Richard III Telling It Like It Is

9th March 2013

Ather Mirza, Director of the University of Leicester News Centre, spearheaded the seven month media planning that culminated in global media attention on the discovery of King Richard III’s skeleton under a car park.

The discovery of King Richard III by a team from the University of Leicester made global front page news.

The press conference announcing the discovery was broadcast live by the BBC and Sky – among 150 journalists crowding the University’s Council Chamber for a historic announcement.

But almost as soon as the news was broadcast, the disquiet started. Social media provided the platform for criticism of the university for ‘grandstanding’ and turning the announcement into a marketing opportunity because its logo was so prominent.

Some questioned whether the finding was of any historic importance at all while others remarked that there were other archaeological finds that were more important but had received less media attention.

Some academics lambasted us for announcing a finding before it had been peer reviewed. Ironically, some media that had been most insistent on us announcing the news as soon as possible now made much of the fact that it had been announced before peer review.

All of us who deal daily with the media know it is a double-edged sword. Throughout the seven months of the search, we had daily demands from media for news. Our academics were besieged and could have quite easily filled their days with interviews instead of getting on with their research.

When we tried to give them some respite from the onslaught, we were accused of holding information back.

When we were forthcoming with all the information, we were criticized for not publishing it first in an academic journal.

But for every critical comment, there were a dozen more of praise – mostly from journalists on the same papers that were carrying the criticisms.  The Science Media Centre was a constant source of strength – the level of criticism was simply a measure of our success, we were assured.

In the end, we simply told the world what we had found. Advice from a wise editor long ago when I was a cub reporter on a daily paper held me in good stead. His words were, simply: “Tell it like it is.”

When a story is powerful, it needs no embellishments – the facts will speak for themselves. The presentations from my academic colleagues created a narrative that was so compelling that it would resonate with people across the world.

Success in attracting the media spotlight, I found, can bring criticism as well as acclaim. The academic community is somewhat suspicious of the media and those that court its attention, and academics even more than journalists have almost a professional duty to be sceptical of new discoveries.

Add to this the particular sensitivities associated with examining and displaying the bones of a controversial king, and the potential pitfalls of mishandling such a story become all too clear. We were very aware from the start that balancing huge public interest against responsible treatment of the bones and the research was not going to be easy.

Overall, the consensus seems to be that we got the balance right.

I have often reported on science discoveries – particularly in astronomy – before they have been peer reviewed and no one has batted an eyelid. The discovery of a gamma ray burst is allowed to become instant news – but not it seems that of a dead King.

Perhaps there are different sets of rules for scientific findings compared with the humanities – though I question whether the discovery of archaeological remains of national or international importance should need to be kept quiet until peer review.

Probably it is the unprecedented scale of media coverage of this story that has caused disquiet in some quarters.

Some may still say we should have waited longer to reveal all, but there are some stories that have to be told before speculation and misinformation take over. Ultimately, I am proud that we stuck to our guns and “told it like it is”.

A couple of the comments received:

The stage management of the emerging findings, using television, press and the web, created a palpable sense of theatre and excitement. Brands are built on such things.

Leicester’s experience with the Richard III discovery underlines that universities have powerful stories to tell about research and education that is useful, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, making the world a better place, or just plain fascinating. They should come down from the ivory tower and talk.

-Paul Woodgates, Daily Telegraph

The University of Leicester has managed to unite the two cultures of science and humanities in a way that few have before.

“Science by press release” cried some scientists. “History by press conference” complained some historians.

They should get out more. The discovery of a 500-year-old slain King of England is an event that goes beyond the boundaries and the conventional audience of academia.


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