Researchers facing the media

By Alex Russell, CQUni researcher and Radio National ABC Science Top 5 Scientists for 2019

Do you have a great research finding, and want to spread the word? Are you interested in working with media, including radio, television and online?

I’ve done a fair bit of media over the last few years, and I was one of the Radio National ABC Science Top 5 Scientists for 2019, which involved intensive media training.

Here’s a Q and A, followed by some of my top tips for working with the media.

Do I have to do media?

No! But it helps, and you don’t necessarily need to do radio or TV. You could write an online article, perhaps for The Conversation, or work with a journalist to put together an article. There are a lot of options available to you.

Why should I do media?

Most of us publish research papers with findings that people will want to learn about. But these papers are often behind paywalls and are written in academic language. The general public don’t have access, but you’ll be surprised how many people want to learn about your research.

Plus, sometimes doing media can open up research opportunities. For me, it has led to collaborations, research funding, and speaking opportunities at conferences and government bodies. Media has given me a profile, not just in the general community, but also within the research community.

I also love that when I’m doing media I need to boil often complex concepts down to short, snappy statements. As academics, we often focus on the little details, and when we talk to each other, or at conferences, we’re usually talking to people who know a bit about our area. With the media, you’re talking to people who know not a lot, and you need to scale it back and talk about the bigger picture. For me, this has really helped me gain perspective, and has helped me in my paper and grant writing.

How do I start doing media?

Talk to your organisation’s media team. They’ll help you pitch ideas to the media. You’ll need to have an idea, though. Fresh research findings, when they’ve just been published, are often a great place to start.

What kinds of media should I do?

That’s totally up to you. Radio can be fun – sometimes they prerecord an interview, sometimes they want you live on air, and if you’re near a studio, they might even ask you to come in. TV can also be prerecorded or live, and is also a lot of fun. Radio pieces tend to be longer, usually five minutes to half an hour (most under 10 minutes). TV pieces are short – usually no more than five minutes.

For online, you’re usually looking at up to 800 words. This can be a great place to start, and if your story is really interesting, you’ll start getting calls from radio stations. ABC radio people are usually really nice people to work with and have regional footprints.

Can I come to you for advice?

Always! Happy to help.

Find out more about my experience with the ABC here.

Alex Russell’s top 10 tips for working with the media

  1. Tell the audience why they should care. Upfront. This is the first thing to get across. “We’ve done X, and it matters because…”. If what you do matters to someone’s health, their emotions (heart) or their wallet, you’ve got an easy way to get their attention.
  2. Talk in plain language. Scale back your academic language and talk about your work as if you were talking to a smart teenager. If you have a complicated concept to explain, come up with a simple metaphor. Make your work accessible. Avoid jargon and acronyms.
  3. Some questions may seem strange at first. Sometimes a journalist might ask a simple question. They usually know the answer, but they want you to say it in your own words. They love quotes! And if they ask something that you don’t know the answer to, you can say “That’s not really my area, but what I DO know is…”
  4. Act quickly. There are a lot of column inches and airwaves to fill, and they need to be filled quickly. Journalists are always looking for FRESH stories. Go to them when your findings have just been published. Often, they need to find stories quickly. If you ask to hold off for another day, they’ll often go to someone else and you’ll miss out.
  5. It’s their story now. While the story might be around your research, it’s their piece of work. You don’t usually get a chance to read an article before it’s published or listen to a recorded interview before it’s done. That can be hard for academics to accept.
  6. Slow down and speak or write in small sentences. Many of us speak quickly and can ramble. You need to give your listener or reader time to digest the information. If you’re being interviewed, give shorter answers – a few sentences. Let the interviewer ask questions, rather than trying to show how much you know about everything.
  7. Start online. Reach out to The Conversation with a pitch. They might say no the first few times. That’s OK. Keep trying. Work with your organisation’s media team on this.
  8. Journalists are (usually) not out to trick you. I’ve done a lot of media, and never had any issues with being taken out of context, or being made to look bad. They want to work with you. They might ask you a challenging question from time to time, but they’re asking on behalf of the audience. I was on the air with a friend who was asked why we need to use animals for drug research. They don’t do it to see you squirm, they do it to give you a chance to address the issue.
  9. You’re the expert! It’s a bit nerve-wracking doing media at first, but remember, you know more on this topic than any of your listeners. Sure, sometimes someone will reach out and tell you you’re wrong. They usually don’t know what they’re talking about. And if you say something wrong, it’s gone in an instant. If you’re doing a prerecorded interview, you can say “Stop, that doesn’t sound right. Can we try that again?”
  10. Have fun! It’s fun being on TV, or on the radio. It’s great seeing an online article about you, or written by you, being shared around. And it’s so much fun when someone says, “Hey, I heard you on the radio!” Enjoy it! And as you get more comfortable with it, have fun with a bit of pithy wordplay.
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