Using the media story for academic work

A great deal of academic work by students relies upon journalism as a ready source of contemporary material, but it is important to realise that journalistic values and academic values are not the same. The need for using broadsheet newspapers, or taped radio presentations, or even videotaped documentaries is probably inevitable, but awareness is needed of the different agendas of academia and media.

Both construct and present contemporary knowledge, yet professions have separate identities and goals. One deals in complex questions and the difficulty of answers, whilst the other wants simple questions and simple answers (Fenton, et al, 1997, 11).

Ideally an academic approach seeks after the truth, or (if "truth" is problematic) an ethic of a critical approach of pursuing a close argument that leaves nothing known out that can change the argument and its conclusions. In other words, the academic approach seeks to know the tradition in which it is set, seeks out new knowledge and arguments and tackles what comes to light into the stream of the argument presented.

Nevertheless, especially social science academics realise that their work is never value free, because knowledge is constructed and ambiguous, whereas journalists whose role is to present material to an audience and quickly think there are facts to be given, objectively, simply and speedily. This means a bias to empiricism, and journalists often prefer statistics (explained and explainable) (Fenton, et al, 1997, 3).

Journalism wants to bring forward what is in the academic journals and conferences to a wider public, but this is on the basis of what the journalist thinks (thinks, rather than knows) the reader or viewer or listener is interested in. If this is not of a direct concern and interest then, to be of a wider interest, there has to be an entertainment value or shock value. Stories presented on the television news can be analysed on this basis! It means including human experience to develop audience empathy (Fenton, et al, 1997, 3). Subjects that are difficult, that cannot be written in so many words or fit within three minutes get ignored in favour of those that can be said quickly, and are open to illustration.

Journalists are rarely specialists in the field, or are given specialities. Imagine a conference on theology and contemporary trends. The journalist will want to focus on certain personalities. Does the bishop believe this, or - shock, horror - not? Notice it is a Church of England bishop, on the basis of establishment, whereas any other type of minister does hardly matter. Then while the conference discusses theological detail perhaps around the impact of postmodernism, the journalist just asks Do you believe in this creed and that just as it is written. Should any Jews or Muslims discuss postmodernism at that conference, they are ignored because no one knows anything about that to start with anyway.

The Daily Mirror came along last year and they wrote a piece about lesbian sociologists with big boots and short hair. They [the sociologists] weren't very pleased. I did try to warn them (quoted in Fenton, et al, 1997, 7).

But even the more "responsible" media has to fit in the material to a certain shortened presentation, and there may be a political or "political balance" agenda behind the construction. So the whole purpose of journalism is another kind of simplified, bowlderised, presentation from the academic. The academic may try to present the subject area but realises that the filtering process in the media is another kind of construction of knowledge. The sin of misinformation is preferred over the sin of boring or antagonising the imagined audience (Rorty, 1991, Fenton, et al, 1997).

News values regarding academic areas include:

(Fenton, et al, 1997, 16-17)

Nowadays academics have realised the need for promotion. A positive relationship with the media is necessary in a competitive academic environment when funding has to be acquired (a measure of relevance is exposure of subjects in the media) and students have to be attracted. Academic work needs to be projected further into the public arena (Fenton, et al, 1997, 6-7).

There may be a press officer, and a good one will satisfy many a lazy (or busy) journalist. On the other hand a press officer can be a barrier to getting to what the real academics think (Fenton, et al, 1997, 11).

Some academics cross over into the media. A good example is Laurie Taylor, a sociologist, who became a radio presenter. Inevitably the academic has to give in to the time and presentational constraints of the media. This means ditching the ambiguities and theoretical discussions that can be the very basis of academic writing. It means discussing the headline areas, or the 'moral' issues around the topics which do interest the academic.

Some academics write for the press. Inevitably it means producing the leading first paragraph when all the issues are presented in one go, followed by successive detail. But the academic realises that the "entry level" of the reader is so low regarding the subject that no assumptions of prior knowledge can be made and this inevitably contrains the explanation.

Sometimes broadcasters try to bring in the academic sphere. A good example is Melvyn Bragg, who introduces academics to raise the issues for themselves in radio talks. Yet then like the academic writers in the press, because of the audeince they are limited to either the headlines of contemporary events, or introducing the basic ground rules of certain concepts being worked with.

For television, the possibilties become even more constrained, and with the extra burden that what is said has to be accompanied by pictures. This may suit some subjects, like natural history and biology, better than others, but much in academic life has a poorer time than the history programme presented according to levels of certainty and objectivity which rarely exist and which show a poverty of suitable pictures.

The most crass recent example of journalism representing an academic subject was a BBC 1 programme on Jesus of Nazareth where the claim was made that "we now know" what Jesus looked like, on the basis of finding any skull from the period and building up a face according to forensic techniques. This followed on from fanciful conclusions which claimed to follow research; whilst anyone aware of the research realised the actual difficulty of conclusions and feared the resulting presentation. All the press carried these portraits, because it was good publicity for the programme. But it was rubbish, and no student could have used it.

One of the problems is that journalists are collective as well as competitive (Fenton, et al, 1997, 14-15). They meet each other quite often and look at how each is tackling a particular story. If the subject area is difficult and requires specialist knowledge, they are likely to consult each other more in this "manufacturing" process (15). The result is that the prejudices of presentation get reinforced, not challenged.

So when material appears in the press, on radio, and on television, questions should immediately be asked:

Asking these questions allows use of a story but critically. This is the only way a student should approach a news story!

Adrian Worsfold


Fenton, N., Bryaman, A., Deacon, D., Birmingham, P. (1997), '"Sod off and find us a boffin": journalists and the social science conference' in The Sociological Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Februrary 1997, Keele: Keele University/ Blackwell Publishers.