Handling the Media

Illman, J. (2016) Handling the Media: Communications and Presentation Skills for Healthcare Professionals

This book is primarily for healthcare professionals who may not know how to communicate with the media or who may be reluctant to do so. Written by an experienced medical writer, the book shows how the interests of journalists differ from those of healthcare professionals, while emphasising that the relationship between these two groups need not be an antagonistic one.

Because journalists will be interested in stories which are novel, universally appealing and controversial, the author argues that healthcare workers should engage with the media in order to avoid misrepresentation. But to engage successfully, communication skills need to be honed.

John Illman consequently offers concrete advice on how to respond to requests for a media interview and how to prepare for the interview once accepted. Particularly insightful is his discussion of “bridging” techniques, which are used to acknowledge and to respond constructively to difficult questions. This is an important skill to master where the agendas of the interviewer and the interviewee differ.

Useful guidance is also given on how to prepare and deliver presentations and how to use social media to communicate effectively. The advice on writing for the press and on pitching an outline of an article to an editor is similarly good and will appeal to readers who want to make medical journalism their career.

This is an excellent book. There is some theory in relation to journalistic balance, bias and law, but the focus is practical. It is well written and will certainly encourage the reader to believe that they can use the media to communicate with a non‐specialist public.

Review originally published in Reviews Significance , 14:2 45 doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2017.01024.x

Supported Decision Making at KESS

Our four peer researchers gave a wonderful presentation of findings so far for the supported decision making research project at the Knowledge Exchange Seminar (KESS), Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast on the 7th February 2018.

A policy briefing, the slides and a video of their talk is now available!

Supported Decision Making

Our research team will be giving a presentation on Supported decision making – experiences, approaches and preferences at the Knowledge Exchange Seminar, Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings, Stormont on the 7th February 2018.

So why not take a look at the abstract and register to attend if you are around?

Abstract

Making decisions about your own life is a key aspect of independence, freedom and human rights. Mental health law has previously allowed compulsory intervention even when a person has the decision making ability to decline intervention. This discriminates against those with mental health problems and intellectual disabilities. In May 2016 the Mental Capacity Act (Northern Ireland) became statutory law, although may not be implemented until 2020. In contrast to other countries this law will replace rather than be in parallel to a mental health law. This is a unique and progressive development which seeks to address the discrimination of separate mental health law. A core principle of the new Act is that people are “not to be treated as unable to make a decision…unless all practicable help and support to enable the person to make a decision about the matter have been given without success” (Article 1(4)).

There are people who, without support, would be assessed as incapable of making certain decisions but with the appropriate support are capable of making those decisions, and so to not provide that support infringes their rights, undermines their autonomy and reinforces their exclusion from society. There is very limited research evidence available about people’s experience of the range of approaches provided to support decision-making; what approaches work for whom; and what people’s preferences are for support. This evidence is urgently needed to inform the Code of Practice for the new Act and the wider implementation process.

This presentation provides a summary of findings from a research project which explored how people have, or have not been, supported to make their own decisions. It was funded by Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) and used a coproduction approach between disabled people, Praxis, Mencap and Queen’s. The project involved peer researchers interviewing 20 people with mental health problems and 20 people with intellectual disabilities, to gain an in-depth understanding of their experiences of supported decision-making and their preferences and ideas for how decision-making should be supported in the new legal framework.

Research into Practice

The Social Research Association (SRA) has organised a panel discussion in Belfast on 14th March 2018.

This free SRA evening event in Northern Ireland is a panel discussion of how research gets into practice – or doesn’t. What makes this possible, in Northern Ireland and further afield?  What are the barriers, and what are the enablers? Does research get into practice more easily in some sectors or disciplines? If so, what can this teach others, and how?

If this appeals, why not complete the registration form here?

Social Media & Survey Research

Hill, C.A., Dean E., Murphy J. (2014) Social media, sociality and survey research

This book has been written because of the writers’ awareness that declining response rates and inadequate sampling frames present a challenge to all social researchers who wish to collect survey data which is ‘accurate, timely and accessible’. Primarily written by researchers from RTI International, the book is a compendium of chapters which describe how the researchers have incorporated social media data into their research projects. The authors suggest that the book is intended for survey and market researchers, as well as students in survey methodology and market research and I agree that this book will be useful for this constituency.

