Taking family research into the marketplace of ideas: strategies, tips and insights on working with media

By Martha Farrell Erickson, Ph.D.
Content Area

Several years ago I was being interviewed for a TV special produced by our local PBS station. The subject was the importance of nature experience in children's health and development, a topic that had been the focus of some of my recent work. The producer was looking for a strong sound bite that would drive home the point that we really must get kids outside. Although I believe people of all ages would do well to get outdoors and into nature as often as possible, I was there as a researcher. And, frankly, the research at that time was scant and, in many cases, methodologically weak (certainly not strong enough to draw causal connections). After listening to my carefully qualified statements about the possible impact of nature experience on children's physical and mental health, the producer exclaimed in frustration, "Can't you just say that if kids don't get outside they'll grow up to be axe murderers?!"

Granted, this thoughtful young producer was joking; but his frustration was real, and probably typical of what many producers and reporters feel when confronted with "two-handed researchers" (on the one hand..., but on the other hand...). Media and research are very different cultures. And yet, if we want our research on human development and family relations to make a difference, we would be wise to learn to work within the culture of media - albeit carefully, without sacrificing our integrity as social scientists.

The challenges of getting our research out via popular media are significant in today's high-tech world of information (and misinformation!) overload. Information on almost any aspect of family relations is only a click (or a "touch") away for most people - at least those in the U.S. and other developed countries. But contradictions, confusion and quackery abound in the unbridled world of the internet. Furthermore, in the marketplace of ideas (both new and traditional media), research-based information competes, often without special advantage, with ideas rooted in commercial interests, ideology, celebrity opinion, and the musings of anyone with time to blog. (See, for example, countless claims of a link between MMR vaccines and autism spectrum disorders, never mind that the only study supporting such a claim was withdrawn as fraudulent by the journal that published it.)

Sometimes those of us who study family relations and human development lack the time, confidence or interest to take what we are learning into the chaos and competitiveness of that broad marketplace. And yet, if there is real value in the questions we try to answer in our research, isn't the value in getting that information to the individuals and families whose lives could be enhanced and improved by that knowledge? If you answer yes to that question, then how can we shine a spotlight on research-based information and make it engaging, relevant and useful for those who need it most? And how can we help consumers of information recognize, seek, and apply information they can trust?

I don't pretend to have the answers to those questions. But I've had the privilege of working with and in media for the past 20-some years, both as an individual and on behalf of the University of Minnesota, where I spent most of my career. So, in this article, I draw on that experience to offer a few insights and examples that I hope will support and inspire your own efforts to take social science to general audiences via popular media. I encourage you to add your own ideas and experiences in the comment section at the end of this article so we all can continue to learn together about this important extension of our work and study.

Bridging academia and popular media: relationships are key

During my tenure as founding director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth & Family Consortium (1991- 2004), part of our mission was to shape the way child and family issues are covered by media. We did this by working both responsively and proactively. The work was all about relationships, often built through informal conversations (and more than a few cups of coffee) with journalists and broadcasters to learn what they needed and how the university's extensive resources could help meet their needs (a different model from writing a press release to promote a story about our research). These relationships led to opportunities to do three major things:

Make the news (being strategic)

A prime example of this was a series we developed in partnership with the Star Tribune and WCCO-TV (CBS). Designed to address intense concern at that time about youth violence in our community, "Seeds of Promise" included a series of major op-ed pieces highlighting protective factors shown to prevent violence and promote healthy youth development. These were placed prominently in a Sunday paper every three months for a year, always accompanied by a box pointing readers to where to order a more complete photo-journalistic report on the topic, with a list of related community resources. (Thousands were ordered by individuals and organizations working to reduce violence in their neighborhoods.) To heighten the visibility of the initiative, WCCO-TV broadcast a related feature story every Monday after the op-ed ran in the newspaper, focusing on personal stories that brought the research-based information to life.

Shape the news (being proactive)

Because we learned early on that reporters are always looking for story ideas, we kept an eye out for interesting research on which a story could be built. Certainly brand new findings are newsworthy, but so much academic research has not been adequately translated for general audiences that we often could bring not-so-new (although still current and relevant) research to bear on news events. Having built relationships of trust with reporters, we were successful both in offering story ideas to them and in having them call us first when they needed reliable information on a given topic. In our office, we created a directory of experts, both within the university and among our community partners, who were able and willing to respond to media calls, thus simplifying the process for journalists trying to locate a credible expert (and effective communicator) for a story.

Frame the news (being responsive with purpose)

If you ever have been quoted out of context in a news story or had a comment spun in a way that made you cringe, you know that how a story is framed can make it or break it. I learned that, even when doing a short-order interview with a reporter on deadline, there are ways to influence the framework for your contribution or even for the whole article or broadcast feature. I discovered that my information retained its integrity best if I wrote a brief "framing statement" or "hook" - the kind of thing an anchor person might read in the opening of a TV story - followed by 3 to 5 concise talking points (bullets). I then gave those to the person interviewing me. Even if I just wrote these hurriedly on a napkin, the result was nearly always the same: my message held together even through editing, and often the reporter (or news anchor) used my "framing statement" almost verbatim.

