Criminologists unite to reach out, speak up

Western News file photoWestern Sociology professor Laura Huey has co-founded #CrimComm, a new virtual community where criminology researchers share ways to improve communication with each other and the world. The over-arching intent is to spread their science to more policy-makers, police, peers and the public.

Criminologist Laura Huey is blunt when she says social scientists could make a bigger difference in shaping public policy if only they communicated better.

“It seems to me that we have done a not-very-good job of telling people what our research is and why it matters,” explained the Western Sociology professor.

To remedy that, Huey has co-founded #CrimComm, a new virtual community where criminology researchers share ways to improve communication with each other and the world. The over-arching intent is to spread their science to more policy-makers, police, peers and the public.

And there is no better time for this work than today as public policy on a host of issues (not just criminology) seems more driven by public opinion rather than informed by science.

That became clear to Huey early in the pandemic as she noticed epidemiologists struggling to convey accurate and accessible messages about the risks of COVID-19. More recently, the issue hit home in public critiques and defences of policing strategies in Black Lives Matter and defund-the-police debates.

Both conversations would have benefited from pundits’ having knowledge of evidence-based studies in the field, Huey said. “The audiences that we’re missing are public policy-makers, we’re missing practitioners and we’re missing the public.”

The responsibility to communicate information in smart, compelling ways – and to inform the debate and influence research-based policy – falls squarely on the social scientists, she said.

“I want a better society, one educated on the importance of social-scientific research. We can do better. The best way we can do that is to model it.”

#CrimComm includes two sets of resources for criminologists: 1. A series of how-to introductions to tools such as blogging and vlogging, creating infographics, social-media posting and creating data maps; and 2. Examples from across the world of how others are effectively communicating criminology research.

Included in the former category is a series of YouTube videos – how-tos on making and editing videos, for example – that also include bloopers and misadventures in CrimComm (Or, “We make the mistakes so that you don’t have to,” Huey quipped).

As good examples of accessible communication, she noted a colleague has taken her PowerPoint presentation on the effects of Oregon’s mandatory sentencing law and posted it as a GIF on Twitter. or another featuring an interview with a criminologist on why Chicago gun violence is tragic but not ‘random’.

On the other side of the spectrum, she lamented the too-many times she has been at conferences where academics stand at a podium and read their research only to other academics. And there’s still a cadre of researchers who, pushed to show ‘knowledge translation,’ email their paywalled journal articles to reporters and wonder why their work doesn’t get broader uptake.

“It’s not nearly enough,” she said.

“Why aren’t we doing TikTok videos? Why aren’t we doing interactive graphics?” she asked. “What do we do instead? We stand in front of a room of academics and say ‘mwaaa, mwaaa, mwaaa.’ What I’m trying to say is, ‘Up your game. Stop whining and take a few minutes to do something creative, something worth watching.’”

It’s a big ask, she said, and a lot of her peers would like to be more prepared and better-equipped to handle questions than they are. Recently, she put a call out to a network of about 2,000 criminologists asking some of them to speak to the media about a particular issue; only four responded.

Launched unofficially only two weeks ago (a more dedicated publicity push is planned for August), #CrimComm has already attracted more than 800 followers on its Twitter handle @CommCrim, and the website has received hits from around the world.

They hope #CrimComm can evolve into a broader push to communicate better across all social sciences and become self-perpetuating in the same way science communicators have dived into #SciComm.

She and co-developer Aili Malm of California State University-Long Beach, a fellow Canadian, want to take a “Canadian approach” to the site – encouraging researchers to share their communication examples and perspectives freely in the spirit of co-operation.

“I want Canada to lead the way on this. We want this to be a global initiative, founded by Canadians, that says ‘sharing is good.’”