Over the past decade, academics have been increasingly pushed by their research funders to disseminate their work outside of academic circles. One way in which this can be done is for academics to use the print and broadcast media (something that I termed as ‘aca-media’ back in 1995). Ever since I was a PhD student I have been happy to talk to the media about my research. Occasionally things go wrong and my work is misquoted and/or taken out of context but I have written many articles outlining the many advantages of academics interacting with the media.
I passionately believe that psychological research should be communicated to the public. However, I have also argued in some of my writings about ‘pop’ psychology and aca-media that psychologists who communicate their work to the public (e.g., non-academic books, magazine and newspaper articles, radio and television programmes) are sometimes ridiculed by their peers and/or told that such activities are of little use for progression in their career.
Many academic psychologists may not want a relationship with the media because of the perception that the media will somehow trivialize and/or misrepresent serious research. However, psychology is media-friendly and very popular. This is evidenced by the fact that:
- Popular psychology books are often found in the best selling book lists;
- Magazines like Psychology Today and Psychologies sell in large quantities;
- Many magazines reveal a high percentage of articles dealing with some aspect of psychological concern;
- Radio and television programmes appear to be featuring more and more psychologists.
The media can play a beneficial role in psychological research, and that a lot of good things can come out of it. Back in the late 1990s, I argued in an issue of The Psychologist that the media performs a useful service for psychologists who carry out primary research. More specifically I argued that the media can (i) stimulate research into cutting edge topics. (ii) provide publicity for the psychologist, the research, the discipline and the psychologist’s institution, (iii) provide immediate rewards, and (iv) help feed back into the academic process.
In his book Psychology Observed or The Emperor’s New Clothes, Professor Paul Kline argued that the content of print media provides a useful indicant of human behaviour. Newspapers and magazines indicate what people actually do, and they indicate what editors believe people like to read about (and is one of the reasons I try to feature topics in my blog that I think the general public would be interested in reading). On these criteria, Professor Kline argued that murder, sex, the Royal Family, wars, disasters, rape, crime, astrology, parapsychology, the occult, drugs, and violence are all of psychological significance. In fact, Kline went as far as to argue that much of scientific psychology ignores the real world setting in which we live and barely seems to touch on the subjects outlined above. Kline explained why this might be the case by outlining a number of propositions relating to the scientific method:
- Psychology studies trivial topics because of its reliance on the scientific method
- The scientific method is unsuited to some important problems in psychology
- The scientific method is adhered to because of the (i) high prestige of science which is funded better than the arts, (ii) emphasis on intellect rather than feelings, and (iii) better promotion prospects (i.e. the scientific method allows rapid publication on currently fashionable topics)
- Much of psychology is pure hermeneutics, (i.e., the study of tasks invented and elaborated by those who study them).
If Kline is right, then those psychologists who do not adhere to the scientific method will actually be left behind in the system. I have also argued in some of my articles that if psychology does not provide the information on the topics that people want to know about, then ‘pop’ psychologists will step in – people who may not even be eligible for chartered psychologist status.
Therefore, it would appear that some (maybe even most) psychologists want their research to be communicated to the general public but they appear to want someone else, preferably a non-psychologist, to do it. But what happens when someone else does do it? The main problem is that many people, both those reporting and those reading the original research, fail to interpret research findings of psychologists accurately or use the findings in a biased and/or selective manner. Such observations may provide reasons why there appears to be an increasing number of psychologists (like myself) who are popularizing their own work themselves (i.e., they do not want their work misunderstood, distorted and trivialized). However, if disseminating to the public is not valued by peers, there is little incentive for the psychologist to do so.
Many of my own research ideas have come from newspapers, magazines and other media. Quite often, these outlets will come up with an idea that has no empirical support but looks true and/or is psychologically interesting. This can provide a spur for me to some research on that topic or area. The fact that it has reached media outlets before empirical research has been done suggests that it is newsworthy. One activity I try to do is read one publication each week that I would not normally read. The idea is that such an activity might not lead immediately to a new research idea or avenue, but it could change a view of the world in some way and impact on future research. I am fortunate in the fact that every week I get numerous calls from the media asking me to comment on something. Occasionally they come up with something that stirs my imagination and which gets me thinking that their story is about a really interesting topic. Occasionally whole new lines of research have emerged on the basis of a media enquiry. The most notable examples in my own research include my work on scratchcard gambling and internet addiction.
There is no doubt that some research is more likely to be noted, reported and commented upon by the mass media than is other equally sound or important work. Research into problem solving and learning will almost always be given less media coverage, than say astrology or parapsychology, because experimental psychologists (i) deem these areas as trivial or unimportant, (ii) its subject matter not appropriate for study using the scientific method, and/or (iii) unhelpful for career progression. Professor Kline argued that research that adheres to the scientific method carries a lot of weight in the academic community and enables academics to quickly progress up the career ladder. This is not the case with dissemination of psychological research to non-specialist audiences. Many may consider the education and dissemination of psychological knowledge is important yet popularizing psychology appears to have no distinct advantages inside the academic system (although I would like to think this is changing a little).
