Simple language doesn’t mean simple thinking

 Johan van de Beek

“My work as a journalist nowadays has much in common with that of an academic researcher. That is why we can and should work more together,” says Johan van de  Beek, a reporter at the Dutch regional newspapers Dagblad de Limburger/Limburgs Dagblad.

Before the crisis in the print news industry due to the rise of online news media, Van de Beek and his colleagues at the regional newspapers spent most of their time reporting the daily news, but this has changed dramatically. “Ten years ago, newspapers could still get away with the “quick and dirty’’ news. We would make a round of phone calls to gather some quotes – we even had an expression in Dutch for it: “een rondje  bellen”  – and that was it. Nowadays, we can’t afford to stay on the surface any more, we need to dig much deeper into topics, put our hypotheses to the test, search for the truth. This requires a different mentality and more ambition.”

Out of touch

Van de Beek recently gave a talk at the School of Business and Economics in which he argued that the same crisis that hit the newspaper industry could soon affect universities as well, forcing academics to re-think their product and their role in society. “Academics are only interested in publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Although their research is funded by public money, no one outside of academia knows about it.”

Van de Beek sees this disconnection with the public as one of the main causes for the profound crisis that engulfed Dagblad de Limburger/Limburgs Dagblad a few years ago. “The massive vote in Limburg for the most populist party at the last provincial elections and the free fall of the centre Christian Democratic party took us completely by surprise. We hadn’t seen it coming and couldn’t explain it in our usual terms. It made us painfully realise that we had, to some degree at least, lost touch with our readers.”

The newspapers understood that instead of deciding unilaterally what news to write about, they would better serve their readers by trying to uncover and examine the issues and changes that were brewing in society.

This new approach at Dagblad de Limburger/Limburgs Dagblad has meant that many former daily news reporters have now been re-assigned to investigate and write stories on specific themes, such as health, education, or in the case of Van de Beek, social cohesion and citizen participation. “I spend 90 per cent of my time working on this topic,” he says.

This focus has made him acquire a certain level of expertise that appears to be increasingly valued, he adds with a smile. “I have been invited by the city council of Heerlen to take part in meetings and to share my insights on certain issues, less as a journalist than as a player in the field. I see this as a new and interesting development for journalists.’’

Van de Beek believes that academics and journalists share the same task and duty to relate their work to societal problems and make their findings accessible to the public at large. “If you make the same mistake as we did, you might find yourselves in the same crisis sooner than you think,” he told researchers during his talk at SBE.

He also reminded his audience that the often self-proclaimed public mission of many Dutch universities, including MaastrichtUniversity, is to spread knowledge in the public sphere through public communication and active participation in public debates. He emphasised his point with a quote from Dutch researchers Paul Benneworth and Ben Jongbloed: “As recipients of public funding, universities must account for their activities and achievements to government and wider society.”

“This is where journalists come in”

Van de Beek sees clear mutual benefits in the collaboration between the media and academia. “We share a common mission to bring knowledge to the world. Journalists are looking for in-depth stories and researchers can provide them with good topics. Conversely, journalists can help researchers in translating the academic jargon into plain and understandable language and in disseminating their work.”

He notices however that this collaboration seldom seems to be encouraged at universities. One example he was able to find of a pro-active communication strategy towards the press is that of Duke University in the US. “This strategy is aimed exclusively at gaining media attention for its faculty members and raising the institution’s profile far beyond its North Carolina home. I really loved the lead to their ‘Guidelines for Writing an Article‘. I quote: ‘Do you have an interesting opinion to share? If you can express it clearly and persuasively in an op-ed article, you may reach millions of people, sway hearts, change minds and perhaps even reshape public policy. In the process, you may also earn recognition for yourself and your institution, all for less effort than it takes to write a professional journal article’.”

Van de Beek explains further that the need to publish fast, one of the obstacles which perhaps used to hinder the cooperation between the press and academia in the past, has become a more flexible concept at his newspapers. “Journalists who are assigned to work on specific themes are working with a different time frame. They are less constrained by hard deadlines and are able to take the time to build up more in-depth relationships with their sources, based on trust and respect.”

Van de Beek is aware that the pursuit of truth is a very sensitive issue for scientific researchers. “The heated discussion that followed my talk at SBE confirmed it again. Accuracy is what researchers value the most and many expressed strong criticism, perhaps rightly so, at the perceived propensity of journalists to oversimplify or mutilate their thoughts. They saw journalists as people who are ready to sacrifice scientific nuances in favour of catchy sound bites and sexy one-liners.”

In order to appease their fears, Van de Beek has adopted a new approach in contacting faculty sources. “The old strategy of quickly picking up the phone and asking for a quote does not work anymore.  Nowadays, I gain much more from taking the time to look for the researcher’s email address and writing a proper message, explaining who I am, what kind of work I do, what is my field of expertise and what type of information I am looking for. I also clearly indicate what I already know about the topic, what literature I have read, including the researcher’s own publications.”

Van de Beek believes that it is important for researchers to know that they are dealing with knowledgeable and reliable partners and to understand in what way they can help. “They immediately understand the purpose of my contact and know that I have done my homework so that the conversation does not need to start from scratch.”

Van de Beek does not see any problem in letting his scientific contacts read and check his pieces for accuracy before publication. “This is also part of establishing a relationship based on mutual trust and respect,” he explains.

Gain for society

More collaboration between the media and science would also be beneficial for society, Van de Beek argues. “There is an enormous amount of knowledge within these walls that very often has a direct connection with the social environment the university is part of. But if this knowledge stays within these walls or is only shared with a selected audience, society loses out to a degree.”

The university’s press office could play an important role in facilitating matches between researchers and journalists. “Beyond producing press releases announcing the winning of an award or the launch of a new programme, the university could contact the media with catchy messages highlighting the in-house expertise on topical issues. Feed the beast when it is hungry with the food it wants.”

Van de Beek notices some new and promising developments, however. The Faculty of Law has recently decided to cooperate with Dagblad De Limburger on a series of articles around the upcoming European Parliament elections. The articles will examine common ideas and preconceptions about Europe and put them into perspective by opposing them against scientifically researched facts and figures. “It is a duty of a newspaper to inform the public, even on issues that people might not necessarily care to admit,” he says.


By Sueli Brodin
Editor Talkin’Business


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