Moving into new media: following the audience

Through the work described above, I was offered opportunities for ongoing work in media, which continues today, 4 years after my retirement from the university. Since 1995 this has included regular child and family features on KARE-TV (NBC) in Minneapolis/St. Paul, choosing my topics with the producers and anchors, framing them in the way I described above, and delivering them in a friendly live interview format with the anchors. These days, the brief talking points I prepare in advance are posted on the station's website along with the video of my appearance, making the information available to an even larger audience and over a much longer period of time.

In 2006, at the invitation of the program director of an ABC-affiliated FM station, I also launched a weekly radio talk show. Co-hosted by my daughter Erin, a maternal-child health specialist then pregnant with her second child, our show borrowed its title from an important concept in child development research: Good Enough Moms. From the get-go, the show smacked of the unpredictability of real life; my daughter went into labor during the first show and brought her newborn son to the studio for the next month, often nursing him while we chatted with each other, guests, and callers!

As our lives changed and a live weekly show became less convenient for us, we opted in 2010 to take the show to the internet. By that time, research was showing that the internet was the primary place parents were turning for information about family relationships, so we were following the audience. Since then we have recorded 4 or 5 shows at a time each month, posting a new show every Monday to our website. (After a surprising trademark challenge to our original name, we chose to change the name of the show to Mom EnoughTM in 2011. The web address now is www.MomEnough.com.) Shows remain on our website indefinitely for people to listen online or download at no charge so they can listen when and where they want.

Key to this web-based venture was a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Education, who sought new ways to draw parents to their resources (www.MNparentsknow.info), and the non-profit Working Family Resource Center, who wanted to extend their work with corporations to deliver wellness and family education to people where they work. Providing modest financial support and priceless outreach, these organizations quickly got the new revamped show off the ground. Soon other supporting partners (see list on website) joined us to form a strong and growing coalition of organizations committed to bringing reliable information to parents. Since the web has no geographic boundaries, we now have listeners across the country and around the world. We also post links on our website to my regular TV appearances on KARE and, in turn, the TV station links to us as a resource - extending the reach of both the TV station and Mom Enough. Social media allows us to interact in new ways and on an ongoing basis with our audience. Building on the credibility of all our supporting partners, Erin and I are excited to still be pursuing our mission after six years: "bringing research-based information and our own mother-daughter experience, for better or worse, to support you in your parenting journey."

Lessons learned

So, what lessons have I learned through these varied experiences working with and in popular media? Here are just a few:

  • Working with media is all about relationships. Getting to know journalists in both print and broadcast media and tuning into their needs is more effective than pushing your own story.
  • When you do have a story idea you want to promote, it helps to make your case in terms of audience needs and interests - why people need or want the kind of information you can provide.
  • It helps to practice presenting your research results in very brief sentences in plain language, while still being careful not to oversimplify. One way is to role play with colleagues and have them ask you hard questions that might come up in an interview.
  • You are likely to be more focused and on-message if you organize 3 - 5 clear, brief talking points in advance. As described earlier, I like to put these in writing and give them to the person interviewing me, and I have yet to meet a journalist who did not appreciate that.
  • When time permits, I like to ask the reporter to let me "fact-check" what he or she writes based on my interview. In my experience, many journalists welcome that if I can be easily accessible and willing to turn the piece around quickly.
  • Related to the above point, I opt for a live TV or radio appearance when that is possible, rather than a recorded piece that will be edited. I realize many people feel more anxious during live media appearances, so that's a matter of personal preference. But, if you are well prepared, you actually have greater control of your content in a live interview.
  • It is wise to take the phrase "off the record" out of your vocabulary! I've learned to say only what I am comfortable having appear in print or broadcast. It's not that journalists would intentionally disregard a request that something be "off the record"; it's just that journalists are human and usually under intense time pressure, so there's no guarantee that their notes will accurately reflect what was on and what was off the record.
  • It's important to say, when appropriate, that research just doesn't provide clear answers yet. For example, there are more questions than answers about possible causes of autism, so it's important to say that, but also to focus on what is known about the effectiveness of early intervention with families to help a child with an autism spectrum disorder build better social skills and self-regulation.
  • If you are aiming your information at parents, as I have done throughout much of my career, it helps to acknowledge how hard it is to apply what we know. A quick confession about your own struggles to keep your temper in check when your child throws a tantrum makes you more credible than someone who simply describes what the research says parents ought to do. If you empathize - and get real! - with your audience, they will hear more readily what you have to say.

Marti Erickson retired in 2008 from the University of Minnesota, where she was founding director of the Children, Youth & Family Consortium, Director of the Irving Harris Training Programs in Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health, and Adjunct Professor in both Family Social Science and Child Psychology. She is a former NCFR Board member. Marti continues to speak and consult in her areas of research and, with her daughter Erin, is owner and co-host of Mom EnoughTM (www.momenough.com).