Recently appointed Lecturer in Work and Employment, Benjamin Hopkins, ponders a little about how he has been represented in the popular media, and a lot about how research subjects are represented within academic media.
The forthcoming election has sparked a flurry of television programmes discussing immigration: Channel 4’s UKIP: The First 100 Days, ITV’s Tonight: The Truth About Immigration and BBC2’s Meet the Ukippers are among the higher profile examples. As somebody who has researched immigration, I was recently interviewed on the topic for an episode of BBC1’s Week In Week Out [from 10: 30]. On the very same evening, Channel 4 broadcast The Romanians are Coming and the controversially discontinued Immigration Street: the well edited sound-bites which my contribution became may well have escaped your attention.
Media appearances can be risky for academics. Rather than adopting the carefully considered prose of books, journal articles and blogs, we have to respond to questions posed off the cuff. The omens weren’t good when, on the same day that I was going on air, the media-seasoned Green Party leader Natalie Bennett suffered what she later termed a ‘mind blank’ during a live radio interview. Pre-recorded interviews offer other risks: a discussion that lasts nearly an hour gets edited down to just a couple of minutes for the sake of maintaining the interviewer’s narrative. A trailer BBC headline for Week In Week Out announced “Immigration has ‘negative impact’ on jobs and Welsh NHS”. This is a very misleading summary of the cited survey’s findings. Only one in three of the 1,000 people surveyed believed this statement to be true, while around half believed there had been no impact of immigration at all. Never let the truth get in the way of a good headline.
With over a month between interview and broadcast, there was plenty of time to contemplate what parts of the interview could be used. Ultimately, around two minutes of footage from the discussion in which I was involved was included in the programme. Following the broadcast, social media – those corners of the internet described by Morrissey as akin to a “hateful online crèche” – were scanned for people’s immediate reactions to my interview, but feedback for the programme was mostly positive. However, while no negative comments were particularly related to my portion of the programme, Arfon Jones, a Plaid Cymru councillor from Wrexham, saw fit to describe the UKIP MEP Nathan Gill, who also appeared in the programme, as coming across as “a real ‘tit’”.
This brief experience of moving from interviewer to interviewee provides some not easily digestible food for thought. My interview took place in the sort of environment within which I am more than accustomed: a lecture theatre. Furthermore, the topic discussed is one on which I can legitimately claim a heightened level of competence, if not expertise. Nevertheless, this was far from easy: the shift from academic interviewer to media interviewee makes the seemingly familiar somehow unfamiliar. The presence of the recording equipment ensures that any errors or stumbles I might have made are now chronicled, potentially forever. “Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain,” I thought, until I realised that this is precisely the situation we researchers put our own interviewees in.
My worries about inappropriate editing also resonate in the wider presentation of social scientific research. I’m not the only interviewee, in other words, who worries about how the material and information that I have provided will be used by those to whom I have provided it. In the case of a television interview, the unease is related to how the material will be cut and edited. For our own interviewees, the concern may be with how they are presented, and with how their views may also be taken out of context. Beyond the duty to not misrepresent, interviewers surely also have a duty to consider the possible effects that publication might have on those about who we publish. An off the cuff remark about a manager could lead to severe repercussions for an interviewee. Additionally, academic writing’s concern for brevity, as Jo Brewis has written, can lead us to caricature the views of our respondents, perhaps even to the point of misrepresentation. This is particularly true of the most frequently-utilised academic outlet – the journal article.
Does anybody seriously believe that a person’s entire workplace experience can be encapsulated with one or two short quotes? Perhaps it is through in-depth studies published in longer books, rather than a slavish adherence to the ABS journal rankings and playing REF games, that will allow for a true representation of the contemporary workplace.