Reporting and dissemination

Dissemination through the media

One aspect of dissemination is media coverage of your research. This can feel flattering and exciting, and can be very valuable for dissemination.  But there are important ethics considerations in disseminating research through the media.

Research findings may be picked up by press in a variety of ways.  Correspondents from national and local news media often attend conferences in order to learn about new research findings, or your funder or institutional press office may release information about your research findings (although they will usually tell you before they do this).  But journalists also use to the internet to identify researchers that could comment or provide an expert perspective on a story they are developing, and enquiries sometimes come completely out of the blue.

Your organisation may offer training and support in working with the media.  Press officers (in your institution or in the funder’s press office) can be very helpful with dissemination, but this can also necessitate some care.  When someone else is summarising your research, there is always a potential risk that they could present simplistic, sensational, or inaccurate reports. Work closely with them, and check press releases before they go out.

Professional associations – such as the British Psychological Society  – also often offer advice and support.  If you think it is possible that your research may attract media interest, it is very worthwhile to spend some time doing this kind of training.  The BPS has also produces guidelines on ethics considerations in work with TV production companies – they are aimed at psychologists, but are more widely relevant. 

At the very least, it is worth spending some time talking to colleagues who have experience of working with the press.  There are certainly some horror stories out there – of research findings being misrepresented, and of reputational damage to individuals and institutions – but media coverage can be helpful, if you know how to get the most out of it. 

It can be very helpful to work closely with a research-friendly journalist (i.e. one who understands research), who will allow you the opportunity to look at what how your work has been presented before going to press. If you are keen to get your research disseminated more widely, you will need to spend some time and effort in developing these relationships. 

Some organisations (such as the British Science Association) fund media fellowships, which offer the opportunity to build a greater understanding of how media reports science (including social science), and also to build potentially valuable links.  Again, experienced colleagues might also be able to offer contacts or advice.  However, even research-friendly journalists may not be responsible for headlines that editors may place above your carefully-worded collaborative article – or for how a carefully prepared story may be picked up and distorted by other media outlets. 

There are a number of considerations, summarised below, that you should take into account.  To do that carefully, a good general rule is that you should never respond instantly to a media request:

  • Make sure you find out exactly what you are being asked for and why (e.g. What ‘story’ will it be part of?  What’s the wider context for the media interest?)
  • Ask them to call back – or say that you will call back or email.  Don’t get drawn in to talking off the top of your head.

Before you go on and respond to the media, we suggest you work through the following key points:

  • Could your findings be misrepresented?  What would be the implications of that?  What steps do you need to take to ensure that won’t happen?  Especially if your study is focused on ethically sensitive or controversial issues, you may decide that the potential benefits of media dissemination do not outweigh the likely risks.
  • Do you need to tell anyone that you are speaking to the press?  Your organisation or your funder may require that their press offices check and approve any press releases reporting on findings from your study.   This requirement reflects the potential implications for their reputation of your wider dissemination. 
  • Imagine your participants seeing press coverage of your research based on data they gave you in good faith.  How would they feel?  For example, if you had done an interview study of care workers, where workers gave very generously of their time to be interviewed by you, but then they saw you on TV being very critical of the quality of care they provided – how would they feel?
  • Is there any risk that participants could be identified by other people as a result of media accounts? 
  • Plan carefully what you want to say about your research, think about how it could be interpreted, but also think about why you want to disseminate through the media – what do you want to get out of it in terms of the aims and impact of your study.   Write yourself a summary of the questions you might get asked, and how you would answer them – bearing in mind what you do or don’t want to say about your research. 
  • Remember too that you can politely decline to answer questions that you don’t think are appropriate.  Listen to how politicians answer questions on TV and radio – while they may not always be a model of ethical practice, their strategies for deflecting questions may give you some useful tips.