RWJF Scholars offer advice about how the news media can influence public discourse and policy.
Most health researchers aspire to get their findings published in scholarly journals. Any media coverage beyond that, they figure, is simply a lucky break.
Not Raina Merchant, MD, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholar (2007-2010). She considered various ways to engage the media before she began her research project—and got lots of newspaper ink and broadcast airtime as a result. "Because it was a crowd-sourcing project, there was a strategy in place to engage the media in the project itself," she says. "It was not just publicity for publicity's sake, but a key part of the ramp-up to the project."
Merchant’s project—a crowd-sourced scavenger hunt for already-installed automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, in Philadelphia—was featured in some of the nation’s most prominent news outlets, such as Wired, the Economist, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal. Merchant also entered into a partnership with her hometown newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which attracted untold numbers of volunteers and enhanced the project’s success.
Merchant is one of a handful of RWJF scholars who broke through scholarly journals and trade publications and into the mainstream media this year.
Zachary Goldberger, MD, MS, an RWJF Clinical Scholar at the University of Michigan (2010-2012), published a study last year about the benefits of prolonged cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) that was featured in a front-page article in the New York Times. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it ran in publications around the country.
Christopher Bail, PhD, an RWJF Scholar in Health Policy Research (2011-2013), participated in a live, 6-minute interview with National Public Radio about his research, which showed that negative portrayals of Muslims get more media attention than positive ones. The study was also covered by outlets such as the Huffington Post, Salon, NBC News and others.
And Tracey Yap, PhD, RN, a grantee of the Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative, an RWJF-supported program that funds interdisciplinary research on the link between nursing and quality of patient care, used musical cues to prompt nursing home staff to make sure that all residents moved or were moved every two hours in order to prevent pressure ulcers. Her study was covered in major metropolitan dailies in Ohio, Kentucky and Florida and on news programs on CBS, ABC and NPR affiliates in North Carolina, where she is an assistant professor at the Duke University School of Nursing.
Media attention is, of course, flattering, the scholars said. Friends read about them in the newspaper, heard about them on the radio, and saw them on TV. Colleagues congratulated them on their work, and strangers wrote to share their own stories.
But the benefits go far beyond that. Mainstream media coverage enhanced the quality of their research, boosted their professional profiles, and started the kinds of conversations that can lead to lasting, meaningful change in health and health care, they said.
Merchant, for example, was able to build visibility about her project to locate defibrillators thanks to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. During the 8-week project, the paper ran clues about the whereabouts of the life-saving devices in its print and online editions. The clues helped participants locate and record unaccounted-for AED devices.
Merchant has won five awards for the project, and has received emails from officials in some 20 cities asking about how to replicate it—a phenomenon that she doubts would have happened had major news outlets like the Wall Street Journal left it alone.
Other scholars echoed her comments about the importance of media coverage.
Bail said coverage of his study about media images of Muslims sparked national dialogue about the subject. Indeed, articles about his study prompted hundreds of reader comments and have landed him invitations to speak to several large nonprofit organizations. “I don’t know if it’s going to help me get tenure,” he said, “but it gives me a little renewed passion to return to my work when I realize the public relevance this might have.”
Goldberger, meanwhile, said the media attention helped pave the way to new working relationships when he moved to Seattle last year. “The more attention that your study gets, the more exposure you have to local investigators, and opportunities to do further work will come from that.”
And Yap and research partner Susan Kennerly, PhD, RN, professor at University of North Carolina-Charlotte School of Nursing, agreed that media attention has boosted their profiles among people both inside and outside the profession and has given them a real sense of satisfaction.
Yap has been contacted by people who learned about her project through the media, and said she was quite moved by the personal stories they shared. One woman in Florida, for example, told her about a loved one in a nursing home who suffered from pressure ulcers. The woman told Yap that she was going to ask the facility to implement a similar program using musical cues to get residents moved more frequently—a story Yap found “particularly rewarding.”
Media attention, of course, isn’t always positive.
The news media is notorious for errors and distortions. An Associated Press article about Goldberger’s study, for example, said heart attack patients could benefit from longer CPR, when in fact the findings related specifically to people who had suffered from cardiac arrest—not heart attacks. And the public debate sparked by media coverage isn’t always positive, Bail noted. Anti-Muslim groups, for example, have used his study to strengthen their efforts to portray Muslims in a negative light. “The media coverage is fueling their fire,” he said.
Still, the scholars appreciated the positive effects of the attention. “Media coverage is an important part of dissemination,” Merchant said. “Our work doesn’t end when we publish an article in a journal.”