Michael Kempa's media lab class combines journalism and academic research work

Posted on Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Michael Kempa

Michael Kempa explains how academics can be more effective and proactive with the news industry and describes the experimental lab he ran with master’s students in criminology. (Toronto Star)

Excerpt from the article:

"At the University of Ottawa, Michael Kempa is trying to move in that direction. A criminologist, Kempa found he was spending more and more time responding to reporters’ questions as policing and security issues dominated the news.

He was happy to do it — but as a professor he’s expected to spend 40 per cent of his time teaching, 40 per cent on research and 20 per cent on administration. The interview requests were starting to take up as much as a day a week. Where did the media work fit in and how valuable was it to the university?

Wanting to figure out how to be more effective and also more proactive with the news industry, Kempa spent eight months in 2012 in an innovative journalism program, the Munk fellowship at University of Toronto. In addition to learning how to produce material himself (he later wrote an investigative feature for The Walrus magazine about civilian oversight of the RCMP that was a finalist for a 2015 Canadian Magazine Award) he returned to U of Ottawa with a strong sense that journalism can be combined with academic research work.

He began offering columns and ideas to news outlets “rather than just responding to journalists” and sometimes used the journalism as a way to advance his research thinking.

Now he wants to teach some of the same skills to other academics at the university. He ran an experimental lab this year with master’s students in criminology to test the idea, and hopes to expand it to faculty. He believes every academic researcher’s data has the seeds of one news feature; and that with support and feedback in a class, the researcher can produce it for popular consumption.

The idea is for the academics to think about their field in a more journalistic way. What part of it is often in the news? What can they add to that public debate? Then they’re taught how to write an opinion column and a short feature.

What motivates them to learn this? What Kempa has found, like Rauhala, is a “desire to have people exposed to the stuff that they find so interesting in their areas of research.”

He cites his own field: “Criminological social science is all about power and human benefit versus suffering — inherently interesting themes. But unfortunately the way we write a lot of it up for an academic audience is of no interest to anybody.”

Some academics might stick with the training when the course is over and produce more media pieces; others might just want to do the one that they’ve had in mind for years, he says. “I think the younger generation of academics is much more interested in consistently engaging the media over time but they don’t have the skills or really any idea of where to get started.”

But as researchers learn more about the media, Kempa hopes they will start thinking about it right from the start of their research projects — setting that focus for themselves, or perhaps collaborating with a journalist at the beginning, designing the research with both academic and mainstream articles in mind and leaning on each other’s expertise.

“Very often the social sciences stop at exactly the moment that investigative journalism begins,” he says. “And what I mean by that is, the academics look at the structure and the ideas that enable all kinds of bad things to happen, and then the investigative journalists pick up and say, ‘Who are the people who pulled the strings who did the bad things?’

“Together we kind of cover the whole picture.”

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