Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Why when it comes to letters, our academics just can't hack it

Academics don't 'get' journalists, just as journalists don't 'get' academics, writes Malachi O'Doherty, who has a foot in both camps

A still from State of Play, a film about journalists

Academics are strange creatures. They are particularly difficult for journalists to understand. Though both do the same basic thing, looking at the world and writing up their findings, neither quite respects the way the other does that.

Many academic articles are unreadable. What puzzles the journalist moving in academic circles is that these obscure pieces are not lazily written, but that they are laboured over-intensely and reviewed by peers before they are published.

Each obscure word is chosen carefully and the end result is that only a few people can understand what the whole thing is about.

Journalists puzzle academics, because we write in a hurry, dash things off with great confidence, keep the language simple and don't quite believe that any point is worth making if it can't be made clearly and simply.

For three years, until recently, I was writer in residence at Queen's University, Belfast. This created a great opportunity to observe the academics in their habitat, to discover the difference between journalism and academia. Journalists make poor academics and academics, with a few exceptions, make poor journalists.

When I was editor of Fortnight Magazine in Belfast, I made a rule that we wouldn't publish articles with the word 'hermeneutics' in them. I wasn't all that keen on 'deconstruction', either.

I remember a funny encounter with a social scientist, who was appalled that I criticised her work for having language like that. She knew what she meant. She probably knew as many as 15 other people who would, too. The trouble, I tried to explain to her, was that most other people wouldn't understand.

Reading student essays, you discover that this lurch towards unintelligibility is well-advanced by the time they are into postgraduate work.

The good ones will understand what they are on about, but the poor ones will pull references out of books they haven't read to bump up their footnote count.

Saying what they mean and meaning what they say comes far down the list of priorities when the task in hand is to finish an essay.

Journalists, on the other hand, don't quite grasp the academic approach. We saw a bit of that last week in the run-up to a one-day workshop at Queen's on 'Peace Journalism'.

Academics see journalists as curiously unreflective about the central paradox of what they do, work which is often shabby and mischievous, yet, at the same time, vital to the free movement of information and the functioning of democracy.

Most of the journalists who contributed to the discussion did something that no academic would have done: they opinionated without reading up on theory.

Before the day even started, there were comments on Facebook accusing the academics of 'tree-hugging'. Faced with the question of whether journalism could be practised in ways that are more conducive to peace, most journalists thought that they were being invited to be propagandists and took fright at the prospect. So we had a room full of academics and journalists who didn't quite get each other. The fact is that journalism is a huge area of activity and a lot of it, like a lot of novel-writing, filmmaking, comedy, or whatever, is poor. But then a lot of academic work is poor, too.

And journalists do reflect on their failings and the principles that they should work by. They just aren't all that comfortable with academics doing the reflecting for them and they don't trust them to come up with prescriptions on how they should work.

I have met many academics who want to be journalists, or at least to write for newspapers and magazines. And they have a strong incentive now.

Much of university funding is related to 'impact'. Researchers have to show that their work will have results in the real world.

One possible such result is that they will be talked about in the media. Yet academics are lamentable at considering how their material and findings might be discussed journalistically.

I wonder if they are afraid that, if they make things plain, they will lose the mystique of their recondite vocabulary and be spotted talking sense, or not.

I have sat with postgraduate researchers who want to write theses about how journalists abuse language and replicate stereotypes. Their whole approach is to indict the journalist of lazy thinking, or of playing to the gallery.

I try to tell them that this isn't enough. It makes no sense to criticise how journalists write a story unless you can think up a different way in which a story might be made of the same material.

Otherwise, you are just arguing that journalists shouldn't produce journalism; you're just saying that what you don't like is journalism itself.

Journalists like the broad sweep of a story. Academics advance by miniscule increments and they like it that way, because it enables them to break their findings up into more fund-catching articles.

The answer for academics is to learn to think and write like journalists. That way they can get their audiences, which will help them get their funding.

And for journalists to read more academic papers, which will be easier for them to do when academics make them easier to wade through.

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