What kind of research attracts media attention?

In the mid-1990s, the Royal Economic Society launched an initiative to promote its public profile and the economics profession more broadly via the press and broadcast media. These are some broad lessons on what research attracts attention.

Film crew

Early on in the life of the Royal Economic Society’s media initiative, I wrote an article summarising the characteristics of economists’ work that attracts the most media attention, which Roger Middleton quoted in his 1998 book Charlatans or Saviours? Economists and the British Economy from Marshall to Meade. I revisited that overview when in 2004 the Economic History Society asked me to advise its members on publicising economic and social history. This is what I said then.

Economic and social research will typically attract media interest if:

  • It covers subjects that are high on the agenda of public conversation. Frequently recurring topics include house prices, the quality of schools, jobs and pay, work-life balance, health and happiness, and gender relations.
  • It comes up with distinct and easily quantifiable results.
  • It has clear implications for government economic and social policy.
  • It provides novel perspectives on industries of general public interest, typically those whose products people really enjoy buying, such as restaurants, wine, gambling, films and music.
  • It offers an overarching perspective on great themes of modern concern like the impact of globalisation and new technology, climate change, the rise of Asia, terrorism and national security, and ‘making poverty history’.


What about economic history?

In my experience, research in economic history can attract attention beyond academia if:

  • It is tied to some modern concern and can be packaged effectively as offering lessons. A good example is Nick Crafts’ research on steam power and what it can tell us about the great modern general-purpose technology – computers and the internet.
  • It deals with fairly recent history or brings a long-running story right up-to-date.
  • It plays on people’s deep interest in who they are and where they come from, as evidenced by the popularity of subjects like evolutionary biology, genealogy and local/British history. Research on people’s changing height over centuries is a good example here.
  • It tells a story. These days, everyone talks about the power of narrative. And stories can be very small scale as long as they are gripping enough.
  • It challenges some preconceived notion of the way things are or the way they were. There are numerous examples of reinterpretations of major historical events getting media attention.


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