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The perks and perils of writing for popular media

Stanford's Keith Humphreys and other academics relay lessons from experiences writing for mass media outlets, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

It’s official: bylines in popular media aren’t just for journalists anymore.

Health researchers are increasingly penning articles for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications.

Is this a good idea for established or ascending academics?

Four veterans of the practice — including Stanford addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD — discussed the pluses and minuses in a recent editorial for Health Services Research.

First, the rewards.

Writing for a mass media outlet expands the audience for a researcher’s work, they say. It offers them an ability to teach on a broader scale, and increases the odds that their research will have an impact, as time-starved policymakers are more likely to read newspaper headlines than scientific journals.

With its focus on accessibility and clarity, journalistic writing also can improve an academic’s overall communication skills, and help them hone in on what’s most important, they say. And professionally, publication in popular media can — and maybe should — boost a researcher’s career. As the authors write:

Acceptance of columns in major media outlets reflects recognition as a national expert and as a skilled translator of important research. These qualities are already promotion criteria at many institutions at both the tenured associate and full professor level, so it should not be a big leap to incorporate high-quality dissemination to lay audiences accordingly.

All well and good. But, the authors report, there is a flip side.

Among the challenges of writing for the mass media, they say, are deciding where to publish, working with less lead time, and handling hate tweets and irate emails.

Researchers also should be aware of the potential for partisan labeling, they say.

One must enter this process in a thoughtful, strategic way. Depending on how you present research — in service to what arguments and even how conclusions are phrased — you can get pigeonholed as an ideologue or a political advocate. A partisan paper trail could affect future opportunities.

And about those future opportunities? The authors caution junior researchers against believing that mass media publication can replace a strong scholarly record.

Still, overall, Humphreys and his colleagues say that writing for popular media is a rewarding pursuit. They invite other researchers to join them in the journalism arena, writing:

The media and the public are hungry for voices that understand science and research and can place that work in context for broader understanding. We hope that more experts will take up that challenge in the years to come.

Photo by freeGraphicToday

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