I’ve been thinking about the role of the Pew Research Center* in the world, particularly in regard to how we communicate and disseminate our work.
Here is my idea:
We are both a mirror and a window.
We hold up a mirror to society, reflecting back the current state of all sorts of things, like marriage, immigration, social media, and religion. We don’t tell you what to do about any aspect of it. We just want you to see yourself as you really are.
We also provide a window into other people’s lives and opinions. You may not be Catholic, but you may want to better understand the news about the Pope’s resignation. You may be interested in what people in China think about their country’s role in the world. You may be curious about how much Americans know about current events or what the deal is with Millenials. We’ve got you covered.
In my own work, I have, for example, held up a mirror to people living with rare conditions. Some have told me it’s a good likeness and has helped them to better understand their situation and use of online resources. Other people have told me that the report, Peer-to-peer Healthcare, is a window into a world they hadn’t ever visited, but one they are now learning from. Both groups have thanked me for the new vocabulary and data we used to describe this phenomenon.
I have also found that my research improves the more I listen and the less I ask (a turn-around for a survey researcher, but not for an anthropologist). In listening, and watching, I’ve been humbled by people’s reactions to and usage of our findings.
For example, the most popular pages on our site, week in/week out, are the tip sheets we created about mobile and social networking. It is clear from the traffic logs that people sometimes just want the facts, no introduction, no explanation, no conclusion.
Further evidence for “just give me the facts” is found on Twitter, where thousands of people follow and re-tweet data points highlighted every day by @pewinternet, @pewresearch and affiliated accounts. I’m confident that more people read my tweets than read my reports.
But sometimes people want to be told a story that places our data in historical context or to laugh along with me at my own “skinny jeans” weight tracking. A good speech can change how people think about an issue. So can a blog post, or a Storify collection. And the resulting public discussions can spread the research more widely than any of our formal reports or traditional news coverage stemming from their release.
Don’t get me wrong: I think there is a place for lengthy reports, with all the detailed tables and methodological explanations. Writing reports takes discipline and anything worth tweeting about must first run the gauntlet of the Pew Research Center’s editorial and peer review. Full-length reports are the starting point for authority and trust. And there’s still nothing like having our research featured on Morning Edition or on the cover of Time magazine. But let’s not kid ourselves. The media landscape has shifted (heck, we study it) and we need to listen to our partners and teachers (aka, the people formerly known as the audience).
So, please tell me what you think.
How were you first introduced to the Pew Research Center? Specifically, since you’re here on my blog, how did you find out about our health research?
If you follow me, @pewinternet, @pewresearch, or any other Pew Research staffer on Twitter, what do you find useful about those feeds?
Do you share our research with other people? If so, how?
What would you like to see more of in the future, in terms of dissemination? Videos, e-books, infographics, an API for our aggregated survey data?
Thinking about your own work, how have you raised visibility about issues you care about? Since we are particularly interested in engaging policymakers, I’d appreciate any stories about how you have been able to reach local, state, or federal leaders.
* I work at the Pew Research Center. I no longer assume that people know this after someone who follows me on Twitter and who had just seen me speak about my research at Health 2.0 came up to me and asked, with a smile, “Where do you work again?” I was perplexed, but realized that he was a fan of the data and insights I shared and didn’t need to know that they came from Pew Research to gain utility from them. His comment was a win if you look at the work I do as contribution to the public conversation, instead of seeing it as a brand-extension exercise.
Photo credit: Everyday is like Sunday, by Bjorn Giesenbauer
Danny van Leeuwen says
I had heard of the Pew Research Center in the past, but wasn’t engaged. I met you on S4PM lists and blogs, started following you because I found you refreshing. The research is interesting from time to time and provided local color for my main interest: the relationships that lead to and frustrate best health. The diversity of our constituency is daunting. Your research sheds some light on that. Frankly, your approach brings the research alive.
Susannah Fox says
I love this line of yours: “The diversity of our constituency is daunting.” I’d say that applies to the Pew Research Center, too. One way to leverage that diversity is to create more access points to our research – windows as well as doors – and to help people take what they need and run with it.
One example: my colleagues Joanna Brenner and Maeve Duggan put together a chart-pack report about our latest data on social media tools. We knew it would be catnip for users of all these platforms, so we made sure it was easy to share on Twitter, Tumblr, etc. That paid off when Newsweek’s Tumblr featured one of our tables and 600+ others shared it, too:
But here’s the part I adore: Newsweek had picked it up from a Tumblr I’d never heard of (not saying much, but hang on…):
We don’t even know yet where things are going in terms of dissemination of our research, but we’ve got to diversify, for exactly the reasons you state. And if you find it refreshing, all the better!
Susannah Fox says
Here’s a quick round-up of reactions, mostly to my question about what’s useful about the Pew Research Twitter feeds:
Pew Research Center’s dissemination strategy
So far it’s been a lot of nice compliments (not complaining) but I’d also love to hear critique. If you’re not sure you’re ready to post that publicly, please send me an email: sfox at pewinternet dot org
Catherine Fairchild says
Pew (and your work) capture me because it is so clear that y’all love what you do – you collect information, share information and authentically hope it improves the day by day for people like me, for people like my son.
It is very different from studies and reports that simply tell us (the reader) what additional reports and studies should be done next. There is much more risk and bravery in what you do – you call us to action (thank you).
Susannah Fox says
I’m glad to hear our love for our work shines through.
I don’t think of what we do as a call to action, but you’re right — I bet it is, but within the context of someone’s own life, their own recognition of the story in the facts we present. Very cool — hadn’t thought about it that way before.
Scott Strange says
I had heard of Pew before usually in a news article of some type. I first heard of you via S4PM and then started following your twitter stream after the event at Stanford last fall.
Most times, I am interested in the abstract or more of an executive summary than I am the details. Sometimes reading those will peak my interest and I’ll read more of the detail.
Susannah Fox says
Can I tell you a secret? I often only read the executive summary of our own reports! We put out so many – who has time to read them all and do our own work? But then I know a little bit about what’s available and I can go back to it later.
When we last redesigned pewinternet.org we made sure to have a generous (but not too generous) spot for the abstract on a report “landing page.” See, for example:
You read that overview and you’ve got the gist.
We’re going to transition over to a WordPress-powered site like some of our Pew Research colleagues have done already:
If you have any feedback on our navigation or other choices, please let me know!
Kim Danek says
I’m a master’s student working towards an MA in Communications from Johns Hopkins University. I read my first Pew reports while I was researching information for my classes. I’ve used various statistics in both my classwork and in my previous consulting work to show clients why they should choose a particular media platform or tool over another to communicate their messages most effectively.
I love the reports and subscribe to several of your RSS feeds to make sure that I’m current on the latest trends and statistics! I love your work!
I am now a Writer-Editor at a major federal government agency. We communicate to state, local, and tribal agencies about federal policies and procedures. We also try to share best practices that may help them in their daily work with their customers. I just wrote an article for our monthly newsletter based on the January 23rd “Library Services in the Digital Age” study. I hope it will help the agencies find a new outlet to communicate with the people they serve.
Susannah Fox says
Thank you! I’m going to share this with my colleagues – love the detail (and the kind words). Much appreciated.