Don’t get hacked off; get your message out there

Talking to the media isn’t a minefield, says Fern Riddell, but a manageable opportunity and a civic duty

July 21, 2016
David Humphries illustration (21 July 2016)
Source: David Humphries

It has been widely noted that many of the people who voted Leave in the UK’s recent referendum on the European Union were motivated in part by distrust of the “experts” who attempted to warn them off.

But academic voices in the media are needed now more than ever if we are to overcome the rising climate of fear and xenophobia that was born, at least in part, of misunderstandings of history, politics and economics.

Education does not happen solely in the classroom or lecture hall. Mass education happens daily in newspapers and on the airwaves. Yet, despite the impact agenda, many academics continue to regard talking to the press as dangerous.

This was amply demonstrated last month by the Twitter outcry over the misrepresentation of an academic’s views in The Daily Telegraph. In a piece headlined “Why are most internet trolls men?”, the view that “we can’t be certain but there is ‘lots of anecdotal evidence’ that most trolls are male” was attributed to Claire Hardaker, lecturer in forensic corpus linguistics at Lancaster University. In fact – as she subsequently made clear in a scathing blog post – the whole thrust of her response to the journalist’s emailed question was that anecdotal evidence is not enough but no empirical evidence exists.

Clearly this was not great reporting. However, the outburst of anti-journalist sentiment that followed was deeply worrying. Academics were encouraged to scuttle back to their ivory towers and decline interviews, while those who refused to do so were slammed. This climate of fear does nothing other than decrease public access to academic expertise.

The trick to engaging safely with the media is, first of all, to understand what journalists want from you. More often than not, they have written a story and they need soundbites to liven it up and provide expert opinion. Most will tell you they just want a “few words”. They mean it. They do not need a long explanation of the context of the findings. They do not need several paragraphs of existential crisis while you try to piece together what it all means. They need your professional opinion, simplified into a sentence or two that doesn’t push their article way over the word limit.

So treating correspondence with journalists as if you are writing to a colleague or friend is a mistake. View it, instead, as if you were writing an abstract or article title: what is the key message? And bear in mind that all correspondence, whether by phone, email, text or letter, is quotable. This is simply something you need to be aware of but not to fear.

Moreover, the role of academics in the media goes far beyond just giving interviews. Writing for the popular press allows you to showcase your research unrestricted by the confines of academic language and convention. Nor is it hard to make the right contacts: many commissioning editors are on Twitter, or make their email addresses publicly accessible. You pitch in the same way as you would for a journal article or conference abstract, but with an emphasis on why your idea would be interesting to someone outside your own academic community.

Misrepresentation does happen, but it is rare, and most often occurs when academics have been unclear and imprecise. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to stick to one single point when being interviewed, to write it down if necessary, and to not be afraid of admitting ignorance. This last point is something I think lot of academics struggle with: they do not want to admit they can’t answer a question, so they flail around trying to come up with a response. No decent journalist wants this: it makes their article unreliable and unreadable. If you don’t know the answer, say so – and, if possible, send the journalist on to someone who does. This is not about you: it’s about making sure the right information is out there.

The fundamental point is that working with the media does not require skills that are any different from those you already utilise in your everyday academic life. Whether you are writing a long, popular article, consulting on a drama production or giving a 30-second radio interview, you are simply teaching in a new space. We continually train ourselves to alter our language and teaching methods to suit our listeners. You do not talk about your research to your 16-year-old niece in the same way you would to an emeritus professor.

The media are nothing more than another audience. And right now, they are an audience that desperately need to hear what academics have to say.

Fern Riddell is a PhD student in history at King’s College London. She was an Arts and Humanities Research Council/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker in 2013, and consults on the BBC television series Ripper Street. She is author of The Victorian Guide to Sex (2014).

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Print headline: No time to get hacked off

Reader's comments (1)

Excellent advice! And as in any field, practice in less 'risky' spaces with that kind of audience, before ending up on e.g. the BBC. I've now done quite a lot, and many experiences are quite enjoyable - and most producers, because they want a good programme, will talk to you beforehand about the kind of questions so you can be thinking about how to come up with something suitable.

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