Thursday, 9 May 2013

Darling! Wont you have a slice of media tart?

Posted by Jean Adams 

I am totally sold on the importance of researchers engaging with the media. I get that we are publicly funded and have a duty to publicly share our results; that our research is only made more useful by telling more people about it, and the implications of it; and that somehow it makes the world a better place for scientists to be visible and engaged with the world outside of the ivory tower.

I don’t particularly love doing media interviews about my research, but I’m happy to engage with the press and do my best to make sure the right message gets out. I try hard to remember to let the press office know about work that I think might deserve a press release. I do sometimes find their insistence that I get in a taxi to the ITV studios this second a little annoying, but I realise that that’s what I signed up for and it gives me something to say in response to the scary extended-family “how’s work?” question.

What I am entirely less comfortable about is responding to ‘cold’ press enquiries: when someone contacts me either directly, or through the press office, looking for a comment on something or other. The sort of stuff I tend to get the most is local radio – either a request to contribute to the mid-morning phone-in, or to comment on some not very news-y news.

I’ve done it a few times. The phone-in man calls me ‘the doctor’ and every so good humouredly slags off the whole concept of public health as nanny-state-gone-mad-innit at the same time as mildly flirting with me. But mostly I turn them down. I’m happy to be media-active, but I don’t want to be a media tart.

Then last week I somehow found myself agreeing to go on the local radio morning show to chat about Oxfam’s Live Below the Line campaign - where people were challenged to live on a food budget of just £1 per day for five days.

I don’t really know what I was thinking of. I’m not a nutritionist, so I can’t comment in great detail about what might be a healthful diet beyond some common sense stuff on fruit and veg versus cake. I’ve never tried to live on a food budget of £1 a day. I’ve been to quite a few food shops and know what sort of things are cheaper than others – but hasn’t just about everyone in the country?

There is something so inane about much ‘expert’ comment in the media: what sort of expert do you have to be to come up with the suggestion that if you’re shopping on a budget, potatoes might be a better way to go than bananas? Far from making me, and ‘scientists’ in general, more accessible and approachable, I can’t help but think this makes us look stuck up our own backsides. You spent 10 years as a student and can now confirm that potatoes tend to be cheaper than bananas? I might well be publically funded, but I start to feel a little embarrassed when the public realises that’s the sort of insight they’re paying me for.

Of course, there are counter-arguments. Responding to media requests for inane comment builds the sort of trust and collaboration that’s important when I have a piece of research I want to publicise: I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine eighteen months from now when my manuscript has finally made it through peer-review, formatting, proofing, and publication.

Perhaps responding to media requests for inane comment is also part of our role as members of a ‘civic’ university embedded in its city. It makes us visible and shows that we are engaged in the everyday concerns of the local community (or just the local media?).

And finally, responding to media requests for inane comment ensures, as someone reassured me on Twitter the other day, that “some other schmuck” doesn’t end up doing it. At least I know that I will say something sensible. Who knows what some other crank might have said: the best way to eat healthily on a budget is to blow it all on kiwi-fruit.

The problem is I don’t always say something sensible. I always get hi-jacked by some question out of nowhere that I have no idea how to answer. This time it was “is tinned veg as good for you as fresh veg”? Well, I dunno. I think most tinned veg is fairly far down the appetising scale and I’m pretty pleased I don’t have to eat it very often. But probably it’s better than no veg at all?

What do you think? Media darling or media tart?

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your comments. The media can be used by public health to promote and publicise ways of achieving good health and wellbeing. However what annoys me is the way headlines especially in the print media are over sensationalized and used as a way of scoring political points.
    The recent NHS restructuring had very little media coverage however the changes were the greatest since the inception of the NHS.
    Local Public health has now become even more political with it returning back to local government, with many potential benefits for communities, however this brings with it a tighter scrutiny by the press and politicians.