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Psychologists take editorial control – but is this the right approach?

March 31st, 2007

Dr Petra

In the latest edition of The Psychologist (a magazine for members of the British Psychological Society – BPS) there’s an interesting story about a venture between the BPS and Top Sante magazine.

Apparently ‘hundreds of thousands of people are being given the chance to learn how psychology can improve well-being and quality of life’ with a 28 page supplement called ‘Happy New You’ in the March edition of the magazine. It will include features on men’s emotions, learning to know your children, beating stress and how to manage traumatic life events.

According to The Psychologist this is ‘the first opportunity the Society has had to shape editorial and provide exposure of psychology to an audience that would otherwise be hard to reach’. There are plans to include the supplement on a twice-yearly basis (whether it’ll always be called or about a ‘happy new you’ is yet to be seen). It is part of the BPS’s aims of actively engaging with the public and the supplement is paid for by the BPS.

One member of the editorial advisory group stated ‘every piece in the supplement has started by finding the right and best expert and writers have also been supplied with the latest research’.

The magazine is going to research the success of the supplement (it isn’t clear how they will do this). Feedback from staff working on the magazine is very positive about the collaboration.

The feature explains ‘the project will be reviewed again after 12 months and if successful will run for two years, after which time it will be known if a stand alone ‘psychology magazine’ could be commercially viable.

All this sounds like a very exciting project, although I can’t help having a few doubts about it. On the plus since no magazine is complete these days without an obligatory psychologist or two quoted per feature then having psychologists input into editorial is a major step forward. We frequently struggle where editors’ have set some outdated or incorrect angle and psychologists either have to support nonsense pieces or refuse to participate safe in the knowledge someone will give the quote you’ve refused.

It’s also very positive that the journalists on the magazine enjoyed the experience and that there were efforts made to thoroughly research stories and ensure only the best experts were used.

My worries are that by putting a lot of effort (and money) into a twice-yearly supplement on one magazine what impact will this really have? Surely a better approach might be to put the same money into training up editors and journalists to explain more clearly what psychology is, the many roles psychologists have, what they can and can’t do ethically, and what the difference is in terms of quality features in your magazine if you go with a well-qualified expert as opposed to someone who calls themselves a psychologist but isn’t qualified at all.

I wonder why it’s being left to the magazine to evaluate the success of the supplement – after all if you pay them to include a supplement they’re probably not going to moan too much. But the real question is would magazines include such supplements if they weren’t paid for? And why is it that we have to pay a magazine to ensure that the right advice meets the public? Surely a better use of public engagement is around working across the media rather than a paid-for team up with one publication that has a fairly specific audience?

From The Psychologist’s perspective the supplement appears to be a means of accessing a ‘hard to reach’ audience, yet the BPS has on it’s media list thousands of psychologists who want to speak to journalists and access wider audiences. The audiences are there and they are not hard to reach at all. What makes them hard to reach is poor editorial policy, the inability of journalists to provide accurate stories (due to editors agendas), a lack of skills from some journalists who find more complex issues of psychology and health hard to report, and the ongoing problem that the media doesn’t really ‘get’ psychology.

Audiences are usually given a very superficial view of psychology – things like how to read someone’s body language, how to tell what kind of personality you are by your colour preferences, or how different scents can improve your mood. Oh and the obligatory judge the body language of celebrities or comment on the lives/behaviour of celebrities. Unfortunately since most of these stories don’t have much basis in psychology it will come as no surprise that the majority of those quoted as experts are not psychologists. So our other problems around accessing the public are that the wrong people are giving the wrong information out – which blocks qualified folk getting involved.

Weirdly this scheme seems to show a slight lack of knowledge of the market, as the BPS’s idea to perhaps launch a stand-alone ‘psychology magazine’. One already exists. It’s called Psychologies. Okay it isn’t really as good as it ought to be when it comes to psychology as it tends to go for the self-help/pop psychology angle more than anything else and overloads itself with crummy self assessment tests, and endless features on self esteem. However it does try more than most magazines to at least try and cover psychology in a mainstream way. And one has to wonder why the BPS decided to team up with Top Sante and not with Psychologies – a magazine supposedly all about psychology (to the extend that it’s even been known to take out full page adverts in The Psychologist magazine). Could it be because Top Sante has a wider circulation? Or could it be that EMAP have got a deal where if the supplement does work they get first bid at the new psychology magazine?

Either EMAP (who publish Top Sante) have seen a great way to create a competitor to Psychologies (and better still they’ve not even had to pay for it), or the BPS hasn’t noticed a well-established competitor already out there. Or perhaps the BPS has spotted a commercial opportunity – which may conflict with their wider role of public engagement.

I’m fully in favour of improving information on health, psychology and well-being to the public and currently we have a major problem with poor advice being consistently given. And as a psychologist I’m all for having loads of opportunities to reflect the diversity of the discipline.

But I can’t help but wonder why it is the BPS felt it was better to put all their eggs in one basket and team up with one magazine, rather than fulfil a required public remit and tackle wider media problems.

The only way we’ll really get a handle on editorial control or improving coverage is if it results in better sales for magazines. Because currently they can manage good sales without having to use anyone all that qualified we need to demonstrate why using genuine experts (psychologists or otherwise) is going to increase their profits and market position. The question is whether journalists or the public can tell the difference when qualified experts are used and whether they care who’s being quoted in features.

It certainly is easier to provide a paid for supplement than to have to handle editors head-on, but surely any organisation should have teeth and perhaps a better way forward might have been for the BPS to pay for quality training and access to the best experts (who already exist) and where magazines don’t play ball simply to not provide quality information and access to experts for persistent offenders.

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