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Exerting influence on policy — through the media?

by Shari Graydon

Last week at an intellectually stimulating but relatively staid scholarly event, a minor controversy broke out.

Harvey Weingarten, President and CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (who gave one of the best presentations I witnessed during the day), discouraged the scholars in the room from imagining that the news media would be remotely effective in delivering the researchers’ policy-focused messages to government.

Jatin Nathwani, one of the distinguished Ontario Research Chairs whose work was being feature at the COU- and York University-sponsored symposium, rose to challenge the assertion, telling all assembled that his own media commentary sometimes resulted in civil servants pulling him aside months afterwards to say, “thank you — your expressed opinions were very useful…”

As a weekly columnist for the Vancouver Sun for a few years in the mid-1990s, I also experienced first hand the influence that could occasionally be exerted by a 750-word public memo disseminated through a daily paper boasting hundreds of thousands of readers. Within days of writing on the unfortunate long term impacts of a local hospital pushing freely-supplied infant formula at new mothers, the hospital changed its policy.

Although I take Dr. Weingarten’s point that researchers who have compelling information of relevance to policy-makers  should employ a variety of strategies in trying to relay their message, the truth is that every high level political and government office in the country pays attention to what’s on the comment pages of major dailies — appreciating that those pages are read by opinion-leaders; often seed broadcast interviews and letters to the editor; and help shape public perception of an issue.

So using the news media to help spread the word about the policy implications of your research may not be a sufficient condition for success in shaping policy, but it remains — in at least some cases — an influential one.


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