Working Together 101: How Academics & Journalists Can Collaborate
Reporting back from our SRCCON 2018 session, and introducing a new handbook project
[Cross-posted with Reveal.]
Academics bring deep knowledge and expertise in their area of study, and journalists have mastered the art of telling stories. When academics and journalists collaborate, they can combine their skills to tackle complex questions and communicate the answers in ways that can have a huge impact on society. That’s why we’re working to foster these collaborations. At this year’s SRCCON, we facilitated a session about how to make this all happen.
We’re also excited to announce that we’re building a handbook to make it easier to work across disciplines, no matter your role. You can contribute examples and information about your experiences here!
A Few Basics About Academia & Journalism
Why should academics and journalists collaborate? What are some good examples of collaborations?
SR: The Chicago Tribune’s collaboration with scientists at Columbia University to study fatal drug interactions is an example of a collaboration that made a big impact. Sam Roe, a veteran investigative journalist, brought together a team of scientists, academics, and experts from the Columbia University Medical Center and University of Arizona medical school to answer questions about potentially fatal drug combinations that had never been studied before. His ideas, questions, and knowledge of scientists and their work came from deep reporting that he’d done on the topic over many years. As a journalist, Roe was key to making this original research happen by bringing together academics from different institutions and managing this massive project with many partners through multiple years.
In another large-scale collaboration called the Open Policing Project, the communications and engineering departments at Stanford University came together to create one of the largest and most comprehensive datasets on policing at traffic stops. The interdisciplinary team filed FOIA requests with states across the country and received data from 31 of them. Together, they cleaned and analyzed 130 million records and made the entire dataset available for public use for free.
Access to data often motivates these types of collaborations. As part of a project that I worked on around Silicon Valley diversity, collaboration with an academic opened the floodgates for data that would have been impossible to acquire through any other means. Similarly, in collaboration with reporters from the New York Times, Laura’s team at Measure of America applied for data from the New York City Department of Education and analyzed high school graduation rates in a way that had not been done before. This data formed the basis of a story on school choice and a research report.
A collaboration doesn’t have to be as large in scope as these examples though. There are many other projects where a journalist and academic worked together for a short time to access and analyze some data, create an innovative visualization, or tell a new story. Regardless of size, a collaboration breaks through the traditional model of journalists looking at academics as just sources for a story and academics tapping into journalists for publicity for their work. Sure, that relationship is still invaluable, but by working on projects together, journalists have an opportunity to influence original research and make that research accessible to the masses. And academics have an opportunity to research topics that are of importance to the public. Ultimately, this process creates better journalism and better research that allows the public to be more informed and better engaged.
What does each discipline bring to the table?
LL: Academics and journalists bring complementary skills to the table. At Measure of America, a nonprofit project of the Social Science Research Council, we focus on translating data and research into understandable, actionable forms, and I see journalism as a really integral part of that mission. As a data analyst I travel along the whole spectrum from raw data to big picture ideas. But one of the things that brings the work the last mile is the way that journalists interrogate the information and weave it into compelling narratives.
The depth of knowledge that an academic brings to a topic and the amount of time they are able to devote to the study of one area (years!) is incredibly valuable, but can also make it difficult to communicate the big picture to an audience outside the field. And even the best communicator may not have access to a public forum to share their findings more broadly.
On the other hand, a journalist is an expert at telling intriguing stories, synthesizing big ideas, communicating information in visual ways, and bringing together sources from various perspectives to form a richer narrative. They have a broad audience and can move quickly to share information that is relevant in the moment. But they need data and facts—material from which to build an innovative story.
Ultimately academics and journalists both work toward the same goal of increasing human understanding of the world around us, and their complementary skill sets make for fabulous collaborations. Each is able to fill what the other needs.
How do journalists and academics find each other when they’re interested in working together?
SR: I was hired at Reveal to explore the possibilities of collaboration between academics and journalists around workplace discrimination and safety issues. When I started out, all I had was a beat. I put on my reporting hat and started reading all the top-cited research in this area. I relied heavily on the Social Science Research Network, Google Scholar, and Lexis Nexis. I also signed up to receive news of the latest working papers in the area at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Some participants in our SRCCON workshop mentioned Journalist’s Resource which is a project based out of the Harvard Kennedy School.