The writers don’t argue for the replacement of the more familiar survey modes but suggest that postal, web-based and telephone surveys can be supplemented by the imaginative use of social media. Indeed, they recognise that social media data has its own limitations and does not fit easily into designs where precise estimates are needed.

The writers define social media as ‘a collection of websites and web-based systems that allow for mass interaction, conversation, and sharing among members of a network’ and refer to web 2.0 with its user generated content. The book covers a diverse range of topics which include how to predict sentiments and emotions using consistent methods, how to pre-test questionnaires use Skype and Second Life and how to develop innovative research by using social media to collect ideas from large groups of people. There is also a chapter on how to apply the principles of the games designer to market research so that participation in research is more enjoyable.

Athough very wide ranging, the book retains its coherence because it is organised around the idea of a ‘sociality hierarchy’ which can be broken down into broadcast, conversational and community levels. The authors also consistently avoid the use of technical language and include a useful set of references – many of which are downloadable – at the end of each chapter.

This book is a must read for any researcher who wants to make use of social media data; it is incisive, instructive, easy to read and, above all, fascinating.

Review originally published in Research Matters, June 2014

Is Freelance Journalism Obsolete?

Cohen, N.S. (2016) Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age.

At a time when, to quote Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ‘literally tens of thousands of journalists are losing their jobs’ and freelancing is becoming a permanent way of working for many creative workers, the publication of Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age could not be timelier.

Writers’ Rights is a ‘study of the working conditions of freelance journalists’ in English-speaking Canada, the USA and the UK, an account of the context in which freelance journalists work and an assessment of the organisational strategies which they have used to deal with their economic circumstances and powerlessness vis-à-vis publishers (6). Under the term ‘freelance journalist’, Cohen – a former one herself – includes reporters as well as producers of non-fiction of all types, including features and corporate material. The study is based on the author’s own online survey of 206 Canadian freelance journalists in 2010, semi-structured interviews with staff and organisers within journalistic organisations and an interdisciplinary literature review (19-20).

Cohen begins by describing the working conditions of freelance journalists, which have deteriorated markedly with the arrival of digital journalism. Although one could argue that journalists are now living in a ‘golden age’ because of the explosion of online publications, Cohen provides a convincing exposé of worsening working conditions, including low or non-existent fees relative to colleagues on permanent contracts, inconsistent payment schedules, exclusion from social benefits due to the self-employed status of the freelance worker and the aggressive pursuit of copyright by publishers that leads to writers surrendering their  ‘moral right’ to be recognised as the author of a work via a byline.

In short, it is becoming very difficult to earn a living as a freelance journalist. Indeed, other sources would seem to corroborate Cohen’s assessment.  As a recent survey for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) shows, the mean salary of freelance journalists in the UK is £19,499 per annum (5), with 44 per cent reporting that they earn less than £15,000 per year (6).

But why should the comparative immiseration of freelance journalists matter? For Cohen, it matters because the way in which freelance journalists are paid influences the types of journalism that are produced. Where freelance journalists are paid by the word, per feature or work on a pro bono basis in order to establish their brand, investigative journalism, freelance war reporting or in-depth feature writing become prohibitively expensive. A recent survey by Project Word of freelance investigative reporters hammers the point home by reporting that 55 per cent of survey respondents ‘failed to recoup their expenditures from story revenue, grants, or donations’ (5). Cohen is therefore correct to argue that ‘journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life’ (7), and that its viability as a practice is being seriously compromised by the ways in which journalists are remunerated for their work.

