Nowhere was this more evident than when Birmingham City University celebrated its unique Media Champions training programme at the beginning of June. Channel 5’s Killers Behind Bars presenter Professor David Wilson, arguably the UK’s leading criminologist, joined Child Protection Expert and ITV journalist Mark Williams-Thomas, best known for exposing Jimmy Savile, to share an insight into the world of academic publishing as they know it. The session, hosted by the BBC’s Political Editor for the Midlands Patrick Burns, also featured up and coming academic Sophie Rowe. As a recently trained BCU Media Champion, Sohpie is about to embark on her PhD and will be combining both academic and media engagement tools from the start of her academic career.
Media Champions, recently short-listed in the 2013 Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards, is a unique partnership between the University’s Press Office, School of Media and Faculty academics. We use the experience, skills and knowledge of our Skillset-accredited School of Media to develop and deliver bespoke media training for our rising academic stars to equip them with the tools to promote their work more effectively through popular communication channels. Faculties nominate and pay for their staff development.
Past experience has taught me that the mere mention of a press release about academic research – in plain English – was enough to send shivers down the spine of many established academics, who felt that this form of ‘dumbing down’ was wholly inappropriate. Encouraging them to tweet, write blogs, record video diaries and speak to the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail would have appeared preposterous. Not so now.
As Sophie put it, if academics have something insightful and brilliant to say about current issues, it would seem a waste of both their talent and the opportunity to share such relevant research with a wider audience than simply those who read academic journals. An article in a national newspaper can reach thousands of individuals – more if it is picked up on twitter, as was the case with an article on US drone strikes in Pakistan by senior lecturer and terrorism expert Imran Awan.
Bringing academic research to a mass audience should not be seen as dumbing down, but as a means of ensuring that ordinary individuals – the people who vote in the politicians and have the strength in numbers to protest and force change – can learn more about issues (sometimes deliberately hidden) that affect their everyday lives.
For me, this is where the real impact of scholarly investigation lies. As traumatic and horrific as it has been, just look at the consequences and subsequent fall out of Mark’s investigation into Jimmy Savile. If the mass media had not picked up on the story in the way that it has, I wonder whether we would still be seeing the daily trickle of new charges and accusations or whether the victims would have continued to stay silent. As a result of the widespread publicity, which put considerable pressure on the BBC as well as the authorities, a line in the sand has now been drawn. Celebrities are as accountable as the rest of us; no matter what actor Jeremy Irons may think, there are no grades of abuse – abuse is abuse.
At BCU we have chosen to champion and support those academics who are willing to put themselves in a media spotlight. Unfortunately, as David has found, the public are as likely to comment on your appearance as they are your research. While Mark knows only too well that putting yourself out there will inevitably draw criticism, academics therefore need to steel themselves and not be deterred. For David, Mark, Sophie and all our media champions, the publicity that comes with the Media Champions programme is not an ego trip; it is not about achieving celebrity status, but is about finding ways of using academic context in a popular way.
If media and publicity can affect real change, as it has done in the case of the Savile investigation, then courting the journalists and acknowledging the reach of social media is surely a wise move. We may have to dumb down some of the terminology, but there’s nothing dumb in getting support and understanding from the masses – is there?