Nothing to fear from journalists

Broadcaster Sian Williams responds to our April special on psychologists and the media.

I’m curious about the ‘wincing’ that David Pilgrim experiences when approached by a journalist and the ‘many crosses’ he has to bear in communicating complex theories to lay audiences who ‘like simplicity’ (‘Psychologists and the media’, April 2018).

As a journalist of more than 30 years, I know my job is to explain sometimes multifaceted stories to viewers and listeners in a way that helps them understand why the story is important and what it might mean to their lives. In the 1990s, during a previous period of British instability and reconfiguration within Europe, I was writing and making programmes for both BBC Radio 4’s World at One and Radio 1’s Newsbeat. Different audiences, different knowledge bases, but having to explain the Maastricht convergence criteria for the Exchange Rate Mechanism to both.

So yes, there are many experienced journalists who can help communicate complex theories. Those, of course, who are not out covering the ‘opening of a village fete’. What I’d suggest is a more trusting relationship with the media. They are not all as reductionist as Pilgrim seems to suggest. Some of them are even scientists themselves.

There are many amazing psychologists who engage with the media very effectively while keeping their integrity and credibility intact (Professor Sophie Scott, also featured in the article, is one. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore another, Dr Catherine Loveday, Dr Christian Jarrett… I could be here all day naming them).

I did a five-part series with Catherine Loveday for Radio 4 (How to Build a Better Brain) and a Radio 4 documentary on resilience (The Science of Resilience). She took part in and was the editorial eye over both. We consulted and interviewed lots of other psychologists and included their work in our programmes and each one was delighted with the outcome. Not, again as Pilgrim seems to suggest, because they might have been ‘seduced’ and ‘tempted by celebrity status’. But because they wanted to engage audiences in their work and pique their interest to explore the science further.

What is the point of psychology if it isn’t useful? And how is it useful, if it isn’t known? If it’s kept within academia by those who are fearful of letting it out?

Yes, science is as messy and as complex as the brain itself. I sense though, a renewed desire from audiences to understand themselves better, to try to work out why their minds’ quirks have developed. If we are going to help them do that, while realising there is no black and white, no definitive, then we need to say it clearly. All of us. Psychologists and journalists together.

Think of the progress made by so many mental health groups on the use of language in the media and the importance of hearing ‘lived experience’ in mental health issues. That engagement has changed our conversation in society. People talk more openly and honestly in ways they might not have felt able to in the past and they are doing so, to a media which reflects their stories in a way that makes us all feel less alone with our own struggles. Psychology has played a huge part in that and it is a very welcome development.

Why so fearful, then? Cooperate, engage, explain. There is little to be gained by those who patronise or set themselves up as gilded academics whose difficult theories the media (and audience) will not be able to comprehend. Many journalists can actually help you reach the very people you have spent careers trying to understand.

And forgive me, but isn’t the David Pilgrim that criticises the reductionist nature of journalism, the same one that wrote an article on exposing child abuse in the Catholic Church referencing the success of the film Spotlight with the headline ‘Spotlight illuminates the unique power of journalism to uncover societal scandals’?

Well, I agree with him there. Journalism does have a unique power to uncover scandals. And to question, inspire, reflect change and open conversations. Please be a part of it. Don’t shut us out.

Sian Williams

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