Media 101

Over the weekend, I lamented to friends that I did not get much media coverage for my paper on political expenditure laws. I thought I had a good argument and had exposed many previously unreported negative consequences of the electoral law reform bill.

But while many days research and writing yielded only a handful of low-profile news reports (though also some opinion pieces), a couple of five minute conversations on Friday with journalists from The Australian about the protential financial woes of universities yielded me a page one top-of-the-fold story with my name in the second paragraph. (My comments were just an updated version of this April post).

Perhaps the lesson is that while carefully-researched papers are a necessary part of building credibility as a dial-a-quote media source, saying something colorful or sensasationalist is the key to actually getting good coverage.

17 Responses to “Media 101

  • 1
    Andrew Bartlett
    August 3rd, 2009 10:44

    I’d say you’ve made a fairly accurate assessment. It’s a constant balancing act. It’s not totally unreasonable for media outlets to use comments that their readers/listeners/viewers are more likely to find interesting, and it’s important to try to think of what angles might be most likely to spark peoples’ interest. But it’s difficult to stop that imperative from pushing people to make exaggerated or combative claims, because it undoubtedly does increase your chances of getting coverage. Of course, at the same time, if you overdo it you will lose credibility, at least with those who work in the field, although losing academic credibility doesn’t necessarily mean losing media interest.

    I did see some of your stuff about political donations / expenditure around though – I wouldn’t be too dismissive of that. Especially as your angle is somewhat against the current direction of things (& I’m still not convinced by your view on that matter either, but I can see what you’re saying). It’s important to have differing or minority views in public debate that are credible, even if means fewer page one mentions.

  • 2
    Krystian
    August 4th, 2009 02:12

    The Hon Christopher Pyne MP (surprised they still refer to themselves in such a way in media releases!) has also picked up on your “perfect storm” quote: http://www.liberal.org.au/news.php?Id=3507

  • 3
    conrad
    August 4th, 2009 06:51

    Reading that release, I think you must have been cloning yourself and your clones saying the same thing too, as your quote is now attributed to “academics”.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    August 4th, 2009 07:09

    I fear I am also guilty of cliche for choosing an over-used word.

  • 5
    Rajat Sood
    August 4th, 2009 09:05

    Congratulations Andrew. One of the Oz’s (online?) editorials also suggests the need for full fees or deregulation, so at least your ‘sensationalism’ is helping to promote the right solution.

  • 6
    Andrew Elder
    August 5th, 2009 00:02

    Cheer up, Andrew. My blog is full of sensationalist and colourful stuff but it is so badly researched it attracts great apathy.

    I think your point about political donations will be borne out in many respects, though I am not sure that the nature of a nation-state discriminating against donations from non-citizens (i.e. non-participants in the affairs of the nation-state) is necessarily “xenophobia”.

    Cliche is only for dead imagery (e.g. getting one’s goat, irons in the fire), not commonly-used words – otherwise “the” or “Wednesday morning” would be cliches.

  • 7
    Pete from Perth
    August 6th, 2009 12:05

    Andrew Bartlett @1: Well said. Bruce Ruxton was perhaps the best example of this in action. Original sought after for his RSL credentials, his ended up being pidgeon-holed as the go-to man for a mad, racist rent-a-quote.

  • 8
    Don D'Cruz
    August 7th, 2009 15:04

    I don’t that your assessment of why your paper is sinking without a trace is quite accurate.

    Basically you are heading the opposite direction where the current political debate is heading. Banning corporate donations is where the debate is heading. As such, your de-regulatory really doesn’t interest many in the media. And the politicians aren’t on your page either. I don’t think if you slipped in a Page Three girl you would have got any more attention. Remember, it’s context, not content!

    Also, I don’t think that some of your worse-case scenarios actually didn’t stand up. If WWF and Greenpeace were really impacted as you suggested, they would have be squealing like stuck pigs. Remember, whinging is what they do best. Your referees should have picked up this if they knew anything about the sector and NGOs. Someone had to be really hard on you when you were writing the drafts. You can’t write about the NGO sector and not have some top notch experts giving you feedback. I had to go overseas for expertise as most of the so-called experts here were compromised.

