By: Salomé Grouard and Rumya S. Putcha
“Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” – Dr. Cornel West
It’s not exactly new news, but the discontent and dysfunction that occurs between journalists and those who they seek to cite as “sources” in public media discourse is a hot topic again with the release of Prince Harry’s autobiography. Even as critiques and commentaries about the role and responsibilities of popular media are on the rise, more scholars are doing public facing work (including knowledge mobilization, community engagement, and activist scholarship). In other words, being able to communicate in ways and through media that aren’t oriented toward the academy is becoming increasingly important. Working with and alongside journalists can support such projects, and learning how to navigate these interactions is crucial.
Indeed, we (a journalist and an academic) have worked together successfully in the past on sensitive and nuanced issues related to race, colonialism, gender, and migration. In reflecting on how well our collaboration went and why, we realized that many academics don’t trust the popular press to represent their work accurately. Equally, many journalists find working with scholars to be more trouble than it might be worth. Such misgivings on either side lead to a breakdown in the flow of evidence-based information and in turn provide a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism. In the spirit of building healthier interactions and practicing responsible public media ethics, we decided to come up with an easy to use guide that can help academics and journalists, who are each trained very differently, to work together more effectively.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re an academic contacted by a journalist:
It’s important to have realistic expectations: the goal of journalism is to summarize in one article at best – a few quotes most of the time – what you’ve spent years researching.
- The academic world is incredibly complicated to navigate. Journalists usually don’t have time/resources to read everything you have written already to fully capture your research, universities websites are not updated, and finding the right email is more difficult than one might expect. If you happen to be contacted about an article that does not exactly match your research, please don’t take it personally! It probably means that after hours of research, you were the best match that the journalist could find. If you don’t feel comfortable offering your expertise, please don’t hesitate to refer a colleague of yours instead.
- If the subject of the article interests you, research the media outlet and/or the journalist. No media, organization, or journalist is truly neutral. It’s usually easy to find a journalist’s work online and be sure to take a look at their social media accounts (check Twitter) to get a sense of their professional and public facing profile.
- Be aware that different kinds of journalism exist. Here are the different categories and you can and should ask the journalist which category they see themselves in, who (which outlet) they are writing for, and what their professional training is.
- Hard news: very factual, fast and short, usually written and published within the same day by a news reporting agency (ex: Peru declares state of emergency in Lima over protests). In this context, the use of experts/academics allows journalists to get a very short analysis of the situation, or a general understanding of the background of the situation.
- Profiles: an article that explores the background and character of a particular person (or group). In this context, journalists will usually use experts/academics to understand and offer context about the influence/legacy of the person/group profiled.
- Features: A longer article that is usually commissioned by an outlet on a subject that requires research and multiple expert/academic interviews. Usually non-time sensitive, i.e., not related to a recent news event. In this context, journalists will usually try to find academics researching exactly what they’re writing about.
- Columns/Op-eds: Opinion piece usually based on the current newscycle (think “trending topics”). Usually written from a personal, identity-based perspective (“As a member of the LGBTQ+ community…”). Often uses the first person, “I.” In general, refrain from giving interviews for this format.
- Ask the journalist to send you examples of questions before your interview, so you can prepare your answers/bullet points. This will help you understand where the conversation will go and more importantly can give you a sense of the register at which this person is thinking about the issues you study.
- Most journalists will ask your consent to record the interview, to better quote you later on (taking notes while listening is complicated, and it usually results in misquoting). You can ask to record the interview as well. This way you will also have an accurate record of your conversation. This dual recording model will also signal to the journalist that they should stick to your quotes and prevent paraphrasing.
- You can and should request to have your quotes sent with the context before the article is published. However, keep in mind that many journalists are actually taught to avoid confirming quotes so this is the sort of thing you want to clarify before you agree to the interview.
- Once the article is published, sometimes, you might feel frustrated: you have talked with a journalist for an hour and found out that you were only quoted twice in the article (on points that you didn’t even think were relevant). You might think, “was it a waste of my time?” No, not at all! This hour-long conversation was crucial to help the journalist understand the context of your research, and write a more nuanced article. Please also know that journalists are limited by a number of words, and also by editors! (translation: we don’t have the last word on our piece/headline, etc, which is extremely frustrating for us, too).
Here’s what you need to know if you’re a journalist reaching out to an academic:
Please know that, unfortunately, the prevailing opinion among academics is that there is little benefit to speaking to a journalist. As one colleague put it, “a journalist going to an academic for a quote or perspective with little consideration for expertise is like going to a Michelin-star restaurant and asking the chef for a plain PB&J.” That is to say, there is a sense that our work will be misrepresented or our research findings applied two-dimensionally so it will be on you to demonstrate why we should agree to work with you.
- Most academics do not receive any sort of media training. If we are employed by an institution of higher education, we are likely expected to share our knowledge with the general public in some way. Some of us have media relations offices, but it varies wildly from institution to institution. Send us what you need us to know about you and your piece! Be as upfront and transparent as possible.
- Please tell us if you’re going to record the interview and ask for consent. Tell us we can pause and ask for something we just said to be stricken from the record.
- Please make sending us the quotes, including framing/context, a regular practice of communicating with us after the interview and once the piece is finalized. Putting our work in conversation with competing points of view is always welcome. However, especially for those of us who work on social issues and with human research subjects, we are accountable to both our research subjects and our institutional ethics review boards. Thus, it’s imperative that you receive our active consent and that we know what kind of argument our work will be used to support, especially if we work with vulnerable populations. N.B. to both journalists and editors, you can and should request consent on the finalized piece before it is published from any expert who is offering their research on protected groups (children, victims of violence, etc.)
- While controversy might be good for “clicks” it can be very bad for an academic. As higher education continues to be defunded in the U.K. and the U.S., and online harassment campaigns target academics, many scholars do not have much job security. A “viral” episode can irreparably damage our ability to do our research and end our careers. In other words, if you’re looking to stir controversy or air a grievance in some way, you should let us know so we can decide if this is something we want to take on.
- Please send us the piece once it’s published!
- If, after the piece is published, an academic source reaches out because they are uncomfortable with how their work is being used, please offer to pull their words and name. Many will not know this is an option available to them!
In the contemporary moment, thoughtful communication between experts and the general public is more important than ever. Arguably, public facing work is uniquely able to ignite social change and justice. It can encourage an awareness of varied, surprising perspectives and in turn lead to a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the challenges facing our communities in the contemporary moment. Despite the potential pitfalls, it is possible for journalists and academics to build relationships and knowledge based on trust and mutual respect. We hope this guide helps others work together, with generosity and integrity, and in a spirit of collaboration.
With love and in solidarity,
A huge thank you to the army of colleagues and comrades who offered suggestions to this guide.