However, one thing that is highly irritating to academics is how slow the research dissemination process is. Sometimes waiting over a year or two for a paper to be published is not a psychologist’s idea of a quick reward. At least in the media, the rewards can come quickly. If a psychologist publishes something in a newspaper or a magazine (or even on their own blog), it can be out within days and sometimes even hours. If a psychologist records something for the radio or television, again the result is often quite quick – and if it is live then at least it goes out there and then.
Many psychologists may take the line that it is not their job to generate publicity. However, media exposure can provide publicity for the psychologist, their research, the discipline, and the psychologist’s organization. Furthermore, media publicity can help an individual’s research in particular ways. Media coverage can aid a psychologist’s own self-standing and it can also help in getting a psychologist’s research known to various funding agencies. Media publicity can also be used for direct research purposes – most noticeably in participant recruitment. Although there are ethical questions to consider, news items and features in all forms of the media can help in either the recruitment of participants both in general calls for help in research and in terms of unsolicited responses. I have found this particularly useful in obtaining case studies for various behavioural addictions that I have been researching into (e.g. exercise addiction, gambling addiction, internet addiction, etc.). (For instance, my case study on eproctophilia published last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior came about because of one of the blogs I published on the topic).
Many researchers spend a lot of time and money handing out recruitment brochures in appropriate places promising small remunerations. However, these typically attract very few people into participating and generate low response rates. Therefore, the media can be used as a creative recruitment tactic that works effectively to attract research participants. Advertisements for participants to “tell us your story” in newspapers can be a successful way of obtaining participants. However, there are likely to be some biases in terms of the background, but it is possible to get a good cross section.
Use of contacts in the media is an option but will be very selective. Talk shows and the local news are the most two obvious areas of television or radio that can be harnessed by psychologists. Telephoning popular local (and sometimes national) radio talk shows to ask for people to come forward is one possible idea. Radio shows can be very good for this. From my own personal experience, a good response can be had from being on late at night or even early Sunday morning.
Another way to generate participants is to turn a research recruitment drive into a news story. Newspapers are in the business of telling stories. To get the media’s attention, a press release must respond to that priority. Unless a psychologist is making news, by being the first to do something, they will not see your material as ‘news’. Psychologists need to tell the media a story that their readership will be interested in. In 2005, I was at a British Association for the Advancement of Science conference, where Tim Radford, the former science correspondent of The Guardian claimed that “the media is inherently lazy…they are likely pick up a story if you do the work”. That means providing the media with background facts and figures, creating context, simple key messages, lining up experts, and most importantly giving them a story. Psychologists can then tie their need (i.e., finding participants for further research) into that story. It is important to lead with a human-interest story and then add the need for research.
The key is to devise a short one-page media release (long ones will simply be passed over). The media release should have a ‘hook’ so that a journalist, when reading a release, asks “What’s new?” There are other strategies that can work for catching the attention of the media. Psychologists can tie their media releases into a news event that is already happening. For example, on Mother’s Day, a psychologist could lead with a story that links their research area to mothers.
Building ongoing relationships with the media is important and it takes time. If academic psychologists wants to get media attention, they need to support the media as well. This can be helped by making responding to media requests a high priority. If a reporter calls, help them with their story. Unfortunately their deadlines are always short so this can be a challenge. Reporters will remember the psychologist and add you to their roster of available experts. Writing ‘Letters to the Editor’ also help in getting psychologists onto media radar screens (something that I used to the point of excess and – some might say – overkill).
My guess is that many psychologists shy away from aca-media due to fears about trivialisation, misinterpretation and misrepresentation. However, if they realised what the average media journalist has to go through to get their story, perhaps they would not be so dismissive. Psychologists would perhaps appreciate the high degree of professionalism that is involved. It could be argued that the most common source of misinterpretation by the media is the psychologist communicating their research or ideas poorly to the journalist. Journalists cannot and should not be blamed for the poor communication skills of the psychologist. What I have tried to argue here is that the aca-media can be good for psychologist, and that the media can be used to help the psychologist’s research and career – something that (I hope) my own career is good evidence of.
Griffiths, M.D. (1995). ‘Pop’ psychology. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 455-457.
Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Pop psychology and “aca-media”: A reply to Mitchell. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 8, 537-538.
Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Psychology and the media. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 11, 4-5.
Griffiths, M.D. (2001). A moral obligation in aca-media? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 14, 460.
Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Why I believe letter writing can improve your career prospects. Times Higher Education Supplement, January 5, p.14.
Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Other publication outlets: Is there life after refereed journals? In P. Hills (Ed.), Publish or Perish (pp.117-130). Dereham: Peter Francis Publishing.
Kline, P. (1988). Psychology Observed or The Emperor’s New Clothes. London: Routledge.
Radford, T. (2005, September). Comments made in a panel discussion by science journalists at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, University College, Dublin.