Learning the Ropes: Public communication for researchers

The 2009 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association has drawn to a close, but for another day and a half 25 early career education researchers are still at work. They’re participating in an intensive workshop devoted to communicating research with the media.

Today the group heard from editors, reporters, and an influential researcher and public intellectual.

Before you continue reading my summary, please see the thoughtful post by participant Sara Goldrick-Rab, who goes out of her way to communicate effectively with the public and, in my opinion, serves as a model for how researchers can provide a valuable community service.

And see this post by my fellow panelist Reidar Mosvold on why he, as a mathematics researcher and educator, takes time out of his day to post to his blog.

Speakers  included Larry Gordon, the Los Angeles Times, who covers topics including college admissions, tuition, freshman performance, graduation rates, tuition, and measuring performance of charters.

Stephanie Banchero, Chicago Tribune, said that her paper does not write about research, qua research, i.e., don’t expect a press release to result in a big story. But the paper does use research findings to buttress or refute their stories, which tend to focus on the Chicago public school system.

Emily Alpert, Voice of San Diego, encouraged the early career researchers to consider what reaction do you want to provoke when submitting an Op-Ed piece.
It’s important also to make clear how one’s research relates to current events, or to a soccer mom. “Develop a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ summary of your specialty.”

Think tanks package their work very expertly, she said. They virtually write the story for you. Their press releases include directions: “Here is the nut paragraph,” and “here is contact information for 4 willing interview subjects. But we don’t see that in material released from universities.”

She notices a ‘schizophrenic’ attitude among universities when it comes to making faculty accessible to reporters. Some simply choose not to, while others distribute faculty guidebooks and even provide their home phone numbers. It varies from school to school.

Liz McMillen, Chronicle of Higher Ed, said there are many ways to organize an Op-Ed piece.
– The “everything you know is wrong!” approach,
– here is how to think differently about a problem.
In every case, though, make sure you show why the reader should care about your piece. Identify a problem, then offer your solution.
She discouraged Op-Ed writers from submitting the same piece to multiple publications at the same time.

Amy Stuart Wells, Teachers College, Columbia University, encouraged participants to find a news peg on which to hang the Op-Ed piece.
Demonstrate how you are an authority on the subject.
Show how your research interacts with a larger body of work.

Don’t write in academic jargon, she cautioned. “A couple days before writing your piece, don’t read any academic journals. Instead, read good popular journalism like you find in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the NY Times, or Esquire. Analyze the cadence of the language, the voice, the sentence structure.”

Wells advised taking advantage of the news staff or PR staff in your college or university. Ask them to vet your piece, ask them to help you shop it around.
It’s good to develop a relationship with an editor. If someone accepts one of your pieces, keep working with that person.

Richard Colvin, Hechinger Institute, Columbia University, advised thinking broadly about the current news climate. Tie your research into the issues and themes people are broadly thinking about. Today’s issues for example would include the economy, income tax day, Somali pirates, and the anniversary of Columbine. For that matter, the anniversary of any important event can serve as a good news peg.

Linda Darling Hammond, Stanford University, was asked to speak about the role of the public intellectual. She said that a good public intellectual is someone who can translate their micro-level research into a broader set of systemic questions. Speaking out about your area of expertise is not an ego trip, she said; it’s about the public good.

She thinks of everything in terms of teaching, even when talking to politicians and policy makers. What does my audience already know? How can I connect with that? Who have they already spoken to? What can I build on?

Think how you can represent your work in terms of analogies and metaphors.

A public intellectual should have three main ideas to speak about. No more.

Timing is important. Watch the legislative calendar and agenda. Be prepared to give policymakers the information they need when they need it. The policy making timeline is very different from the academic timeline.

It’s OK to write an Op-Ed piece based on qualitative research. Qualitative research is credible if it is done impeccably. Qualitative research produces good stories, and lots of politics is driven by stories.

Policymaking follows two timelines simultaneously. There is the long arc of policy development and aggregating evidence (e.g., the global warming issue), but at the same time there’s the short-term, immediate process of getting bills passed.

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