Having spent a lot of time working with journalists, I’m very aware of the difficult questions contrasting world views can pose and the lack of support for negotiating them in many areas of higher education. At various points in the last few years, I’ve found myself agonising about decisions (usually erring on the side of caution and often kicking myself for it later) without knowing where to go for advice. Hopefully this will change but, until it does, the internet is a useful source of advice and insight. So too is experience – my disastrous attempt to once explain the philosophical concept of ontological emergence in response to the question ‘is asexuality nature or nurture?’ taught me the importance of being simplified without being simplistic. It’s a hard balance to strike and it does often feel like you’re being pushed to oversimplify in order to fit into someone else’s narrative structure or, if you don’t oversimplify, you’ll be oversimplified by the journalist anyway. These experiences seem to be quite common as this great article in the Times Higher Education suggests:
Academics and journalists share a common mission: to create and disseminate knowledge. But their wildly contrasting approaches have given rise to a relationship that, when not characterised by mutual neglect, can be awkward and strained.
The growing pressure on academics to throw themselves into public debates and demonstrate the societal impact of their work, however, is demanding closer and more frequent interactions with journalists. So it is vital that we properly understand the underlying causes of the mutual frustrations.
A survey I recently conducted into the nature of interactions between scholars and journalists within my own field of China studies revealed that, for academics, the biggest source of irritation is receiving requests for interviews at very short notice; one respondent likened such requests to “late-night booty calls”. These leave the academics feeling like simply “space-fillers” for hard-pressed news researchers desperate to secure an academic, any academic, before deadline.
Academics’ other main complaint was being asked questions outside their area of expertise. If journalists do value scholarly contributions, they wondered, why do they apparently expend little effort to identify appropriate experts?
Further bugbears included being misquoted and pushed to oversimplify and give strong opinions.
The journalists, on the other hand, emphasised the value they place on academics’ responsiveness. “Understanding the immediacy of media”, one said, “is fundamental for good cooperation between journalists and academics.” If messages are not promptly answered, journalists move on.
Journalists’ other significant gripe concerned clarity. One correspondent stressed the need to avoid “jargon or academese”, while another said stilted writing styles have a tendency to “bleed over into conversation”. Column inches are limited, so academics need to be able to sum up their point succinctly.
The discussion about motivations later in the article is interesting as well. I see my media work on asexuality as a form of visibility activism. However I tend not to talk about the media work I do ‘offline’ – I’m not sure if I’m correct but I often feel there’s something suspect about actively pursuing engagement with the media as a sociologist. I thought I was being paranoid about this until I overheard someone at a conference being described, with what sounded like genuine hostility, as a “media whore”. Is this a widespread opinion? If so then it’s surely deleterious to sociology as a discipline. Does it reflect an underlying lack of professional self-confidence, a defensive reaction to an environment within which sociology is marginalised? Perhaps it’s rude to do pop-psychoanalysis on people who happen to disagree with me but I do wonder sometimes. It’s a shame more sociologists aren’t engaging in this way because of the exciting opportunities for collaborative work that this growing tendency towards engagement with the media is opening up. For instance interview I did with Tim Newburn, Professor of Social Policy at LSE, discusses his experiences working with the Guardian on the Reading the Riots project:
Categories: Outflanking Platitudes