Lost in translation?
By Rebecca Cohoe
When it comes to the mass media, simple is good. A headline or news introduction needs to tell a story fast, or risk losing the audience.
It's an approach that helps lay people digest information across diverse fields, but what happens when the story being reported isn't so easily simplified? It's just one of several challenges facing academic researchers when sharing their work in the mass media.
"In some cases researchers have been working on a very specific topic and know a great deal about it, but find it very difficult to condense or explain it without harming the integrity of the material they've studied so long," explained Ivan Muzychka, Memorial's Associate Director of Communications.
So why share at all? "Increasingly, science and scholarly activity are shedding light onto our everyday lives and communities," said Muzychka. "To be engaged and informed citizens, people need access to this information."
According to Mr. Muzychka, "the media provide a platform whereby many more people will hear about a research story from Memorial. We have our own channels; however, having a story on television or on the radio reaches far more people than if we just used our own distribution channels."
Memorial School of Nursing researcher, and Canada Research Chair in Health Aging, Dr. Wendy Young, also believes in the positive social benefits of sharing university research through the media, but can also point to several examples where media exposure has also contributed positively to specific research projects.
"We have an ongoing project with the mayor's advisory committee on seniors," explained Dr. Young. "Our research team is about to do a survey asking people to comment on various issues, including housing and transportation here in St. Johns. To prepare for that phase, our masters student Devonne Ryan drafted a PSA and sent it to Michelle (Osmond), our communications coordinator, who will share it with the media. Many seniors are very concerned with fraud, so with the psa and media coverage, the residents will know that we at MUN are administering the survey.
"They'll have contact information and an idea of what the project is about. It really helps with our research in terms of recruitment and trust."
She also emphasized the value of sustaining a working relationship with the media over the course of a project's life. For example, after entering an ongoing project into Yaffle, Memorial's online connecting tool, Dr. Young got a phone call from CBC reporter, Christine Davies.
"She is a regular user of Yaffle. She emailed me, gave me her contact information, then we set up a meeting. She was interested in keeping in touch. Once our manuscripts are published and peer reviewed we'll talk to her again."
Media stories about research also have the potential to help break down some of the barriers and perceived barriers that exists between universities and communities.
"I do think there's still a perception of the ivory tower, but it's really just that: a perception. I don't believe that it exists in the way that some people think it does, in that it's systematically constructed and wilfully maintained, though," explained Mr. Muzychka. "We're all aware of the fact that the university receives a large portion of our funding from the public purse, and therefore we do feel a duty to communicate to the public, to government and business leaders, to journalists, to alumni, and the list goes on, about what we're doing here at the university.
"This is no mere public relations exercise as some cynics might put it," he stated. "It's an essential part of the university's mission to connect, communicate and engage with the public, not just at Memorial, but at institutions across the country and around the world. In reality, the assumption that a university can exist in isolation has been gone for a long time."
"I think there's huge benefit in sharing," agreed Ramona Dearing, host of CBC Radio's popular call-in show, Radio Noon. "The public relations people at Memorial are pretty good about putting out news releases on research. Reporters, they're information junkies – we're fascinated by research, so any word of something new that has come out interests us."
"Next, we decide 'is this something important for our listeners to know or something they'd find interesting,'" said Ms. Dearing. In the case of Radio Noon, the range of Memorial faculty members and researchers who have appeared on the show is broad – it would be hard to come up a department or faculty that hasn't been featured at least once.
"I'm just remembering a recent interview with psychology professor Dr. Carole Peterson about early childhood memory. It was just fascinating. After the interview, I had people coming up to me and telling me about their first memories. It really resonated with our listeners. It might not have changed their day to day lives, but it took them somewhere," said Ms. Dearing.
"Of course at other times the research is very practical. It may be about a health issue where they're keen to be up to date," she explained. "Some of the work that Dr. Fereidoon Shahidi (from Memorial's Department of Biochemistry) has done in food research comes to mind. I spoke to him about seal oil many times, and also about the health benefits of tea, both of which would have a direct bearing on our listeners."
Of course there are some challenges inherent in using the media to disseminate research findings, both for the reporter and the research.
As Ms. Dearing laughingly admitted, reporting on research can be tricky: "I would say the first issue is wondering if you yourself understand the study," she said. "That's key. You want to have a sense of what it's about beforehand , but it can be hard to read two hundred pages of academic text."
According to Ms. Dearing, the interviewer needs to act in the audience's interest, making sure to get clarification on tricky points. "Sometimes you just ask the basic questions. I think that I just try to be humble and say 'I'm not sure I followed that' or 'am I on the right track' when things get complicated. I understand that it's very difficult for a researcher to condense years of work into a five or six minute interview. Obviously, there are always facets that they have to leave out."
Ms. Dearing is quite complimentary about the researchers she's interviewed – most have done well on the air. Still, she has a bit of advice for researchers who are interested in making sure that they present their research in as clearly and faithfully as possible in the media.
"Honestly, if they know a bit about the medium it's never going to hurt.
Sometimes that can actually help frame the information."
She also added that researchers are probably best off just being themselves. "I hate the idea that someone is super conscious of every word they're saying because they're trying to make it acceptable."
Mr. Muzychka also believes that being informed is half the battle when it comes to giving a good interview.
"The media training course that I offer to faculty and staff focuses on how they can make encounters with the media more productive. Generally, people from all walks of life have an apprehension about going on camera or being interviewed. Most of those fears can be dispelled once the whole process is illuminated."
And it is illumination that's at the heart of information sharing back and forth between the university and the community. Ultimately, concluded Mr. Muzychka, conveying information through the media is about sharing the work that happens at Memorial with the people who may benefit from it. "We hope that by communicating, they'll be better informed about what's happening in their communities, province, country and world."