What reporters really want

Russo and Banchero

If academic education researchers want to see more of their studies covered in the media and influencing public policy and education practice, they need to ramp up their resources and their efforts to compete with aggressive and well funded public policy think tanks that get their message out quickly, often, and in reporter friendly fashion.

In this morning’s AERA session called Going Public: Q&A with the media on communicating your research, a roomful of journalists, researchers, and communicators agreed that education researchers and their institutions need to do a better job of sharing their findings with the media and the public. But they need to help reporters do their jobs.

Panelist Alexander Russo, of This Week In Education, said academic education research faces intense competition from think tank research reports that claim to be nonpartisan and apolitical. Think tanks send out news releases that are digestible, sexy, and timely, and there are dramatically more of them now than ten years ago. They are willing to say things an academic may not be willing to say.

Education researchers might consider creating a listserv or discussion group as a meeting place for journalists and researchers to discuss stories in the making, Russo suggested; a place where reporters could talk with researchers who are “willing to spend time in care and feeding of education journalists.”

Researchers and institutional communicators should follow the media, see what education stories are being covered and jump on the story with an offer of experts in that topic. Education schools should keep their ‘experts’ list up to date and customize them to address hot topics. Provide these resources to journalists ‘just in time,’ Russo suggested. “Hand the journalist the key to the lock when they are standing at that door.”

But even given that kind of help, reporters may not be able to provide as much coverage as may be deserved. In the 10 years she has been covering education, panelist Stephanie Banchero of the Chicago Tribune says she seen her newsroom’s education reporting staff shrink from 10 or 11 reporters to 3.

Journalists just don’t have time to read all the reports that come to their attention. And even if they did, they find that some reports are out of date, by as much as a year. Now that online information is instantly accessible now, what do academics and institutions do to keep up? Research has to get out fast enough that it means something, and the reports need to be presented in a compelling way. Lots of researchers shy away from making compelling statements and are reticent to go beyond just saying ‘this is the data.’

Banchero and McQuillen

To help reporters create more coverage of education research, she said, it’s important to establish a relationship with a reporter over time. And rather than just sharing the findings of completed studies, consider sharing information about research that is being conducted now, in progress. Reporters appreciate it when researchers and communicators are willing to go beyond jumping on hot current stories, too, and letting them know what they consider important, even if it’s not a hot topic.

Panelist Larry McQuillen of the American Institutes for Research, offered the perspective of a former newspaper reporter and white house press corps member. He observed that much research does not find its way into public policy because researchers too often write their reports for each other. They don’t rewrite for the public or for policymakers, so many research articles go over the heads of policymakers unless they happen to be specialists in a particular education field.

Russo said that although he constantly receives releases from education schools and university PR offices, he takes them with a grain of salt because “they generally don’t talk about the strengths or weaknesses of the study design, or whether the findings support or modify previous research.” He said he’s like to see a research outlet based on the model of the JAMA, a “high prestige outlet that’s unassailable.” Another helpful project would be a blog written by a credentialed education academic who would comment on issues of the day and point to resources that would interest the press and the public.

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