Incidents of terrorism in the West by violent extremists grab the news media’s attention like few other stories, but academics can be reluctant to engage with journalists to help explain what drives people to commit such ghastly acts for fear that their research may be compromised.

Often this leaves university media relations advisers looking like ‘piggy in the middle’ – trying to navigate between busy journalists facing a looming deadline and reluctant experts afraid their comments and findings will be misinterpreted by the media at large.

So another opportunity to put their researcher’s – and their university’s – name in the limelight goes begging. More importantly, a voice of reason can go missing as the media make do with whatever ‘rent a quote’ pundit they can find at short notice!

Whether traditional or social, the media wants a few easily digestible sentences to explain why a suicide bomber has blown himself up at a pop concert in the name of Islam, or why a right-wing nationalistic fanatic should kill scores of young left-wing party members at a summer school on a Norwegian island.

Researchers fear misinterpretation 

But the researchers may be at a delicate stage in their work and probably fear that their thoughts and findings will be misinterpreted by the media.

I had a situation like this recently after visiting Norway for some consultancy work for Oslo and Akershus University of Applied Sciences (HiOA). This included interviewing some of their leading academics about collaborative international research projects and writing stories for the institution’s in-house English-language magazine Explore HiOA and their research website.

Senior research Viggo Vestel from Oslo and Akershus University of Applied Sciences

One of the most interesting – and newsworthy – stories involved Viggo Vestel, a social anthropologist and researcher with Norwegian Social Research (NOVA).

The €5million DARE project

He was helping to lead the €5million Dialogue About Radicalisation and Equality, or DARE, project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. Academics and civil society organisations from 13 countries are taking part in what they hope will be a fresh approach to understanding what attracts some young people to violent extremist groups.

The goal is to help countries as varied as Norway & the United Kingdom and Russia & Turkey improve the way they counter violent extremism.

Viggo has been working on youth and political extremism for some years and recently surveyed 8,500 Norwegian 16- to 19-years-olds in Oslo. He was surprised that 60% agreed with the statement that Islam and the West are at war – the verdict of a majority of both Muslim and non-Muslim youth.

Viggo’s earlier work gave a great introduction to what DARE hopes to achieve and my story was published as the new EU-funded project got underway in early May, see What is so attractive about extremism?

I thought the story might also interest media contacts in the UK, and to give the story a more international appeal I arranged to talk to the project’s coordinator, Professor Hilary Pilkington, a sociologist at the University of Manchester in the UK, who has written extensively about far right extremist groups in the UK.

Manchester Arena attack

The date we picked for the interview was 23 May, which turned out to be the morning after the awful suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, which killed 22 people.

We were both shocked by the attack, but went ahead with the interview as planned.

Hilary told me she had already shied away from media requests in the immediate aftermath of the attack because it would be virtually impossible to get across the central tenet of the DARE project: that the traditional approach to terrorist research is failing because it tends to start by focusing on acts and agents of terrorism and works backwards to try to understand why the perpetrators crossed the threshold of violent extremism.

In the Manchester incident, it was clear the media wanted to talk about the suicide bomber, a student at a neighbouring university in Greater Manchester.

Talk to the 99.9% who reject violence

Viggo and Hilary both emphasised to me that the DARE project wanted to talk to the 99.9% of people who hear the same messages of hate and extremism – and maybe flirt with them, but drop them or consciously counter them – and give the researchers a control group to help their understanding of why a tiny minority take the path to violence.

This could have important lessons in creating a more effective prevention strategy, said the researchers, and should provide an opportunity to take a deeper and longer look at the root causes of violent extremism than is possible for policy-makers and journalists responding to terrorist attacks.

Handling media interest

Anyway, back to handling media relations.

The Manchester attack, and subsequent incidents by violent extremists in London in the run-up to the British general election, gave the DARE project greater relevance – but it also made it more challenging in terms of handling media interest.

It was clear the media were unlikely to be interested in the broader approach of the DARE researchers and Hilary feared that hard news stories about the project’s goals could be misinterpreted and coverage could do more harm than good.

The need for trust in the communities

The researchers needed the trust of the Muslim communities in Manchester, Oslo and elsewhere as well as being seen to be neutral to be able to talk to supporters of the far right nationalist groups like the English, and Norwegian, Defence Leagues.

So what did we do?

Hilary wrote an opinion piece, titled Manchester attack: now is the time to properly talk about radicalisation for the British academic news site, The Conversation.

I gave things a few weeks to calm down and offered to write a 1200-word feature for University World News, titled A new approach to understanding violent extremism’. This was published on 30 June and quoted both Hilary and Viggo extensively.

Lessons learnt

And what were the lessons from trying manage media relations for a multi-national research projects into one of the hottest issues of the day?

  • Firstly, you can never tell what will happen next with something like the current rise of violent extremism and the best laid plans can be knocked off course at a moment’s notice – in this case by a terrorist attack in the heart of the city where the project’s coordinator was based!
  • Secondly, if you don’t want to get drawn into saying something that could jeopardise the whole research project and lose the trust of the people you are studying, turn down requests for ‘instant’ reaction comments.
  • Thirdly, if you can find the right outlets and professionals to help you communicate what your research is trying to achieve, then take advantage of them. In the case of the DARE project, I had interviewed two of the project’s leaders and found the right outlet in University World News.

The story was a little removed from what I normally write about for the the international higher education news website, which is usually about international student and staff mobility trends.

But, with a bit of effort working with the two researchers, I managed to tailor the story so that we had a good newsworthy piece that put across some of the key points about what was wrong with the traditional ‘knee-jerk’ response to terrorist incidents.

We managed to explain some of the fears and worries expressed to the researchers by both the young Muslims and the young supporters of far right nationalism – the two groups that the DARE project needs to have dialogue with.

The project has four years to run and is likely to throw up fascinating insights into an issue with worldwide ramifications. Hopefully it can help policy-makers understand what is wrong with current approaches to countering the attraction of extremism among some young people and provide fresh opportunities for media coverage when the time is right and fresh results are unveiled.

  • For more information about DARE consortium partners and objectives, see this link 

NIC MITCHELL is a freelance journalist, writing mainly about European and international higher education and research. He also provides tailored public relations and communication consultancy services, particularly to European universities looking to improve their English-language web and print publicity aimed at international students and staff.

Main photo: Police on guard after the attack on the Ariana Grande attack in Manchester