2 reporters + 2 researchers = productive conversation

Education reporters and education researchers share overlapping interests and, although cooperation is good, there is much room for improvement.

That was the consensus of a panel Tuesday afternoon during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)  going on this week in San Diego.

In a session titled, ‘From Wedge Issues to Substantial Dialogue: Education Research in the Media’ each panelist offered tips on how to get most from a researcher-media relationship.

From left: Graue, Jaschik, Wells, Moran

From left: Graue, Jaschik, Wells, Moran

“I am filing 3 stories today,” said San Deigo Union-Tribune education reporter Chris Moran, as he portrayed how newspaper industry buyouts and layoffs are exerting lots of pressure on editors and reporters. ” I need story ideas that will provide a lot of  quick hits.”

It’s good for researchers to have an ‘elevator pitch’ or ‘sound bite,’ he said, and even after long conversations with a reporter, researchers should expect to see their work represented in a very focused, limited way.

“Anecdotes are powerful,” Moran said. “I can strike gold with them. I  often lead a story with an anecdote.”

Other tips:
Reporters at local dailies like to use local experts. Know about school districts in your area.

If you are one of the first people to talk to me for a story you will have more of a voice in shaping it.

Make story pitches and research timely. Tie to current news stories.

Beth Graue is professor of education at the U of Wisconsin School of Education and interim director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. She said that as she translates her work for reporters, she does better work and develops a clearer clear idea of her work.

“I try to develop sound bites that are simple enough to tell a story, but complex enough to cover the topic, and so those two exist in tension,” she said.

“I know that most reporters write stories that include quotes from parents and teachers as well as from researchers,” she said.So when I interview I’m speaking on 3 levels at onece; to the reporter, to the reporter’s readers, and AROUND the other people he or she will probably quote.”

Graue has conducted several ‘reverse interviews.” Often she has spent an hour or 2 with a reporter about her research, but still the story has been wrong. So she has made a practice of interviewing the reporters about their writing. She has found that often a reporter writing about early childhood or kindergarten is writing a piece while trying to make an important family decision, so emotion is involved.

Reporters often ask her “How does one decide for an individual child?” And they often ask her what choices she has made for my own children.

Inside Higher Education’s Scott Jaschik (rhymes with classic) said “You guys should be up in arms that most people ignore what you do.”

He said education researchers should be getting more attention because their work is relevant and what they do matters.

But on the rare occasion when a newspaper runs a Page 1 story about research, it is usually about science research; very rarely about education research.

Jaschik recommended that when reporters ask the question “what are you working on?” researchers should be prepared to summarize their work with a single, simple declarative sentence.

“Know how to communicate WHAT MATTERS about your research,” he said. “I am amused when I go to conference presentations because researchers often spend most of their time talking about the study’s literature review and its methodology, but often run out of time before getting to their FINDINGS. Journalists want to know ‘why it matters.’”

As a good example of a publication that translates research findings into plain English he mentioned the magazine “Contexts” published by the American Sociological Association.  It’s written for a lay audience. It’s topical, and isn’t laden with footnotes.

Panelist Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University, said that journalists and researchers should remember that they are helping to shape the public discourse and dialog.

“I think of education journalism and education research as two overlapping circles,” she said, and that it’s important for each to respect and have empathy for what the other does.

Reporters should know the researcher’s expertise, and researchers should know the reporter’s expertise.

Many interviews are conducted via email. But an important synergy takes place during live interviews and phone conversations, she said, as there is more room for give and take. “And our perspectives change. My best experiences have occurred when we make the time to talk live.”

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