Media Darlings

My university put on a training session this week with Media Players International, a training and consultancy outfit who help academics prepare themselves for working with the media on disseminating their research.

There’s been a bit in the press recently about the way the messages that academics wish to convey can become distorted, first by exaggerated press releases written by their institutions’ PR departments on their behalf, and then by the mangling of those press releases by the popular press. What this training session was about was helping academics to try to find the happy medium between the nuanced, carefully considered and caveated academic findings of their research on the one hand, and the media’s desire for a good story on the other.

Inevitably this is a tall ask, and one feels extremely exposed when trying to distill down months and years of careful scientific work to a key message or two. But, hey, if we want public engagement in science then we need to understand that some give and take is necessary. The key message of the day related to making sure you communicate your key message.

The day was wrapped up with a mock interview, using carefully crafted and sometimes quite prickly questions on our research topics. Here’s mine:

It is interesting to look back at this and see how much of my key message I was able to get into the conversation and how I fielded the trickier questions. I think I do a decent enough job. It’s not perfect though, and there is definitely areas where more explanation is necessary if I want to be totally true to what I’m doing. For example the claim to originality in my research is that, while the effects of bilingual models of education have been well studied in the USA and Canada (see, for example Krashen and McField 2005), very little research has been done on the use of the mother-tongue as ad hoc teaching strategies in mainstream UK schools (which forms the basis for my research). Similarly, the effect of publication bias on our understanding of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism is a really important new finding, which I would readily bring into a conversation with a fellow researcher, but which perhaps might not be well suited to a five-minute Q&A with the popular media – though addressing things like publication bias is crucial to public understanding of science.

I shudder at my own definiteness about the effect that language learners have on the achievement of monolinguals who share a classroom with them. I am aware of one retrospective cohort study that addresses this question. After controlling for a number of factors, it did not detect any impact (positive or negative) on the achievement of monolinguals who share classes with language learners. But one study does not a trend make. My use of the word ‘categorically’ makes the dispassionate scientist in me cringe. In that section of the interview I also say polylinguicism at about the 4:50 mark, which means discrimination against many languages. I, of course, mean polylingualism.

The main lesson I took from this training day concerned what we as researchers need to consider when we engage with the public about our research. It pays to be taken out of your bubble for a moment to look at how other might see you.


de Bruin A, Treccani B & Della Sala S (2015) Cognitive Advantage in Bilingualism: An example of publication bias? Psychological Science 26:1 99-107

Geay C, McNally S & Telhaj S (2012) Non-Native Speakers Of English In The Classroom: What Are The Effects On Pupil Performance? Centre for the Economics of Education, LSE. Available online at [Accessed 07.05.15]

Goldacre B (2014) Preventing bad reporting on health research. 

Krashen S & McField G (2005) Reviewing the Latest Evidence on Bilingual Education. Language Learner November/December 2005

Schwitzer G (2008) How do US journalists cover treatments, tests, products, and procedures? An evaluation of 500 stories. PLoS Med 5:e95


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