Saturday, May 1, 2010

Professors and the Media: Friends or Foes?

I have mentioned before that I do some TV and radio, mostly up here in Canada, and I suggested in a post that I would think about this some.    But thanks to the miracle of the Poli Sci Rumor Mill, Mike Munger led me to his thoughts on this (Munger has posted many thoughtful pieces online about a variety of academic topics).
So whether it's "I'm not good enough" or "I'm not paid enough," faculty members turn into turtles. They draw their heads and limbs inside a protective shell and won't come out. If they do poke their heads out briefly, they embarrass themselves because they have no mental framework for media relations. It is not hard, really, compared with teaching. It is just different, different enough that turning into a turtle becomes a natural, permanent response.
Being quiet has never been a strategy for me, and speaking up has never been a problem. When I was in the Pentagon, a colonel-promotable (I forget the designation, but a guy who was a Colonel and designed for promotion to general) congratulated me after a meeting with him and the Director of the Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate, none other than George Casey (who went on to lead the war in Iraq before Petraeus and then become Army Chief of Staff and one of the four subjects in this book).  I apparently had argued with the Colonel in front of the General (and perhaps maybe with the general a smidge, too).  So, the Colonel was impressed with my willingness to speak up and argue.  I assured him that was not my weakness.

Anyhow, one of my first brushes with the media should have deterred me from doing more.  It was in 1996 after a terrorist bombing of an American barracks in Saudi Arabia.  I was asked by the local Lubbock TV station to talk about it, not that I was a terrorism expert but the only international conflict expert in town.  They asked me if it could happen in Lubbock (apparently, the bombing was not important enough to justify coverage--they had to make it relevant locally), and, in the aftermath of Oklahoma City and with abortion clinics being bombed, I said, "Yes, it could happen here," falling into their trap.  The next question: where? I said where people gather: the university, the mall, the airport.  They asked about the VA hospital and I demurred.  So, they led the evening news: "Professor says it could happen here" with video of people walking through the mall, the airport, and TTU.  Lovely.  So, I got teased mercilessly by colleagues for being alarmist.  Of course, the punchline to the story is that I got an email on or shortly after 9/11 from a TTU colleague that they closed the mall in the aftermath of the attack, and he blamed me.

So, I should have been put off.  But I am sucker for attention.  More importantly, I felt that upon moving to Canada, that I owed the Canada Research Chair program something for their funding of my position.  Of course, I have been profoundly wrong on more than a couple of occasions, especially some predictions about what would happen in Iraq. I was right that it was a bad idea, but I was wrong about the emergence of suicide terrorism.

I now try harder to avoid being asked to speak on topics where I have no expertise, like US-Canada immigration, the treatment of certain Canadians (Omar Khadr) by American forces, etc.  I feel most comfortable talking about Canada and NATO in Afghanistan, but inevitably get sucked into questions about Afghan politics.  I also am less willing to drop everything at a moment's notice: "Hey, can you come down right now in the middle of rush hour to speak for 3 minutes?"  Um, no.  Radio is easiest as I can do that from home or office.  I am willing to do TV at my home or office but only in the studio if they make it worth my time.  This reduces the frequency of appearances to something fairly manageable but still make me feel as if I am doing my share of representing the CRC program, McGill, and the research group that studies security in Montreal.

Anyway, back to Munger and his five tips:

1)  "Ignore the question." He insists that media folks ask bad questions.  Indeed, my best experiences is when I get to suggest questions:
"Keep it short, and animated, and give them your best 20 seconds, on your best point. Remember: They don't air the questions. And if the reporter really wants you to answer the question, she'll ask it again." 
Ah, but this is great advice for taped interviews, and a bit more problematic for live ones.

2) "Every answer stands on its own.  ...Take the facts of a question, reframe them into a statement, and give a short, complete, self-contained answer."

3) "Watch the end chat. Any good reporter is looking for good answers. But never forget that news is an entertainment business. After the interview is over, and the cameraman is taking some "chat" shots, "just to use for filler or voice-over," the microphone is still on."  I think Gordon Brown just realized that one.

4) "Silence is power: Gather yourself. Unless the interview is live, producers need space to edit. And for a print interview, no one knows how long you thought before answering a question; the reporter may well be pleased if you credit the question by pausing.
Frame out the answer in your mind: conclusion, three reasons, and one counterargument that's wrong, and here's why. Then give the answer, without um's or loops. Good short answers are interview gold, and if it takes you five seconds of thought to shorten your answer by 10 seconds, the reporter will think it time well spent."
Great stuff here--I could really improve by following this bit of advice, even though most of my TV stuff is live these days.

"5)   Let the editor edit. Faculty members often want to maintain control of their words, or their interviews, after the fact. But producers are looking for material that they can use, for their purposes."

I definitely can do better, and Munger's tips provide the way to improve.


Chris C. said...

The media tips are all great.

I just don't get why anything that's not "real research" is something horrible and academics who dare try to talk to the local media should be shunned. Sure, if you're not publishing any real articles and spending more time commenting on blogs than reading journal articles, there's a problem. But if you're getting a few articles a year out the door and aren't suffering any teaching problems, why not try to enter into the political news forums?

Professors are far more likely to actually have something useful to say than many of the interest group "experts" that media groups often use. Even if you're not an expert on a specific issue, you probably have something interesting to say about it. It just seems like a wasted opportunity to throw some facts on the fire and/or show people that professors are interested and involved in the community at large.

Chip said...

yeah really good tips, especially number one. It's so important to think about what points you want to get across and get them across regardless of the questions, Munger's right on the questions. The other points are good ones too. I learned the hard way, after doing many interviews on the Bosnia situation in the 90s...

Steve Greene said...

That was great. University media departments should distribute to all new faculty.