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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Turning knowledge into news

Why do we often see the same old faces on television? I’m not talking about the usual repertory company of politicians who grace or blight our TV screens every day. Rather, it is the army of ‘experts’ who regularly pop up to deliver their expertise – whether the topic is climate change, relations with Russia, Bank Holiday traffic chaos or the winner of X-Factor.

The simple answer is: news channels tend to return to the interviewees they know because they trust them to put across what they want to say in a way that fits the bill for the TV station and its viewers.

It’s a similar case when it comes to a press journalist ringing up an expert to quiz them about a particular piece of research they’ve produced or a report they are publishing. If you give the journalist information in a way that makes it easy for them to handle, you’ll go straight into the contacts book.

That’s the critical barrier that researchers – indeed any experts – have to cross to make headway with the news media. Researchers and journalists generally have different approaches to life, or at least to what they write. Reporters writing an article about the findings of a report have to cut to the chase from the start of their piece. They have to ask themselves a number of important questions. Why is this report of news value today? Who’s affected by the findings? What are the consequences? Do the findings represent a first in this particular area?

“A journalist will want to concentrate on the ‘human interest’ angle of a piece of research rather than the dry recitation of how the researchers have arrived at their conclusions”

By contrast, researchers tend to come from a different direction. Their preference is to outline the background first, along with the context and any related analysis. For a journalist this simply delays the moment when we get to the heart of the story.

A journalist will also want to concentrate on the human interest angle of a piece of research rather than the dry recitation of how the researchers have arrived at their conclusions.

So it’s often quite a mental gear change that researchers have to make when plucked from their offices and thrust in front of a newspaper journalist or a TV camera.

The first thing they need to master is how to marshal the key facts in a concise, focused way that the press journalist can almost transcribe onto their keyboard without hours of decoding, or which the viewer or listener can understand without having to think about it.

Researchers also have to get to grips with different interview formats, particularly on television. At least in a press interview the interviewee has a bit of time to breathe. The pace does not have to be hectic unless the reporter is on a really urgent deadline. On TV and radio, by contrast, time is always very tight. Two or three minutes is not untypical for the duration of an average news interview. Reducing a piece of in-depth research into 120 seconds can be daunting and counterintuitive to a subject expert, but it has to be done.

It’s not sufficient, either, just to be able to crack the live TV interview. Only the other day I was talking to a producer on one of the 24-hour news stations who was tearing his hair out because expert X couldn’t deliver a soundbite. Yes, the expert in question was able to deliver a live three-minute interview, but they were completely incapable of producing a 20-second clip for use in a news package.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all, however, is jargon – the in-house mumbo-jumbo that pervades all sectors and which is like a foreign language to most people. Leaving all this nonsense behind when being interviewed would be a major step forward in ‘engaging’ with the media – which in itself is a horrible piece of jargon.

Graham Leach is a former BBC and Sky News journalist and co-founder of the media training company HarveyLeach

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Readers' comments (1)

  • What advice for a reluctant PhD researcher?? Ask all the right questions? Erase the hyperbolic language and the superlatives?
    What about polemical language? Researchers are interested in real life stories.How to conduct elite interviews?

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