numerous news articles over the next several weeks. Some of the news stories accurately represented the groundbreaking findings of the project’s research. Others, however, were overly sensational, and focused on my friend and his colleagues as Indiana Jones-type archaeologists slashing through the jungle looking for lost cities. At that time, I was in the field for a related excavation project, which caught the attention of reporters wanting to cover general archaeological trends in the region. Over the course of a few weeks, several journalists found their way to our site, getting tours and interviews with the project director, my colleagues, and myself. Watching the news coverage unfold was enlightening and made me acutely aware of the importance of taking an active role in presenting one’s research to the public to prevent misrepresentation. Although I have not been the center of any news story so far, I present here some advice gathered from my own observations as well as discussions with media-savvy archaeologist Dr. Damian Evans, who has been in TV documentaries and news stories discussing his work, and writer Lara Dunston, who has covered archaeological research stories for several newspapers, magazines, and websites.
- Practice and prepare your sound bites. Perhaps the most important prerequisite for having your work accurately represented in the press is being able to talk about your research in a compelling way. In many ways, this is similar to discussing the broader impacts of your work in a grant proposal or summarizing your research in an elevator speech. You should be able to speak succinctly about why your scholarship is of importance to society and the world beyond your field of research, and make it clear which crucial questions or topics you are addressing. A journalist will want to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and you will be as much a part of the story as your work. As Dunston notes, “Every story needs a hero…[the researcher] will be the person who drives the story.” If your research suddenly starts gaining popularity outside your field, take some time to discuss your work to non-specialist friends and family members. This will help you to communicate your work in a clear and compelling way.
- Coordinate your message. Most scholars are not working independently; in this case it is important that there is consistency in the message that everyone involved conveys to the press. If you are working with a group of colleagues or co-authors, Evans suggests holding a meeting to coordinate a media strategy. The lead author/researcher may want to be the designated spokesperson. If anyone in the group is inexperienced or uncomfortable with talking to the press they can direct inquiries to the spokesperson.
- Plan ahead. Before the press arrives, prepare a website that has the contact information of project members and a detailed background on your project or research paper. Ask journalists to link to or mention the site in their stories, which helps with Google results when people search for your work. Evans also suggests contacting senior scholars in your field before the release of a major research paper that might be covered in the media. Give these people copies of your paper beforehand and confirm that they would be willing to speak to journalists about them. As Evans points out “If the big names are offering sensible and informed appraisals of your research from the get-go, you will see much less uninformed commentary and speculation on your work from random self-appointed experts.”
- Be accessible. Often journalists will be working under a tight deadline, possibly managing multiple projects at once. While some may have had time to do background research on your project, others may have been assigned the story only shortly before contacting you. You may need to take extra time to provide them with some context for your findings and answer basic questions. Writers may also want to visit your lab or site in order to see for themselves how you work. While this may seem like an imposition on your time, it will help in creating a more accurate article. The pressure to produce an article quickly works against both you and the writer. If a journalist has difficulties getting information from you, as Dunston points out, “they won’t have any choice but to find someone else (and not always the best person necessarily).”
- Haters gonna hate, but do not fall into their trap. A well-rounded and well-researched news story may highlight opposing perspectives; this is normal. However, some less reputable journalists may try to use critical or even outright hostile comments to create discord and produce a “juicy” story. Social media sites, like twitter, have also become a popular way for critics to air their sometimes vitriolic viewpoints. Be aware of such traps and always respond positively to criticism. As Evans says “You can’t entirely control the media narrative, things will be chaotic, you will get misquoted and look ridiculous, and half of all the pundits will get half of everything completely wrong. Don’t panic, don’t take it personally and don’t stress out. It’s not life-or-death, and nobody will remember you next week anyway.”
In addition to news stories written by professional journalists, some researchers may find the best way to publicize their work is by writing about it themselves. While in the field undertaking dissertation research, I began a blog, mostly to keep my family and friends up-to-date. After returning from the field, however, I have continued posting, thus engaging with the public about my work in an informal way. I have not only been contacted by scholars from around the world, but even more often by non-specialists with an interest in archaeology. Their enthusiasm reminds me how lucky I am to be doing something I love as a full-time profession, and something that others care about as well. Writing blog posts has also helped me practice framing my work in a way that is concise, understandable, and interesting for a non-specialist reader. This platform gives me the freedom to present my research in the way that I want, instead of following the agenda of another author.
Blogs are also an ideal way to quickly respond to negative or incorrect news reports, or to reflect on recent research unofficially. In a recent USA Today op-ed piece, US Representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith specifically called out funding for several archaeological projects as an examples of “questionable NSF research grants.” These kinds of reactions are an example of the poor job we as a field (i.e., Anthropology/Archaeology) are doing in showing the relevance our work to the broader public; a problem we share with other fields in the Social Sciences and Humanities. In this scenario, however, archaeologists were able to use blogs to respond to these accusations quickly and add depth to the discussion.
Although blogs and personal websites offer expediency, they often lack the reach of many major newspapers. Therefore having accurate and engaging news stories about our work is an important way to widely broadcast the significance of our research to the general public, and get them excited about it as well. With funding cuts and the decline of tenure-track faculty positions there is not much of a future for ivory-tower academics. The more and the earlier you take charge of how your research is presented to the public, the more accurate and positive the portrayal will be when your work hits the front page news.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Image: Photograph by author.
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