Media glare a tempting lure for academics
“Publish or perish” has long been the axiom in academia, where having research work appear in prestigious scholarly journals is often the yardstick used to determine tenure and other types of advancement.
But landing in the pages of The New York Times or other high-visibility media is becoming increasingly important to researchers — and that trend may not all be for the good.
Exhibit A, writes Noam Scheiber in the Times: The first day of an annual weeklong conference convened by the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research is now devoted to “research that will make a splash.”
It’s a far cry from the days when many scholars had a meh-like attitude toward coverage of their work in the popular press. Academic fields that “once regarded the ability to attract attention with suspicion, increasingly reward it,” writes Scheiber.
There is a growing world of media outlets hungry for data-focused stories that research studies can provide. From Vox to the Washington Post‘s “Monkey Cage” blog (which is itself largely written by political scientists) and the Times‘s Upshot, there are all sorts of new avenues for media exposure for academic research.
The University of California, Berkeley, economist who chooses the line-up for the big Cambridge economics conference, which is held in July, says, “I choose papers that are going to be written up” by the media. “It’s what the people want.”
The recent study on same-sex marriage attitudes went through the peer-review process at Science. But one researcher who has published in the journal tells Scheiber reviewers sometimes come back with instructions to spice up the implication of findings to “make the conclusion broader, more spectacular.”
Meanwhile, Tufts political scientist Daniel Drezner tells him foundations looking to fund research also have an eye on its potential for media coverage. Nobel-Prize-winning researcher James Heckman says, “Many young economists realize that they win a MacArthur or the Clark prize, or both, by being featured in The Times.”
There’s nothing wrong with the worlds of academic research and media coverage coming closer together. Indeed, as Vox’s Ezra Klein tells Scheiber, having public policy debates grounded in rigorous evidence is a plus.
But findings can be subject to different interpretations. As more research gets pushed out into public light, says Scheiber, it puts more pressure on journalists to “distinguish good science from shoddy science,” something they’re not necessarily trained to do. The danger, of course, is that media reporting on research might not help elucidate a topic but instead might make for a confusing cacophony.
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