Academics & the 4th Estate

By Kevin Page

We live in times of great change. The pace of change is accelerating due to a number of well-known but not fully understood powerful forces including technology, globalization and climate change. Democratic institutions are under stress in a world where politics is becoming increasingly polarized and misinformation can be used in dangerous ways through electronic media and social networks. The quality and business of journalism is also under stress. Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian, said “we are, for the first time in modern history, facing the prospect of how societies would exist without reliable news”.

In this environment, I believe it is as important as ever (perhaps more important) that people from all walks of life, including researchers at universities and practitioners of public policy and management work with journalists to strengthen the quality of news made available to citizens.

In polarized political and media environments, where news goes quickly from facts to political opinions, I think there is an opportunity for people like me to spend more time with journalists on the facts and the processes and institutions that guide decisions and accountability. What do the numbers say? What information lies behind and around the numbers? What could these numbers mean for citizens, today and future?

About four decades ago, I found myself studying at Queens University. There were professors like Richard Lipsey and Douglas Purvis who would spend time with me as student during the day and in the evening writing opinion pieces for national newspapers on the big macroeconomic issues of the day. Those professors would come to Ottawa to work for governments or appear in front of Parliamentary Committees. It is a good model. Everybody benefits.

I was inspired by their leadership. Today, at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, we have students writing papers (working with mentors) on issues ranging from budgetary deficits to health care to public infrastructure to First Nations child welfare. Their papers are published on our web site. We also write op eds for newspapers on their research. Their names are featured on the op eds.

One advantage of longevity is that you have opportunities to do different things. I had the opportunity to work as a public servant supporting different governments, an officer supporting Parliament and a professor/researcher at a university. When a journalist calls looking for help on a story where I have some direct expertise and experience to share or wants to follow up on some research, I am compelled to help.

I am guided by a few principles.

  1. Speak clearly, simply and frankly.
  2. Respond to the questions.
  3. Have a sense of what is important – a framework of thinking on an issue.
  4. Tell them what you know (in the comfort zone of your research, expertise and experience). Be equally honest and open about what you do not know.
  5. Be respectful and professional

I think the future is brighter if our institutions of higher learning are strong and independent but also comfortable engaging our political leaders and journalists.