I had an epiphany recently—not everyone reads peer-reviewed social science journals! Or any peer-reviewed literature for that matter. And yet, the primary avenue of communication we in academia are taught is the peer-reviewed article. Meanwhile, we lament the rather muddy political waters within which scientific information is tossed about in politics and civil society, and to great effect on the beliefs and opinions of citizens, elected officials, and ultimately policymaking. While the internet has certainly changed the world of information exchange, the key communication vehicle in these domains remains the media. In fact, even a regional media story can now be quickly broadcast around the world.
So where do journalists get their scientific information anyway? They are just as pressed for time as the rest of us, and like to be efficient, so when a reporter has reason to seek the expertise of a scientist, they do not necessarily conduct a thorough search, but rather go to names and contacts already on hand first. In other words, they frequently have Go-To lists of contacts for various topics.
Certain advocacy groups on both sides of debates are quite active and skilled in engaging the media, and those with the most resources to do so, with entire staff rooms full of skilled communications staff plugged into the media, tend to belong to industry-funded conservative think tanks that have a particularly partial if not down right blasphemous take on scientific topics. Enough said there, you all know whom I’m talking about. While all this is going on, you and I are at our computers writing that next conference presentation or journal submission. So whose scientific input is most likely to get heard? You got it.
I suspect you all know where I am headed: Let’s get out there and show the world what environmental sociologists have to offer to contemporary social and political discussions! Easier said than done? Yes and no; it does take some time, attention, and a little skill-building, but it is by no means beyond our reach, even as busy academics. I have been thrown reluctantly in the limelight on a number of occasions, and have in recent years decided I should not only stop being reluctant, because such opportunities to speak to a broader audience should be eagerly pursued, rather than avoided. I have picked up a few things in the process, but by trial and error, and through taking a course, and I wanted to share them with you here, because you all are doing important work that can make a difference beyond the Ivory Tower.
First of all, while few of us are already on the Go-To lists of reporters, we don’t have to sit back and wait to be ‘discovered.’ We can also do much more to get discovered, by seeking communications outlets beyond the academy, like social media. Send brief posts describing a key finding of a recent publication, or even your own analysis of an existing conversation string. It also helps tremendously if your institution is staffed with communications outreach staff who have relations with journalists with whom they are in regular contact, and thus your next step is simply to knock on the door of your communications officer to let him or her know of your recent research. For those working at institutions that are not so well-staffed, it takes a little more work; you will need to do a bit of internet research to identify two or three reporters that regularly report on social and environmental topics, and approach them yourself with a story idea. Then, cultivate a relationship with those individuals by approaching them regularly with story ideas, and soon enough you have made it onto their Go-To lists.
When you do make a pitch, be ready with a pitch that is likely to sound interesting to those outside academia. Reporters don’t get excited about contributions to scholarship as such, and they certainly don’t get excited by conclusions like “it’s complicated.” They do, however, love a clear, notable finding that has implications for a current issue or event, and they also love specific ‘what does this really mean for x’, ‘what now?’ or ‘what you can do’ statements. This is not to say that we must avoid conveying the complexity associated with socio-ecological systems, but rather that the onus is on you to clearly articulate that complexity in ways that are meaningful and digestible to the non-academic reader or viewer.
Once you have a reporter on the hook, or if you are directly approached by a reporter, here are a couple important interviewing tips:
Never agree to an interview on the spot. You need to catch your breath and prepare, so offer an excuse, such as “I’m busy at the moment, is there a time later today that works for you?” During that initial conversation before the interview, ask the interviewer--or clarify if you have already been in touch with him or her--what the purpose of the story is, what he or she is looking to emphasize. You don’t want to inadvertently end up in a conversation that you didn’t realize you were heading for, because the reporter had an agenda that you were not aware of.
Next, while you should certainly give some thought to the likely questions the reporter will pose, and consider your answers to those questions ahead of time, one crucial part of preparing yourself is deciding what you want to say. There is no rulebook that says you must let the reporter dictate the direction of discussion. This is your moment to speak to a potentially very broad audience, and it will be a small one: even though your interview may last 30 minutes, on most occasions you might get a couple sentences in print or 30 seconds in video. Think of two or three key points you want to make in advance, and then look for opportunities during the interview to insert them. And finally, a professional newsprint reporter will do this anyway, but ensure you are sent a copy of the story to review before it goes to print. Of course you then need to respect the reporter’s timeline and get your response back right away.
We don’t have the opportunity to preview television interviews obviously, but in these cases you have far more control over the final product, since the reporter isn’t going to sit down with interview notes and write up her or his story. For this reason, however, television interviews can be quite stressful, and preparing yourself with some little stress reduction strategies is always a good idea. In most cases these are pre-recorded, however, and you do have the right to ask for a re-take during the recording of the interview if you feel like you are fumbling with a particular answer.
In the end, first impressions are very important. Reporters will remember those sources who are clearly spoken, engaging (look them in the eye, not at your lap!) and those sources who make their job of telling the story easier by pointing out exactly what the key themes are.
So reach out, prepare, and get more sociology in legislatures, coffee shops, and everyone’s living rooms!