Cohen is also persuasive when describing how falling payments for freelance work can lead to the fusion of work and leisure time as writers strive to maximise every hour of the day to create value (128). The representation of the journalist as a worker who is always tuned in to the possibility of a saleable story may be an ideal type – if of the negative variety. By contrast, the NCTJ survey shows that 43 per cent of respondents were working part time and 87 per cent thought that their hours were reasonable (5). The NCTJ survey respondents also didn’t tend to view their freelance status as an unwanted interlude between one permanent contract and another, with 82 per cent reporting that they were not seeking to leave freelance journalism (6). However, apparently contradictory survey results from other sources do not necessarily invalidate Cohen’s assessment of the economic plight of freelance journalists. As she herself acknowledges, freelance journalists can be characterised by variation in terms of their earnings, working experiences and levels of job satisfaction (15).

Cohen’s account of what it is like to be a freelance journalist is understandably influenced by the concepts she uses, which are drawn from Marxist political economy. Although she recognises that many freelance journalists conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs, she argues that they do not, in most cases, accumulate capital or own the means of production which are vital ‘in order to bring products to market’ (26). For Cohen, journalists occupy a contradictory class location between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie at the economic level and between the working class and the bourgeoisie at the intellectual level (35). In other words, many freelance journalists may endure penury, but identify with the objectives of the publisher.

Rather unsurprisingly, therefore, the book concludes by making the argument that freelance journalists can improve their economic situation by mass unionisation. In order to buttress her argument, Cohen refers to the Canadian experience, which shows that writers’ organisations can make tangible gains for their members. She therefore references a number of organisations including a literary agency (the Canadian Writers Group), a professional association (the Professional Writers Association of Canada) and a union (the Canadian Media Guild) that have indeed secured improvements for their members. The collective agreements that the Canadian Media Guild have secured with a range of employers is one noteworthy example as is their affiliation with the 700,000 member strong Communication Workers of America.

However, what is clear is that attempts by freelance journalists to organise collectively have been hampered by the sheer number of writers’ organisations. Cohen recognises this by identifying the different attitudes that freelance journalists have towards collective organisation. Should a writers’ organisation be a professional association offering services to its members like a mutual society? Or should it be a literary agency representing the most prominent writers? Or should the organisation be a union and engage in collective bargaining on behalf of a mass membership base? Cohen plumps for the latter option (230-31). Although she is correct to suggest that creating a large union might be possible, I’m less convinced that an organisation of this type would survive in the medium to long term for the reasons Cohen herself recognises: freelance journalists are a diverse group with differing aspirations and ideological positions that are not necessarily compatible. How, for example, could a union hold together a membership that includes journalists who identify as small business people and writers who think of themselves as creative workers with an affiliation to the labour movement? Yes, one could argue that the entrepreneurial language that some journalists use masks the reality of the power imbalance between freelance journalists and publishers, but the fact that some journalists regard themselves as entrepreneurs must surely influence the types of collective organisations that they join.

Although I’m less optimistic than Cohen about the possibilities for organising such a diverse range of creative workers within a super union, Writers’ Rights is an invaluable addition to the literature on self-employment in general and freelance journalism in particular. Lucid, informative and passionate in arguing that freelance journalists can both defend their profession and produce journalism which enriches the democratic debate, this book will be read by practising journalists and students of the media alike.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books, March 2017

Bridge of Words

Schor, E. (2016) Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

Readers of Hong Kong Review of Books will, no doubt, be familiar with some of the great works of Chinese literature. Think, for example, of Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin,  Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Ba Jin’s semi-autobiographical novel The Family. What will be much less well-known is that these three classics of  Chinese and world literature have also been translated into Esperanto — the international language  originally constructed in the late nineteenth-century as an easy-to-learn second language for everyone.

Mention of the word ‘Esperanto’ usually meets with a number of responses which can range from complete indifference to condescending disdain. Esther Schor’s new book Bridge of Words:  Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language is therefore a welcome addition to the literature in this field which may help to disperse the thick cloud of ignorance which so often envelops the subject.