    And it didn’t help that GetUp! launched a campaign actually arguing for intrusive disclosure.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    August 8th, 2009 17:09

    Think-tanks should do counter-narrative work – it’s their main comparative advantage. Certainly better than what the IPA was doing in its NGO project, which was the previous government paying to try to find respectable arguments for its partisan anti-NGO agenda.

  • 10
    Don D'Cruz
    August 8th, 2009 19:35

    Okay. You want to get into this?

    Think tanks should do counter- narrative work so long as it makes sense. Your paper didn’t get picked up because it was just silly. I thought about writing an opinion piece or two critiquing your paper but is really a waste of my time and would only give your work publicity; publicity it did not deserve.

    You haven’t spent any time really looking at the sector and it shows. You have these academic pretensions about your work but the awful truth about alot of is that your didn’t do your research properly. The only NGOs you thought would be caught in the net and would be able to cope with it are clubs and societies at university. Your stuff about WWF and Greenpeace was over-the-top and the type of exaggeration they usually indulge. And your arguments opposing transparency are self-serving.

    I’m not sure what your criticisms of Gary Johns’ NGO Protocols is exactly based on. As for your criticisms of the rest of the NGO Project well you are entitled to your opinion. But having read your stuff, it is not an opinion I take all that seriously. I see that you have fallen for the Clive Hamilton Silencing Dissent interpretation of the work. Interesting how you would fall for the ravings of some left-wing conspiracy theorist.

    Having read CIS’ lacklustre contributions to the NGO debate, I have decided to get back into the NGO stuff. Someone just sent my an article written by Tim Costello spruiking his dodgey child sponsorship. I think I should get stuck into these topic.

  • 11
    Stephen Hill
    August 8th, 2009 22:29

    “I take all that seriously. I see that you have fallen for the Clive Hamilton Silencing Dissent interpretation of the work. Interesting how you would fall for the ravings of some left-wing conspiracy theorist.”

    I think you’ll find that Andrew is not that enamoured in the work of Clive Hamilton – in fact I’m sure he’s written quite a few critical pieces – including this one on “silencing dissent”

    http://andrewnorton.info/2007/01/is-dissent-being-silenced-in-australia/

    Also its good that Andrew can be critical about the previous government’s interference in the ARC Grants process (Gideon Haigh’s piece in the Monthly offering a forensic description of that surreal time just before Nelson got shunting to the spend-thrift defence department)

  • 12
    Sinclair Davidson
    August 9th, 2009 10:15

    Stephen – how did the previous government ‘interfere’ in the ARC grants process? Ministerial approval is part of the process itself. At best it can be claimed that the previous government deviated from precedent in that one Minister didn’t simply rubber stamp decisions already taken by bureaucrats.

  • 13
    Stephen Hill
    August 9th, 2009 19:31

    Don’t believe in peer review Sinclair? What if Julia Gillard or Kim Carr decided not to approve any of your ARC linkage grants? Obviously a believer in ministerial omnipotence.

    The “Nelson Nine” as they are referred in many instances have had their careers substantially derailed by such a short-sighted evaluative process – quite a few of them had leave to get full-time work in American universities after their submissions fell-down. Thus is one such example: –

    “In 2005 my ARC fellowship was one of those vetoed by Brendan Nelson. Apparently the title of my project made him unhappy. As a part-time tutor at Sydney University, and with a newborn baby, I rushed to take the first job I could get and relocated to a Big Ten university in the US. Then, late last year back in Australia I got a phone call from the ARC: I was one of the “Nelson Nine”.

    http://asianstudies.anu.edu.au/weblog/index.php?/categories/6-Reprinted

    And the consequences

    “It is important to explain the impact that the vetoing of grants has had upon research culture in Australia. In the rumours, paranoia and disappointment that followed the news of vetoes, a culture of fear took hold. I know freshly minted PhDs who have been scared off from applying for an ARC grant because they believe it funds only “political research” that caters to a narrowly defined national benefit. These people, who are some of our best, will go overseas, or worse, not pursue the kind of research that requires a real culture of confidence and support. Following the vetoes people began to question if the largest and most prestigious research funding bodies in this country would continue to succumb to ideological intervention. The damage has been enormous.”

