Faculty say national media attention can increase grant funding and elevates the university's reputation
Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Getting an email or phone call from a reporter and then doing a recorded or live interview can be a nerve-racking experience, even for seasoned faculty. However, University of Iowa faculty who have attracted national attention for their research and scholarship say enduring the nerves and making the time commitment is worth the effort.

Faculty who want to develop their media savvy can take the Communicating Ideas Workshop, which provides tips on speaking to the media and helps faculty hone a one-minute, jargon-free description of their research.

It’s offered as a partnership between the Office of the Vice President for Research, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the Office of Strategic Communication.

Faculty members who’ve successfully landed national publicity either on their own or with assistance from the Office of Strategic Communication say that engaging the public about their research can create opportunities that advance or develop their career, such as increased grant funding, and helps promote the university.

Aliasger Salem, Bighley Chair and professor in the College of Pharmacy and leader of the Experimental Therapeutics Program in the UI’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, says media attention has been helpful.

Salem’s research includes regenerative medicine or therapies for cancer and has been featured in Forbes Magazine, on Fox News, and on National Public Radio.

“As federal funding has become more challenging to secure, philanthropy is one way that faculty can continue to support a full research portfolio,” says Salem. “When individuals become aware of what you’re doing and they want to make a difference, they find a way to contribute.”

Jodie Plumert, Starch Faculty Fellow and professor of psychology, says she views engaging the media as a service to the university.

“It does help raise the prestige of the university, and whenever we raise the prestige of the university, that’s good for all of us,” says Plumert. “For so long, we only talked to each other as researchers in scientific communities and the outcomes of our work were much less accessible to the public. It is helpful that the public at large understands the kind of work that we do and the value that this work has.”

Plumert co-directs the UI’s Hank Virtual Environments Lab with Joseph Kearney, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, professor, and CLAS fellow. Their research on child development and traffic safety most recently appeared on Good Morning America; their work has also appeared in the Huffington Post, Scientific American, and on Iowa Public Radio.

Kearney says the benefits of publicity are both long-term and short-term. In the short term, publicity can help a researcher secure grant funding.

“Granting agencies are well aware of the importance of public good will for scholarship and scientific activities,” says Kearney. “To be able to say, ‘I’ve done this work and it’s received national attention,’ actually gives you a leg up in applying for the next grant.”

In the long term, Kearney says, promoting research creates opportunities for future researchers.

“The savvier and more scientifically aware every citizen is, the more support there is for research and the more likely it is that we will be able to continue to do good scholarship,” says Kearney. “For all academics, the more we can spend time learning how to express our ideas, the better off we all are.”

Other faculty say they have an obligation to engage the public via the media.

“It’s not some annoyance; it’s an essential part of our job,” says Maurine Neiman, associate professor of biology. “I think it’s important to get yourself out there, to try to get over this idea that scientists are somehow not part of the public sphere, because we absolutely are.”

“When my Fox News story and the Forbes Magazine article came out, they all came out using Iowa Now as the conduit. ... I know that they can make sure, working with me, that we have something that’s scientifically accurate and palatable to the general public, and that’s the perfect combination.”

Aliasger Salem, Bighley Chair and professor in the College of Pharmacy, leader of the Experimental Therapeutics Program in the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Neiman’s research on the sexual reproduction of New Zealand snails came under attack after a conservative news outlet, CNS News, published an article claiming Neiman’s research wasted taxpayer money. Though the article was later removed from the website, it spurred a national conversation about federal funding for research. Neiman refers to the experience as a “trial by fire” but encourages other faculty not to shy away from the press or the public.

Neiman says there are very concrete benefits to engaging with news media, though many are indirect and difficult to identify.

One clear result, she says, was that after the story from CNS News, other researchers publicly defended her work and she became nationally known to other evolutionary biologists and program officers at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“NSF program officers now think of me as somebody who’s dealt with some challenging experiences and handled them in a way that was positive,” says Neiman.

Neiman’s reputation as a publicly engaged scientist also brought her to the attention of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which now funds the Science Booster Club in Iowa, an outreach program that educates youth about science and supports graduate students who assist Neiman’s research.

Being cautious is natural

Salem says that receiving attention in the news media can help or hurt if one isn’t careful. He advises proceeding with caution and taking advantage of the resources offered by the university for faculty interested in promoting their work.

One such resource is provided annually by the Office of the Vice President for Research. The office hosts a Communicating Ideas Workshop that provides tips on speaking to media and helps faculty to hone a one-minute, jargon-free description of their research. The one-minute description is filmed and posted to the OVPR website.

“Media communication isn’t always a part of researchers’ graduate training,” says Leslie Revaux, manager of campus communications at OVPR. “I think that a lot of people have seen colleagues whose research has been misrepresented and they don’t want to find themselves in that situation.”

Another resource is the UI’s Office of Strategic Communication (OSC). To assist in promoting their research, Kearney, Salem, Neiman, and Plumert have worked closely with the OSC communications team, which identifies the best options for potentially sharing news that aligns with the university's core missions of teaching, research, and scholarship. That may include writing stories for campus news channels such as Iowa Now or pitching research findings to local and national media.

Faculty who want to promote their research findings should contact their college communicator or the appropriate OSC communications specialist: https://osc.uiowa.edu/contact-us.

“When my Fox News story and the Forbes Magazine article came out, they all came out using Iowa Now as the conduit,” says Salem. “Why is that my preferred mechanism? Because I trust it. I know that they can make sure, working with me, that we have something that’s scientifically accurate and palatable to the general public, and that’s the perfect combination.”

Salem says he knows that because he works in cancer research, it’s easier to get media attention than it is for others. For example, Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies, says that scholars in the humanities can struggle to establish their relevance for the public.

“It’s impossible to compete with ‘Hey, over here at the medical school we developed something that’s going to save your life,’” says Cargill, who has long promoted his scholarship and that of his peers in the field of biblical archeology. He has appeared on Good Morning AmericaInside Edition, and CNN’s Newsday, as well as in several documentaries, including CNN’s Finding Jesus and the 2019 History Channel documentary series Jesus: His Life.

“It’s much harder to convince people to give money for humanities research. So the trick is to try to find an angle that piques an interest that has been something that they’ve been grappling with,” Cargill says.

Like Neiman, Cargill says that his notoriety helped generate unexpected opportunities. After Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman publicly named Cargill as her private tutor on religions of the Middle East, he was approached by documentary producers who told him he was “camera friendly,” says Cargill.

Combined with years of blogging, posting to social media, and publishing his research, Cargill says he developed a public profile as a scholar who was also accessible to the general public, which helped him to become the editor of Biblical Archeology Review, a magazine with a circulation of 120,000.

Cargill says that engaging the media is one way he’s set himself apart in his field. However, it’s not because he promoted only his own work, but rather because he promoted the work of his colleagues as well.

“One thing I can do is establish an online profile that helps to promote the humanities,” Cargill says. “But remember, if you’re just promoting yourself, then you look like a self-promoter. But if you’re promoting the field and other people’s research, then people want to read you. You become an authority.”

Tips for talking to the media

  • Know the reporter, the publication, and its audience
  • Anticipate questions
  • Rehearse responses out loud
  • Speak clearly and avoid jargon
  • Convey key points only—limit yourself to two to three
  • Be concise
  • Offer or request to review passages explaining or describing the research
  • Be gracious and sincere—be yourself
  • Be prepared for a significant time investment