Resources for Ed Researchers Who Want to Reach out to the News Media

  • Reporters rarely mention peer-reviewed education research in news media coverage. Some of the reasons may surprise you, according to research I describe in my April 2015 Educational Researcher article.
  • As with almost any human interaction, trust is key. For instance, reporters will need to be able to trust that you will not waste their time with rambling treatises, that you will call or email right back on deadline, that you will provide accurate information and patient, clear explanations. Trust is obviously a two-way street. It is fine to ask a reporter, before your story runs, can you read me back any quotes you use from our interview? It’s also fine (and often wise) to ask, what is the focus of your story?  Develop trusted relationships with reporters when they are not on deadline and you are not swamped with end-of-semester grading.(Summers are typically a slower period for ed journalists.) Go out for coffee or for lunch. Offer to vet studies in your field that reporters are considering covering. Offer to recommend experts or research related to topics in the news. Provide journalists with background information on the big issues they are covering. Toss out a few story ideas based on your area of expertise but don’t give up if one person doesn’t bite–maybe someone else would be interested. Or maybe this same reporter will be interested in your future story ideas.
  • “Off the record.” Three words: Don’t say it. Or-use it sparingly. You might have seen it in movies but, quite honestly, the vast majority of things people have told me “off the record” have been of little interest to anyone other than themselves. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to sift through all the irrelevant (albeit often interesting) things people share during the course of an interview and select the relevant information. So constantly saying “this is off the record” just makes you sound kind of self important-like-you think everything you say is Watergate-style important and relevant when, quite honestly, it probably isn’t. It’s also a waste of time, both for you and for the reporter. Reporters have little use for information they cannot share with the public.  There’s nothing worse than listening to someone go on and on without taking a breath only to conclude with “that’s all off the record,” or, its evil twin, “you can’t use my name.” Although anonymous sources are fairly common in some kinds of political reporting, they are frowned upon in most other types of reporting. At the very least, you need a good reason to remain anonymous-as in-you might be arrested, or tracked down by a violent ex-spouse.  That said..
  • At times, people really do have important information that they hesitate to share freely using their own names. If something is truly off the record,  or if you do need to remain anonymous, keep the information to yourself unless you  trust the journalist, in which case, an occasional “off the record” or “don’t use my name” is definitely appropriate. In my experience, journalists do honor that trust, but I don’t know every journalist in the world so I am sure there are those who do not. If you do need to be anonymous, it is a good idea to explain the stakes you face if you are exposed and have a detailed discussion of what you mean by “anonymous” (e.g., whether or not you are comfortable naming your institution, your role, etc.). The reason is that…
  • There is no one standard definition of journalistic terms like “anonymous” “off the record” or “on background.” Journalists have no AMA-we are not licensed with a standard set of rules that everyone follows. If you are using these terms, make sure you define them with individual reporters. Ditto for “embargo.” Clarify what you mean. For instance, can journalists share the embargoed material with the people they interview during the embargo period, as long as those people agree not to disseminate the material?  Or are you assuming that no one will see the material or even be interviewed about it before the embargo lifts?
  • Sometimes academics can get overly wedged into their specialty siloes. Expand your views of your own expertise. That doesn’t mean that early childhood experts need to chime in on higher ed. But you can probably speak intelligently on topics closely related to your subspecialty, especially if you have taught them in class. If you can’t speak to a topic, try to refer the reporter to someone else who can.
  • Remember that most reporters work for outlets with a geographic focus.  So don’t try to pitch a story about Wyoming to a reporter who covers a specific school district in California. Many times, you will have more success if you take the time to find the right person for your story idea than if you bomb everyone with a mass email. For instance, Education Week has reporters who cover specific areas of education, including education research. Look at the home page to figure out who’s covering what.
  • Everyone wants to be covered by the New York Times but there is only one New York Times. Don’t ignore your local outlets because you think they are “crappy.” (They are probably under-resourced and they probably aren’t entirely crappy either any more than your university is crappy because it’s not Harvard.) True, you want national exposure but where do you think national reporters get many of their ideas? From the local outlets you think are too crappy for your work. Also, the wire services are extremely important disseminators. If they pick up a story about your work that runs in your “crappy local rag,” you will get all kinds of national/regional exposure.
  • Do: get to know reporters’ pet interests. These are the longterm projects they have pitched, the big series they have completed. Don’t: Call up the day after a major feature runs on, say,  unschooling and say, I have a story for you on unschooling–unless you can really expose something incredibly brand new or interesting, or if the story is one piece of an ongoing issue that has been in the news for days or weeks, that reporter is done with unschooling for the time being.
  • Remember that news outlets compete. This means that it doesn’t typically help your case to say, “You should want to cover this. The TV station up the street already did.” If you have a piece of news that you feel certain everyone will want to cover, it is often fairest to treat everyone equally by alerting every outlet at the same time. For a complicated story, you can try issuing the study to everyone at the same time and then “embargoing’ it until, say, a week later so everyone can have a fair shot of reporting on your work. Or, you may try instead to work exclusively with one reporter at one outlet who is interested in the topic and willing to put in the time to do a good job.  If a reporter comes across your work and is interested in covering it-or covering it when it is ready for public consumption- he may feel duped if you then turn around and distribute your work to everyone in the world at the same time you share it with him. Depending on the situation, consider giving the first shot to the person who “discovered” your work and you may be rewarded with loyalty in return.
  • Reporters don’t necessarily have the time or expertise to read your journal articles. Try creating study snapshots like these. Or write up a news release like this. Reporters also love “top ten” lists. (So do audiences.) This AERA list of the most frequently viewed articles of 2014 got some good play.  Could you work with journal editors in your field to create a similar list about your subspecialty?

DIY: With social media, academics have an unprecedented opportunity to reach the public without the assistance of the news media. 

  • Write op-eds about your own research or the research you know very well, i.e. your area of expertise. If you submit a piece that is simply based on your opinion, you are just another Jo Schmo with an opinion and people with opinions are a dime a dozen. Make sure you read the guidelines before you submit your piece, sticking to length and topic limits.
  • Try blogging. Or writing for an established blog.
  • Try Tweeting your own research and the research of others. If a news outlet covers your research, Tweet it, Facebook it, share it with everyone–the author will be appreciative and many people don’t think to do that–even people who work in public relations! Tweet at least once a day for a few weeks and see what happens. Follow journalists and they may follow you. A few basic tips: Typically, each Tweet should be a discrete thought, not the second sentence of a lengthy paragraph of strung-together Tweets. Tweeting visuals (photos, graphs, videos) attracts more attention than Tweeting plain text. Use hashtags to help people find your Tweets (Try starting with #edresearch). Need inspiration? Here are a few examples of academic education researchers who are very active on Twitter:
    • Sherman Dorn, Arizona State, @shermandorn
    • Susan Dynarski, University of Michigan, @dynarski
    • Sara Goldrick-Rab, University of Wisconsin, @saragoldrickrab
    • Tressie McMillan Cottom, Virginia Commonwealth University, @tressiemcphd
    • Morgan Polikoff, University of Southern California,  @mpolikoff



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