    Deep down your such a statist Sinkers

  • 14
    Sinclair Davidson
    August 9th, 2009 21:35

    Don’t believe in peer review Sinclair?

    The ARC process is not a peer review as generally understood. For example, it is not double blind. The reviewers know the identity of the applicant. That is not normally the case in peer review processes. The blind peer review process exists so that the reviewer cannot rely on the applicant/authors reputation when making an assessment of academic value. By contrast the ARC process explicitly relies on the reviewer forming an opinion on the applicants reputation.
    I should also point out that the quality of the process can’t be too high as the ARC only pay $15 per assessment (before tax).

    What if Julia Gillard or Kim Carr decided not to approve any of your ARC linkage grants?

    I don’t have any outstanding ARC linkage grants. But how would I know? Ditto with the Disovery Grants. The probability of success is so low in any event that I have always taken the view that the ARC is like a big lottery.

    Obviously a believer in ministerial omnipotence.

    No. But I am a believer in process. The process has always required ministerial approval and in some years we;ve waited while the applications are on the ministers desk for approval. Now you might want to argue that the minister shouldn’t have any approval powers – an interesting argument that no government would ever accept. In any event that is no different from the powers a journal editor might exercise. I once had two referee reports recommending acceptance of a paper and the editor rejecting the paper as not being suitable for the journal (I wish he had said that before I had made amendments to the paper).

    The “Nelson Nine” as they are referred in many instances have had their careers substantially derailed by such a short-sighted evaluative process – quite a few of them had leave to get full-time work in American universities after their submissions fell-down.

    A sob story to be sure. But I don’t believe it. The probabilities of success in the ARC process are too low for stories like this to be credible. Government funding of research is not an entitlement. I am open to new information, but my understanding is that none of the rejected applicants have become public. I suspect every rejected humanities applicant from that year is still dining out on the story that their research was/is too subversive for the Howard government.

    I rushed to take the first job I could get and relocated to a Big Ten university in the US.

    Sounds like the ARC rejection lead to this person getting a better full-time job.

    Deep down your such a statist Sinkers

    Whatever.

    So all up, that brings us back to the start; political control over the spending of tax dollars is at the heart of democratic politics and the budget process. That includes the ARC.

  • 15
    Andrew Norton
    August 10th, 2009 01:25

    Though I think that the Minister should generally abstain from using her/his veto and explain why when the veto is used, Sinc makes some good points. Only about 20% of Discovery grant applications get funded, and that some were rejected by Nelson meant that some other applications were funded instead. The ARC has always said that far more applications are ‘fundable’ (ie meet quality criteria for funding) than are ever funded, so some worthy projects were given money instead of the Nelson nine,with consequent career benefits etc for those applicants.

  • 16
    Sharon Andrews
    August 11th, 2009 13:05

    I was the person who persued an FOI application in regard to the Nelson Vetos. This resulted in information being released to the vetoed applicants and some of them have come forward about the nature of their projects.

    From my perspective, the Minister should have a power of veto – it is public monies and they are accountable for its expenditure.

    However, there should always be transparency in the exercise of this power and full disclosure of the projects that were vetoed.

  • 17
    conrad
    August 11th, 2009 13:24

    “so some worthy projects were given money instead of the Nelson nine,with consequent career benefits etc for those applicants.”
    .
    If it was me getting one of my grants chopped, I’d be furious. In addition, it’s not clear to me whether giving the funding to someone else happens to make the situation any better, since the problem for me is in the decision process, not the outcome. I’d guess, for example, that if the Liberals were in power, the position Australia is in wouldn’t be much different, but I wouldn’t want Labor chucked out on the whim of, say, the GG in any case.
    .
    “From my perspective, the Minister should have a power of veto – it is public monies and they are accountable for its expenditure.”
    .
    I disagree with this. Once the money has been allocated, you’re basically saying that someone with essentially no knowledge of the project should be able to override an appointed expert committee. Giving someone that level of power is just asking for corruption. I’d be happy with something more moderate — say, asking the committee to reconsider if there were grounds to be concerned, or, alternatively, getting a 3rd neutral party to evaluate the situation.