I spent a lot of time in 2013 trying to make a coherent case that the various, rather haphazard, activities I had undertaken with the broadcast media and other non-HEI institutions over the past few years had ‘impact’. Impact was an important element of the REF2014 and, as Andrew and Glynn outlined in the February 2014 blog, each unit of assessment had to submit a certain number of case studies, depending on the number of academic staff submitted. Trying to make sense of the REF impact guidelines and rules, and fitting my own work and activities within these to make a logical impact statement, was both a frustrating and interesting process, not least because I had time to take stock of the contacts I had made, the types of people and institutions I had worked with, and the range of projects I had contributed to. These included being a guest curator for a museum exhibition, providing workshops for the cast of a leading London theatre production, advising on the script for a historical film that would be used in schools, and being interviewed on radio and TV as an academic ‘expert’. This all came together fairly randomly: there was no master-plan, no advice, no self-promotion involved. As you will see below, some of my experiences have been less than fortifying, and I’m not especially engaged with new social media networks (well, not at all – when History Lab Plus asked me to contribute to a blog, I was scared). However, with impact likely to play an ever-increasing role in future REF assessments, in grant applications, and also job interviews, it has become important for early career researchers, as well as established academics, to engage with the impact agenda (fuzzy as it is) and I hope some of the following observations will help.
How do I get my name known as an academic expert?
As academic experts we have a lot to offer journalists, radio and TV producers, who are not specialists in the stories they are investigating and who therefore value professional input and an authoritative voice. Researchers in the media spend a lot of time on the web and the phone trying to find that special angle or interesting perspective. You could provide it. But how do they find you? There are several practical steps that you can take: making sure your personal or university webpage is up-to-date, being listed as an expert in your university media unit or press office, and listing yourself in the national expert databases such at The Women’s Room. I am also reliably informed that engaging with social media through a personal blog and twitter can be a transformative platform, in terms of disseminating your research and building up networks.
There are also the expert training days held intermittently by the BBC, amongst other institutions (see for example a 2012 Call for Female Experts and the highly competitive AHRC New Generation Thinkers scheme). The route that has been most productive for me, however, has been my involvement on the boards of national academic societies, which I did from a very early stage in my career. Researchers often contact the secretaries or media officer of these societies as their first port of call, who will then pass on requests to members of their committees or their wider membership. Being involved in this process has led to me filming in a cow barn in Hereford and dressing up in a Land Army uniform and making silage on a cold November day in Hampshire – what glamour!
Learning to work with the media
The media works at a very different pace than academia, and operates within very distinct parameters. They are often looking for a story that casts light on a current news item, or a story with local interest or a personal angle that appeals to a wide audience. Getting used to working within their limitations, and not feeling demoralized or soiled by your experiences, can take time. I know many established academics who simply refuse to work with the media: they see the process as exploitative, that the media acts as a ‘leech’ and gives little in return. Certainly I was stung by some of my early encounters: researchers who rang up, flattered me and then extracted all my knowledge and suggestions without so much as a by your leave; a TV producer who was incredulous that I was unavailable for filming on a particular day because I was at a conference in the USA, and despite the fact we had previously spent hours setting up the interview and the factual background, went elsewhere.
However, my overwhelming experience is that media researchers and producers work very hard, with limited resources and to incredibly tight deadlines, to produce their programmes. They are desperate for academic input into this process but have to be realistic and have little room for manoeuvre. If you are not in the office or answering email that day they will go elsewhere. You will be just one name on a long list of possibles. If you cannot film or give an interview on a particular day they will find someone who can. It is not personal, but pragmatic. Moreover, even those uncomfortable encounters that seem to go nowhere have their benefits, and will help you in the process of building up contacts and becoming a known, and approachable, name. Once you prove to be interested and reliable, they will use you again.
How do I maintain academic integrity?
Communicating your research and ideas through the broadcast media can help disseminate your ideas and knowledge to a wide audience – much greater than through traditional academic publications routes. It can also lead to new contacts and new adventures. However, there are drawbacks. Although programmes will do ‘fact checking’ after filming, and make sure that the claims being made are accurate, overall you have little or no control over what is broadcast, and how your contribution is edited. When I filmed for BBC2’s Victorian Farm we spent time filming in the fields, where I was talking about female and child labour in agriculture (my research expertise), and time filming indoors, in the kitchen and bedroom, where my knowledge of bedbugs and 19th century cooking ingredients was slightly sketchy. They broadcast footage from the latter scenes and none from the former.
With a live broadcast there is always an element of the unknown. To maintain integrity it is vital you know beforehand exactly what is expected of you. Who are you going to be talking to or interviewed by? Where will the filming take place? How long will it last? (it will always take much longer than they say!) What themes will be covered? In my experience, before you get to the stage of filming or being interviewed live, you will have spend some considerable time with the researchers and producers going over the process: make sure you use this time wisely to ask anything you are unsure about.
Working with the media can be a frustrating. It can be boring – there is lots of hanging around. But it can also be fascinating. There is plenty to be gained from it as an academic, from building up an impact profile, to learning about how programmes are constructed and how an industry, very different from academia operates. It will also get you thinking about why you research what you do, and how you communicate that research to a variety of audiences.
Nicola Verdon is a Reader in History at Sheffield Hallam University. She is a British historian, focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her research centres on the social and economic history of the countryside and she has published widely on employment patterns, female and child labour, farm and rural households. Currently she is working on a history of the farmworker in England from 1850 to the present day, which will be published by Palgrave.