“Higher Education has the capacity to shape public opinion and government policy, but it’s not fully reaching that potential at present. The devastating impact of emotional, sensationalist tabloid coverage of research findings are having a damaging effect on higher education. We should be aiming for a more intelligent media, boosting the offering of higher education to better inform policy and public discussion”.
These were the opening statements which set up a lively discussion about the representation of higher education in the media, at a recent seminar at the Centre for Global Higher Education in London. Taking place just days after the EU Referendum Brexit result was announced, there was much to discuss about how academic thought and opinion is voiced in the press, and how it can be further promoted effectively. Participants in the panel discussion included representatives from The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Conversation, and University World News. Topics included audiences driving the news agenda, communication with the general public, and digital reporting. To follow is an outline of how some of these key themes were addressed.
In terms of audience reach, the panel discussed how the tabloid press has by far the larger share of readership for national newspapers, both online and in print. However, higher education is not on the agenda, broadly speaking, for the tabloids. National papers do not have the specialist knowledge to represent academia in any depth, and so sweeping generalisations tend to replace detailed reporting. Coverage focuses on tuition fees, admissions controversies, or ‘weird and wacky’ research. Any subject specific coverage focuses for the main part on science and health, although with much contradiction and confusion. Consider how many conflicting warnings there are each year about the health risks of certain foods, and the potentially damaging message this sends out about the value of the research.
“…the value it can add to news debate fully realised.”
We are lucky enough to enjoy a broad and free press in the UK, yet there is a relative lack of public figureheads amongst academics. There was discussion throughout the seminar about the perception of an inward looking nature amongst higher education institutions and a lacking of enthusiasm to engage with a generalist audience. However, without specialist representation to provide an expert opinion, those who do speak out become representatives for higher education as a whole. In an age of homespun journalism where everyone can share their story on social media, higher education has an even bigger challenge to get its voice heard and the value it can add to news debate fully realised.
The British press in a post-Brexit climate, and the implications that entails, was (unsurprisingly) at the forefront of discussion. Brexit was presented as an example of the confusion mis-information can cause, and a debate in which academics had much to contribute but were all but absent from dialogue. With academic opinion removed from the public sphere, a series of claims and pledges in support of Brexit were able to gain significant support and influence. In the aftermath of the result these have now been revealed as unfounded.
This mistrust of academic thought was highlighted in a recent poll which questioned supporters of both Leave and Remain referendum campaigns. Participants were surveyed on the public figures and organisations they held most trust in. Large numbers of those surveyed agreed with the notion that it was wrong to rely too much on expert opinion. The seminar discussion identified a common public perception of academics as having a left-wing agenda, which a large proportion of people don’t identify with.
“…a significant need for expert opinion and fact to be far better communicated”
The example of the EU referendum campaign highlighted a significant need for expert opinion and fact to be far better communicated and accounted for. The communication of academic thought has traditionally been most visible through the same familiar newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, and there is a risk of only ‘preaching to the converted’. Academia should be building relationships with specialist journalists to encourage more detailed reporting, and seize the opportunity to tap into the news agenda. With a media which is shifting more and more towards commentary as well as traditional reporting, higher education has an opportunity to play a fundamental role in informing the public, and in demonstrating the potential that expert opinion has to inform and advise.
Jodie Bell is Communications Manager for Media Relations at Taylor & Francis. She manages communications to the media and oversees press releases and messaging published on the Taylor & Francis Newsroom. Follow the latest Taylor & Francis headlines at @tandfnewsroom.