Twitter lists, news feeds, and Google alerts are great ways to keep abreast of news reports about a topic. As with any collaboration, it’s important to find partners who share your values around accuracy and fairness.
But a lot of the time, connections happen through networks of colleagues and word of mouth, as in our case.
Laura and I kept thinking about these collaborations in our own worlds, and both of us independently pitched our own versions of this session for SRCCON. Ryan Pitts, one of the organizers of the conference, saw that we both basically pitched the same session and brought us together. Events like SRCCON, which are always on the lookout for what’s cutting edge in the field of journalism, can also be places to meet new people and brainstorm ideas.
Though the resources we just mentioned are practical places to find research and experts, the starting point of a collaboration is the questions and ideas that come out of the reporting process. It’s helpful to cold-contact an academic or reporter by stating why this project is important and innovative, what kind of broad implications it can have, highlighting what you can bring to the table and what you need help with. Selling the mutual benefits of a collaboration can be extremely helpful, no matter which field you’re coming from.
What are some challenges and barriers that they might run into?
SR: As part of the workshop we facilitated at SRCCON, here are some of the barriers we heard come up when academics and journalists try to collaborate:
Timelines. Academics and journalists operate on different timelines. Newsrooms often have stringent deadlines. Working on these complex collaborative projects requires time and resources.
Lack of institutional support and resources, in terms of time and money, to make large projects happen. Funding is hard to come by for both newsrooms and research institutions, which can be a real barrier. These types of collaborations are not considered the core of either group’s work, and so these kinds of projects are not incentivized or evaluated.
Academics often fear that journalists will misinterpret findings or lose nuance while explaining results. While this can be true in some cases, reputable reporters pay very close attention to accuracy.
While co-publishing research and news articles can be beneficial in amplifying the overall message, the two groups may have conflicts over credit and recognition. One party may worry that the other will publish something without their name or minimize their contribution and thus receive more public recognition for the project.
Academics and journalists operate under different cultural norms and context. For example, journalists often don’t want to grant anonymity to sources, but academics often do. Journalists also want to hold people and institutions accountable, while academics might want to study an underlying systemic problem deeply.
These barriers are not a reason to avoid collaborating, but they are important things to think through before starting any collaboration.
Reveal has created an event series called Mind to Mind that brings the nation’s top academics and journalists together to foster conversations to figure out how to move past these barriers. Last year, we got together at Stanford University and this fall on Oct 12., we’ll meet at American University.
What’s the future for collaborations between academics and journalists?
LL: I see a future where academics and journalists work together on in-depth stories that engage the public in cutting-edge research. Where academics reach out to journalists when they have exciting data and want to make a cool visualization. Where journalists contact academics with the beginnings of a story idea and say, “How can we investigate this?” Where a citizen can identify a problem in their community, contact a journalist about it, and initiate an interdisciplinary, participatory research project.
Introducing a new handbook for collaborations
We want to help facilitate this type of dreaming and innovative thinking about collaboration, and we hope that our session at SRCCON was just the beginning.
Have you worked on a collaboration like this? We want you to share your experiences and knowledge! We have created a place where you can share what you did, what you learned, what worked and what didn’t, and what your visions for the future are. This handbook will serve as a resource for others looking to begin collaborations and distill best practices. We hope it will also kick off a larger conversation about where academia-journalism collaborations could head in the future!
Laura Laderman is a data analyst at Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council. She performs quantitative analysis and creates data visualizations with a focus on mapping and geospatial applications. Follow her on Twitter @liladerm.
Sinduja Rangarajan is the senior data journalist at Mother Jones. She previously worked at Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where her series on the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley led to many tech giants publicly releasing their data. Her work has won several awards, including the National Edward Murrow Award in 2019. She wrangles and analyzes datasets to tell stories and finds innovative ways to report on issues by collaborating with academics. She started her journalism career as a Google News Lab Fellow in 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Mumbai and a master’s from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Email her tips at email@example.com.