On publicity

Julian Hargreaves, Research Associate at the Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, reflects on the media coverage of his recent article on research into Muslim victimisation.

By: 
Julian Hargreaves
Date: 
Monday, 05 January, 2015

When it comes to appearing in the media I am something of a newbie but recently I had some beginner’s luck: some research findings of mine were reported in The Independent and Mailonline. Matt Ford at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies invited me to share some reflections on this as well as on my meteoric rise to celebrity status and my recently-acquired financial fortune. I instructed my new valet who rang from the yacht to accept on my behalf.

First, and regardless of my Wodehouse delusions, I am under no illusion whatsoever as to the miniscule contribution my research findings offer. Regardless of the metric chosen to measure such things, my article will probably not advance public awareness, nor persuade other researchers, nor effect policy-making to any great degree. Nor, sadly, will it provide me with celebrity, or wealth, or my own personal Jeeves.

The research in question was discussed in a journal article in which I criticised existing criminological literature concerning British Muslim communities. I argued three main points based on examination of statistical data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales (formerly known as the British Crime Survey). First, that violent crime is no more likely for Muslim respondents to the Crime Survey as it is for non-Muslim respondents. Second, that there is evidence for better relations with the police than might be assumed from an uncritical reading of the literature. Third, that there is a need for a wider variety of research methods and research topics in this field (i.e. a need for research that more often includes quantitative research methods and that more often considers less violent forms of crime such as verbal abuse and harassment).

Overall my contact with ‘the press’ was relatively pain-free. I had to spend some time on the telephone to another journalist in order to explain how my journal article criticises criminologists rather than suggesting British Muslim communities exaggerate their suffering from hate crime and discrimination. This took a minute or two to explain but I’m glad I did. I’m certain the summary of findings I gave him made for a less impactful story than one led by a headline reading ‘Islamophobia Exaggerated By British Muslims’. However, a headline like this would not have conveyed my findings at all accurately and so I was careful to steer away from any damaging misrepresentations (especially given my subject matter and the understandably high emotions stirred up by debates in this area).

Another news story about university research appeared in the press shortly after mine. Scientists from the UK and US have suggested a second ‘mirror universe’ created at the time of the Big Bang where time moves backwards. Time moving backwards in an alternative reality? My theory about a slightly different way of conceptualising anti-Muslim hate crime looked rather drab by comparison. Actually, it was already looking fairly drab to some others. I was interviewed by a journalist from a third national newspaper who, to use the parlance of journalists, had his story ‘held over’ or ‘spiked’ or in plainer English, rejected. (This was almost certainly because of the story’s lack of newsworthiness rather than his lack of writing skills; he’s a very good writer.)

I was, of course, extremely grateful for the interest and even more grateful to my colleague from my university’s press and publicity office who worked hard to raise awareness of my journal article. To any PhD students or early-career university researchers reading this, some advice (from someone who is both) - go and buy a coffee for a member of your university’s press and publicity team. They will almost certainly have local and national media contacts. If the coffee isn’t lousy, and if your recent research is of potential interest to the public, they may well agree to publicise your work. If your work is about to be published, you will need to approach your new caffeinated friend ahead of any publication date set by the editors. Apparently, journalists aren’t interested in published research once it’s ‘out there’ (this was news to me). Apparently, journalists prefer to write things like ‘research published today…’ which means that unless they reside in a second backwards universe they will need to have written their story ahead of publication. Being organised and working ahead of schedule will help them to help you.

Although, as mentioned, my research findings only contribute a small amount to the current debates, I have reaped the benefits of my colleague’s publicity work. A recent introduction to an organisation was made easier thanks to a researcher there who kindly took the time to read my article after seeing a mention of it in The Independent. She invited me to her office for a meeting. I contacted her, all by myself, and accepted.