A version of this commentary was published in Longwoods, J-Source and News Net Ledger
In a time when many government scientists in Canada are being muzzled, talking to the media may be a scary prospect for many researchers. Yet some academics are calling on their peers to have their voices heard in the media and cut through the noise coming from think tanks and lobbyists.
“The research community is an essential part of an open society that values truth and ideas over interests and preferences. The time is now for researchers to get involved in the public debate. It is absolutely central,” believes Damien Contandriopoulos, an associate professor in nursing and researcher at the Public Health Research Institute at the University of Montreal.
Panel debate: Public engagement
Contandriopoulos organized a public panel debate on the issue last week in Montreal with participation from both the research community and journalists. The conversation between panelists highlighted the interdependence of the media and researchers, and flagged the way in which many scientific and health topics are often one-sided in media coverage — and how too many public policies decisions are taken without proper evidence.
“I’m sick and tired of seeing that think tanks, with specific commercial interests, are driving the political agenda, publishing reports, trying to frame the debate in a specific way,” added Marc-André Gagnon, an expert in political economy and health policy and assistant professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.
“My role as a researcher is to bring forth evidence and to ensure that political decisions are evidence-based.”
Scientific studies and reports are rarely communicated to the general public and most people don’t read scientific journals, reminds Contandriopoulos. But scientists should not only be speaking to the already converted, he stresses; they have a responsibility to put forth their results and ideas to the general public.
Rapid media cycles
News moves fast and is in opposition to the more lengthy process that is science, the panel noted. Add into the mix, companies and organizations who have vested interests in framing public policy, along with researchers who are not media-savvy, and it is easy to see why good studies and ideas by many Canadian researchers are drowned out.
Researchers by themselves might not have the same type of resources as some lobbyists or think thanks in reaching out to the media. But the panel encouraged researchers to send out press releases, write op-eds, take to social media and email a journalist or a local paper.
Gagnon gets editorial help from EvidenceNetwork.ca, a non-partisan resource that links journalists with health policy experts. “They help edit my op-eds and have them published in most major newspapers — something I couldn’t do on my own.” Other resources include the communication departments for those researchers affiliated with Universities; they are often ready and willing to provide media training and op-ed assistance to the research community.
Taking the time to explain, in a non-abstract way, why evidence matters to people in their daily lives is the best way to have an influence on decision-makers and politicians, the panel emphasized.
It might take a bit of legwork to establish a relationship with a journalist or a news organization, but “knowledge transmission remains necessary,” says Gagnon.
Fighting zombie ideas
This might all seem like a David against Goliath fight, but researchers should not be discouraged if they need to repeat their message ad nauseum, in order to counter biased or erroneous information, the panel informed the audience.
Tongue in cheek, Contandriopoulos compares it to fighting zombies, an idea put forth by public health researcher, Morris L. Barer. “It’s the notion that ideas, no matter how many times they have been proven false, still come back to life again and again, like zombies. This happens because behind a dead idea, there is that zombie master that has an interest in pushing the idea forward. Even though it’s a long-term battle, as a publicly funded researcher, it’s your responsibility to try to get the truth out.”
In Quebec, with the recent revelation that a prominent journalist, François Bugingo, may have fabricated some of his media content, the increasing use of experts who are called upon for commentary on a multitude of topics is also being questioned. The panel warned against ‘talking heads’ that are ready to comment on every subject under the sun.
“What is the value of having them analyze a report that they have not yet read or having them comment on a subject that is not their expertise?” says Gagnon.
“The purpose is not about researchers having their face in the media more often – it is about helping the construction of a more rational public debate on societal issues,” adds Gagnon.
Public engagement and education is why the duo are encouraging more researchers to take the leap and speak up in the media and help tip the balance towards more evidence-based decisions in the public policy domain.
Mélanie Meloche-Holubowski is a journalist intern at EvidenceNetwork.ca and a journalist with Radio-Canada.