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Making an impact: Why political scientists should engage with the media

Image by PublicDomainPictures
Image by PublicDomainPictures

As there are costs to dealing with the media, it’s best to understand the many benefits. Once you do, the costs seem insignificant. I’ve listed eight, in roughly decreasing order of importance. Not all of these benefits apply to every type of engagement with the media. But most will, and every engagement has the potential for at least one of them.

1. Because you should want to disseminate your findings and work as widely as possible. I’ve ranked this one top because it seems to me to be almost a moral duty of a social scientist. What is the point of social science that doesn’t engage with society? Even if your target audience for your findings are elites, say, rather than the wider public, having a media profile is a very good way to engage with them; elites read newspapers too, you know.

2. Because it is also now in your interests to do it. The funding councils now ask about impact, so does the REF, and as a result universities are starting to take it more seriously. The bad news is that the formalistic way things like the REF treat ‘impact’ is enough to put anyone off doing it. The good news is that because most academics are (still) so rubbish at this sort of thing, the bar is set low. Almost anything looks good.

3. Because you’ll gain access, knowledge and contacts. Doors open as a result. My colleague, Steve Fielding, who works on political fiction, got better access to authors as a result of doing a Radio 4 documentary on the topic than he would ever have managed otherwise. Chats before or after doing broadcast interviews are often incredibly useful in their own right – much more honest and open than those that are broadcast – as well as opening up the possibility for future contact.

4. Because you’ll learn to communicate better. Doing media work – of whatever sort – is fantastic training in communicating well and clearly. Think about what Nick Robinson manages to convey in 30 seconds, and then think about some of your lectures…

5. Because it’ll make you think about your research questions. Often you’ll be asked a question and you’ll realise that not only don’t you know the answer, but you hadn’t even thought about the question. Just because things are not the questions academics are asking about doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

6. Because it produces benefits to the university in terms of publicity. University press offices will love you.  Our University Press Office once worked out that I was worth half a million quid a year to them in free publicity. Over a three year project – and with a generous interpretation of the exchange rate – this allowed me to call myself the Six Million Dollar Man.

7. Because it can be fun. This one should probably be higher up the list. Because however you choose to engage with the media, it is often really enjoyable.

8. Because you might make some money. This one, however, should definitely be last. Not all outlets pay, and many of the really important ones don’t. Is it worth doing the Today Programme for free? Yes. Is it worth doing Radio Scotland for £50? Maybe, depending on what else you’ve got on. Is it worth doing Radio Lancashire for free? It is if you are trying to gain experience. Whatever, you will not get rich from doing this. Even op ed pieces in major broadsheets don’t pay huge whack. But still, it’s useful for beer money (occasionally quite good beer money) and it is at least proof that money is not the only reward in life.

Philip Cowley


Published inAcademic Impact


  1. Agreed. The only advice I would give (to anyone not at the Curtice or Cowley level) is to accept that you will be the equivalent of a late night booty call to journalists. They will call you at the last minute for a comment for a deadline that is about to pass. If they don’t get you, they will try someone else (in fact, they probably left messages for a few people at the same time). So, few academics can afford to be reluctant participants: if you want the booty, you have to act fast and encourage them to call you again next time.

    • Am tempted to ask ‘what’s a booty call’? But, anyway, agree. However, the trick is how to shift your engagements with journalists away from the reactive booty call onto discussing your work. We have a post going up shortly that discusses exactly that…

  2. SM SM

    I am amused by the fact that you don’t mention possible benefits to society. This is a very self-centred list of benefits, which I suppose is simply representative of where most of the academy have their minds these days. Of course, because of that it probably isn’t realistic to think that communicating with the outside world might make it a better place….but would still be nice to see a mention of that somewhere!

    • Er, what else do you think ‘What is the point of social science that doesn’t engage with society?’ means? I ranked it top, and said it was a moral duty. What more do you want?

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