Thursday, March 19, 2015

Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence: Lessons in the Aftermath of an Academic Study’s Publication

Recently, Dr. Christopher Lubienski and I were pleased to have our research, regarding media influence in education, published in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA). Better yet, and with irony in light of study topic and findings,[1]our work generated some media influence of its own. Organizations such as Media Matters and the Australian (see here and here) covered the article, as did education writers like Alexander Russo (see here). We even learned (via a Tweet, of course) that Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, referenced our work at an event. Because one of the discussion points of the paper was that scholars should strive to share their findings and knowledge in new and social media,[2] I’ve decided to use this blog post to share a few reflections.[3] Specifically, I consider why this study might have received some attention, focusing mostly upon actionable explanations.

First, let’s get the possibly self-serving why-did-this-study-generate-media-attention? explanations out of the way, shall we? Perhaps the study was simply so elegant, awe-inspiring, etc., that it could not be denied air time! Although I did think it was a fine study, thank you very much, in the end this explanation has limited utility. A closely related possibility, that one of the authors (Dr. Lubienski, of course) is of such professional stature that his authorship alone commands a bump in notice, likely offers some additional insight. Finally, the topic of study might itself have resonated; perhaps the study fits within the interests of a critical mass of colleagues and citizens. The possibilities of media bias, or of undue media influence, after all, certainly generate ongoing attention and concern. So, in these ways we have probably partially explained the interest that the article generated.

But, surely there must be more to the story? There is. Below, I offer what I believe to be the strongest reasons why the article generated new and traditional media attention:

1. Most likely first and foremost, the University of Illinois’ News Bureau took the initiative to professionally describe our work. Not only did they summarize the essence of the study, but they included a flattering photograph and subsequently executed their news release processes. It was only following their coverage that I witnessed a significant bump in interest in the research.

2. Also of major importance, the article was published in a high quality, open-access journal. Contrast this, for instance, with publishing in a restricted-access journal that is accessible to few individuals. EPAA “provides immediate open access to its content on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge.” This journal has a considerable social media presence as well, actively seeking to maximize readership of its published work. Their efforts no doubt assisted in getting the word out, so to speak, and I believe their mission is noble.

3. Related, Dr. Lubienski in particular (and I tried…) welcomed the interest that emerged and even helped to amplify it. For instance, Dr. Lubienski (who as of the writing of the article had 2,103 Twitter followers to my mere 65), tweeted the following, and it was re-tweeted 20 times. While this may not constitute “break the internet” popularity, neither is it trifling:

With this in mind, here are a few takeaways. First, I’ll stand behind one of our closing arguments: “…academic researchers who wish to see that their scholarly work has impact beyond their academic audience may want to devote a greater share of their attention to the art of communication via traditional and new media.” While I have no more than a childlike grasp of this art as yet, at least I now comprehend that there is one, and it can be learned. For those who, like me, are a bit squeamish about anything that resembles tooting one’s own horn, I believe this is a feeling that needs to be overcome if one wishes to make a policy influence these days. I also suggest that higher education institutions or other organizations invest (or continue to invest) in strategic communication efforts so as to increase the consumption of research that is being produced, and scholars may consider leveraging these groups by encouraging them to cover their work. The University of Illinois’ News Bureau offered a terrific blueprint, and the results demonstrate that their efforts were worthwhile. Lastly, individuals should consider the implications of pursuing publication in open, versus restricted, access outlets. As we had stated in closing our article, “In the absence of these and other steps, policy changes in the realm of education will too often continue to be guided more so by ideology and agendas than by research.”

by Joe Malin

Joel R. Malin is a Doctor of Philosophy student in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership and Curriculum Specialist at the Pathways Resource Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also a fellow with the Forum on the Future of Public Education, and serves as a research and data analysis consultant for Lake Forest School District 67 (Illinois). His research interests include the underpinnings and practical implications of educational policies, and mentorship and leadership capacity development.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.


[1] Long story short, we found that (a) the relationship between expertise and media influence appears to be weak; and (b) some educational advocacy organizations are effectively entering the media stream by way of individuals they back as topical experts.

[2] Else their voice will more likely be absent or underrepresented in public discourse, policy decision making, etc.

[3] I wrote these reflections without conferring with Dr. Lubienski, so the views expressed may not capture his.


Michelle said...

Great article. I fully agree that bloggers play a very important role in communicating potential policy adjustments to their network and in feeding requirements out of their network back into the political process.

Joel Malin said...

Thanks so much for your comment Michelle! I like the two-way communication you are highlighting, too. I think what I described above may have been slanted toward one-way communication.