Welcome to the media – these are the rules.

‘News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read.’ Evelyn Waugh – Scoop.


During last week’s Wonkcomms event, a well-known development blogger asked me over Twitter: how is it that 25,000 people will die today of preventable and curable health conditions and it doesn’t make the news?

The question was borne out of frustration that mainstream media are often perceived not to ‘do’ development. It’s not an assessment I agree with but the sentiment is one that many media professionals working with academics will recognise. The media is often seen by wonks as pursuing too shallow and narrow an agenda – refusing to find the time or inclination to delve into the detail required to satisfy an expert’s thirst for nuance.  

It’s the kind of thinking that means the hardy souls who spend their days trying to get coverage for research often face an uphill task. Perhaps that explains the number of nodding heads and sympathetic mutterings that could be seen and heard amongst those who made it to the Institute for Government. We share a common burden. So here are a few thoughts from me on why we shouldn’t be too quick to compromise on some essential criteria – after all if we try to sell a flop, it is wonkcommers  that end up looking silly.

The media do not make decisions based on whether something is important or not. Even something as morally outrageous as 25,000 unnecessary deaths a day is far from guaranteed to make the cut – although 250 unexpected deaths on just one day almost always will.

So if the media don’t cover things which are important what do they cover?  The answer is newsAs Kiran Stacey of the Financial Times put it ‘I am interested in news. If it is not news I don’t want to know’.

In a perfect world, news that is important would matter more to media owners than news that sells. Until that world is upon us we have to make do with what we have got. There are rules to the media game and unless you play by them you stand no chance of winning.

 One of the closest things I have seen to a rulebook is this excellent guide to what constitutes ‘news’ (thanks to Oxfam’s Ian Bray for the link). Wonkcommers should keep a copy within arms’ reach at all times – it’ll come in handy next time you have to explain why you’re not going to pitch that working paper to Newsnight

The problem with news values is that they don’t sit very happily alongside academic ones.  Immediacy, celebrity and proximity don’t often mix with rigour, anonymity and abstraction. There are two distinct occasions when news and research happily collide. One is in the need for instant response to unexpected events – in those circumstances  experts are in demand. The other is when you’ve had chance to work on a report and get into the sort of shape where it passes some of the news tests that journalists will apply. In order to give yourself the best possible chance of meeting those criteria you need to be planning  a grid.

This sort of planning isn’t an easy task. Researchers can be precious about early drafts, deadlines can morph beyond recognition and once you have copy in your hands there’s probably still an unhealthy amount of acronyms and jargon to wade through. In my experience there are three things you can do in addition to planning which will help to maximise your chances of coverage.

  1. Read. Not only are you making sure you haven’t missed an angle, or a potential pitfall, it’s only by reading a researcher’s work and engaging with the detail that you can prove yourself a worthy vessel for their knowledge to be shared with the wider world. Once you’ve got hold of copy you can look to apply the sort of ideas about how to message it that were shared by Jonny Coventry, or are found in the classic book ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath.
  2. Share. It’s easy to overestimate how much media other people consume. If you see an article you think a researcher will find interesting or relevant, share it – if they then give you their opinion or reflect on the article then use that opportunity to find out more about their views. This might well come in handy next time you get a call asking for comment on an issue. Twitter is your friend here.
  3. Talk. Food and liquid refreshment are timeless allies to frustrated communicators. You’ll find out much more about the political context of a piece of work if you listen to the author over lunch or a beer – so start sending the lunch invites and don’t be too quick to turn down the odd quick drink after work.

None of this makes the task of trying to secure coverage for your think tank any less frustrating. Luckily, when you next find yourself with your head in your hands, you can stick your headphones on and listen to last week’s event again. Before you know it you’ll be back safe in the knowledge that you’re not going mad and ready to get back out there – fighting the good fight for wonkcommers everywhere. 

Media and Public Affairs man at the ODI.

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