In a book which lucidly blends memoir, biography and history, Schor introduces the reader to the life of Dr L. L. Zamenhof — a polyglot Jewish opthalmologist who was born in 1859 in Białystok in what was then part of the Russian Empire. Mention of Zamenhof’s Jewish identity perhaps gives a clue to the circumstances which led him to ‘invent’ a language. He was born in a multilingual milieu speaking Russian and Yiddish at home, using Polish and German for business and chanting Hebrew in the synagogue. But he also lived in a part of the world where the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had led to pogroms against Jewish people and where different ethnic groups effectively lived parallel lives. However, because he was born into the cosmopolitan Jewish bourgeoisie (his father Marcus was a censor for the Tsarist regime), Zamenhof certainly had the cultural and linguistic tools needed to design a language which, he felt, could reduce inter ethnic tension.

Consequently, after flirting with Zionism in Moscow and Warsaw, Zamenhof was ready to begin his ambitious project. On the assumption that existing languages were just too difficult for most people to learn, he developed a language with a stock of words drawn from an international lexicon and a regular grammar with almost no exceptions to its basic rules. Particularly useful was the ‘agglutinative’ nature of the language whereby Zamenhof created roots with meanings which could be changed by adding a prefix or a suffix. Indeed, the agglutinative character which Zamenhof gave to the language was a stroke of genius because it meant that one could build up a large vocabulary from a relatively small word hoard.

Schor also shows how Zamenhof effectively set the language free by refusing to become the arbiter of how Esperanto should develop. In contrast to the autocratic control which Johann Martin Schleyer — the creator of Volapük —tried to exercise over his language project, Zamenhof’s approach was different. As Schor says, “unlike most language inventors, Zamenhof renounced the privileges of a creator…He is the only language inventor on record ever to cede his language to its users….” Zamenhof’s language was consequently published in 1887 in a Russian textbook  known by Esperantists as First Book or  Unua Libro using the nom de plume ‘Doktoro Esperanto’.  As readers will no doubt have guessed, this nom de plume — Esperanto — became the name which has been associated with the language ever since. Needless to say, translations of the book followed into other languages.

But Schor’s account of the genesis and subsequent history of the language is not unequivocally glowing. Indeed, she entertainingly describes the conflict between Esperanto speakers over the movement’s purpose, reforms to the language and inevitable personality clashes between people with strong convictions. In parts, so much of the book reads like the story of a vaguely leftist and ineffective groupuscule for progressive polyglots. The flipping back and forth between history and Schor’s account of her Esperanto studies and her worldwide Esperanto congresses attendance also makes the historical chronology difficult to follow at times.

Yet the interweaving of memoir with history does work because Schor manages to combine an account of the facts of the matter with emotive and insightful pen portraits of individual Esperantists. Moreover, Schor tells us that in well over a century of existence, the Esperanto movement — primarily organised around the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) — has established a translation programme, created original works of literature, built relationships  with the UN and UNESCO and established a small but vibrant transnational speech community.

Though Schor never unequivocably says that the Esperanto movement has failed, one could argue that Esperantists have patently failed to persuade the peoples and governments of the world to use the language as a universal lingua franca. Such a view of Esperanto and its speakers would be premature. Although English remains the international language of the moment, there is no reason to suppose that this will remain so in the future and, in any case, there is little evidence for the view that English — or any other large globally dispersed language — is spoken to an advanced level by anyone outside of its native speaker community or a comparatively small group of transnational elites.

Schor therefore leaves the reader with the impression that the community of Esperanto speakers  is a small but global collection of people in diaspora. What could transform Esperanto into a language spoken by millions is the increased uptake of teaching opportunities which have, in many cases, moved to the internet, combined with acquired prestige for the language among the governing elites. Insofar as the internet is concerned, Schor refers to the websites lernu! and Duolingo which have proved to be very popular. Although Humphrey Tonkin — “an eminent man of letters in the Esperanto world and a professor emeritus of English Renaissance literature” — notes that Zamenhof may have inadvertantly created a language which is even less prestigious than the Yiddish which was spoken in the streets of Białystok, mass uptake of the language may concentrate the minds of the powerful. One only has to recall that Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Union Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, gave a speech in Esperanto at a Conference on international language policy in July 2016 to see that the tide may be making an unusual turn in favour of Esperanto.

Review originally published in Hong Kong Review of Books, December 2016