Media Initiatives Group provides publicity through technology

By Kate Michonski

When administrators in the Office of the President complained that the University lacked a public face for its research, they approached Associate Provost Steve Gabel to discuss the problem. According to Gabel, the Office was dismayed that “the University’s web space did not offer any way for an interested person to get an overview of the research enterprise here.”

Gabel responded by asking the current director of the Media Initiatives Group, Matthew Howard, to tackle the problem of visibility for University research.

Created in 2003 as a division of the Provost’s Office, the group’s mission is to brainstorm innovative ways of using media in communications strategy. It acts as a consultant, advising departments or individual researchers on how to use audio and video programs to enhance various academic projects.

Howard and colleague Renee Basick discussed a variety of ways to address the lack of a media presence for research. “We decided that one way to answer this question would be to go directly to the researchers and let them tell their stories,” Howard said. It was from this dialogue that the idea for the Research at Chicago website was born.

Web users can go to the Research at Chicago website and download video interviews of researchers discussing current and upcoming projects, from the humanities and sciences to the Law and Business Schools. The site also has downloadable lectures, news stories, and multimedia presentations.

In addition, the site allows for podcasting the audio files as well as the video files. Users with the latest version of iTunes can download both from They can then watch or listen to the media files on their iPods.

“If you think about the University as a place where new knowledge is created and then disseminated—through teaching, publishing, invention—then this program is very much aligned to our core mission,” Howard said.

“It is a great honor to be able to step into someone’s world, learn about her passions and discoveries, how her mind works, and to then think about the best way to communicate this to a larger community,” he added.

Drawing on talent already present on campus, the Media Initiatives Group hires from the undergraduate film club Fire Escape Films. Students play a key part in shooting, producing, and editing the films.

Alex MacKenzie, a fourth year in the College, is one such student. The five-minute video interviews allow the audience to “recall what books have so often concealed: Ideas come from people,” MacKenzie said. “For me, this is what Research at Chicago is about, putting faces on the School’s brainpower.”

One of these faces is Wendy Doniger, professor in the department of South Asian languages and civilizations. Commenting on the interview process she said, “I very much enjoyed doing it, and the resulting short film clip is amazingly professional. I am delighted to have it available online.”

Sarah Gehlert, deputy dean for research at the School for Social Service Administration, was awed by the variety of disciplines represented on the website.

“I was impressed by the breadth of faculty research. The short clips give those who visit the site a rich taste of the research that they would not get from reading about it,” Gehlert said.

Gehlert, who is also director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research, is working with the group on a community related programming project titled “Living in Your Body for Life.” The five-episode mini-series is being produced and shot by high school students, responding to the lack of information available pertaining to black health issues.

Poem Present, the contemporary poetry project created in 2001 by Danielle Allen, dean of the humanities, was one of the first projects taken on by Media Initiatives.

The group created the Poem Present website, where users can listen to recordings of poets’ readings at the Poem Present event.

Allen is also working with the group to create a series called “Enhancing Assets,” directed at helping non-profits improve their business. The videos are an outreach effort of the Civic Knowledge Project, in which faculty and graduate students run seminars and lectures open to the community.