Is public engagement an old media concept?

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"In many ways the Roman Forum was a bit like a Lady Gaga concert…"

The OU hosted an event today, in collaboration with the BBC and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement called 'Engaging citizens: media, research and the public'. It was an interesting day with presentations from the excellent Mary Beard, the BBC's Martin Davidson and Tristram Hunt from Queen Mary's. All the speakers were engaging and talked about the relationship between academics and media and some of the tensions and benefits collaboration brought.

In the panel session the issue of public engagement and particularly reach came up, and how could we get to 'non-BBC' audiences. Mary Beard gave a good answer, saying that she is a Classicist, she usually speaks to a hundred or so people, if she can make a programme that reaches thousands, then that's a win, and she'd 'worry about their postcodes' later. Which is I think the right attitude, no matter what you do, not everyone is going to be interested in classical history. Tristram Hunt used a quote from Bush's presidential campaign, that of 'the soft bigotry of low expectations', in this context to suggest that we dumb down or transform content to meet a middle class perception of the needs of others, only succeeding in patronising them.

But what all of this set me thinking was that the whole concept of 'public engagement' seems very rooted in traditional media. It has as its assumption a control of what is 'put out there' and thus a need to ensure that it meets the needs of the public. Public engagement becomes an issue because of economics – it costs lots of money to make traditional broadcast and so you have to a) demonstrate value for money by engaging 'the public' and b) need to meet as many different audiences with the same piece of content as possible.

If we switch to a new media (I know,I know – when will it stop being new?), then these two restrictions disappear, or diminish anyway. This is particularly true if we adopt a 'low friction' model of production from academic activity – we make slidecasts of talks, video interviews, lectures, podcasts, blog posts and put papers up online. Any one piece of output is not likely to engage all of the public, but some will, and they will engage small, interested groups. 

This is classic Long Tail distribution – lots of content, each piece of which appeals to only a few individuals, but the cumulative effect is that of engagement. And academic work produces lots of content – it can almost be seen as a Long Tail content production system. This view may also remove some of the tensions in the academic – broadcast relationship: there is no requirement to appeal to a mass audience.

There will undoubtedly still be a place for academics who are good on TV and radio, but this provides an alternative view of public engagement. If we were to think of how you could get better public engagement around this type of content then the focus would shift – it might not be about content but about tools, or promotion, or community.  

5 Comments

  1. I think this is one of the reasons OEE (OE Experiences) will make OER (OE Resources) obsolete. We don’t need more resources that serve masses. We do need openness and transparent adaptation and attribution. I just wonder about too much consideration of implied audience.

  2. Jen – what is OE experiences? Open education experiences (or overseas experience?) Have you just made this up? Let me know if it’s a term I’ve missed and have embarrassed myself by not knowing! I agree though – I don’t think we need consideration of implied audience with little OER, you can afford to ‘just produce’ and let the audiences themselves find it.

  3. I’ve no idea what ‘OE Experiences’ are either, I’m afraid.
    I think you’re right, Martin, in that much of today was framed under the question ‘How can the media engage people with research?’ Things get more interesting when one starts asking ‘What media approaches are useful for connecting publics to research?’
    We began as being rather deferential to ‘The Media’ (meaning ‘broadcast,’ of course), and I think things got much more useful and dynamic when we forgot about broadcast and started talking about us.
    In that context, I think lots of public engagement can be collateral damage from other things. But I also think that particularly schools engagement benefits from a careful and considered approach, even if it’s via ‘new media.’

  4. Thanks for stopping by Jonathan. I agree with pretty much all of your comments and I am going to borrow ‘public engagement as collateral damage’ as a phrase!
    You’re right that specific audiences may need a specific focus and intention, but even then the starting point is significant. If we start with the assumption of broadcasters then the obvious solution is to make schools-focused content. If we start with an assumption of existing web content out there then maybe our solution is to give them fun tools to piece this stuff together (in pathways maybe, or using something like glogster), or to filter and find a collection of resources for them and show what they can do with them.
    An obvious point, but the starting assumption determines the solution and I felt too much of today had ‘create broadcast content’ as its starting premise.

  5. For me, the answer to this question depends on how we define public engagement and old/new media.
    In essence I don’t think that public engagement is an ‘old’ or ‘new’ media concept. I argue that public engagement requires media forms (and/or actvities) that facilitate knowledge exchange, active participation, etc.
    Most current definitions of public engagement call for some level of dialogue between as evidence by interaction, participation, and so on.
    ‘Old’ media (and some ‘new’ media, such as podcasts and web video) tend to be linear – to afford narratives to apply Laurillard’s (2004) conceptualisations of educational media to the context of public engagement.
    Narrative media have their place, of course, and they can be very ‘engaging’. But does this equate to current ideas about public engagement? Do narrative media afford opportunities for interaction, participation and dialogue? I’m not convinced that they do, at least not in the ways that have been envisaged by public engagement researchers.
    Having said this, a colleague in Geography (Joe Smith) recently introduced me to an OU research group led by Chris High working with ‘participatory video’. Their approach is really interesting in this context given the ways that they approach the production of linear media, involving a range of stakeholders.
    Hence, the process of making linear media may provide useful opportunities to engage. So the process may involve public engagement in the sense that it’s currently being discussed, but does the final product do the same when it’s viewed?

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