Expect snakes and ladders but not the jackpot

February 13, 2004

If you want to play the media game it's best to set some rules, but don't always expect to win, warns Nick Saunders.

Academics have a love-hate relationship with the media. The ambivalence runs deep, with newspapers, television and radio seeking the "killer story" shorn of background noise, which, for the academic, is seen as crucial contextual detail. This inevitable clash of cultures is filtered through different disciplines and personalities - it can prove fruitful, but may end in frustration and disillusionment. Should academics play the globalised media game? If so, how can it be played and what are the benefits and dangers?

In the course of our careers, many of us will be asked our quotable opinion on one topic or another. These situations are usually short and sweet and present no obvious hurdles. But what about something more substantial? What should we do if asked for an in-depth interview, to advise on a TV script, to offer expert opinion on the evening news, or even to consider devising or presenting a series of radio or TV programmes?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers. Yet, while we all have different aspirations and talents, there are useful hints to bear in mind. Some hard facts first. It is as well to remember that TV producers and newspaper reporters are omnivorous, devouring more ideas in a month than many academics have in a lifetime. I have lost track of how many inquisitively flattering phone calls I have received over the past 20 years, but can count on one hand conversations that became broadcast programmes.

In the search for a good idea, the media will cold-call, hoping to pick your brains and distil the essence of years of research and experience into a 30-second soundbite. The understandable reaction, especially from younger academics, is to reply immediately and with enthusiasm. But beware! These people are professional highlighters. They may see a clear argument or novel insight that has eluded us, in which case we may benefit. At the same time, it is often difficult to discern whether what amounts to a free consultation will even be used or acknowledged, let alone lead to a talking-head appearance to amuse your colleagues or excite the children.

Few of us are media naturals like Simon Schama or the late Jacob Bronowski - scholars with a flair for walking the tightrope between academic verity and public appeal. And even these high-fliers have their critics. Even less likely are we undiscovered David Attenboroughs or Michael Woods - those telegenic purveyors of accumulated academic knowledge in everyday language.

Nevertheless, the media needs its experts, and so if we like the idea, we need to be prepared. It is as well to lay down ground rules at the beginning. If you are interested in media coverage, be enthusiastic but make it clear your time is precious. Offer five minutes of advice and insight. If they want more, explain that universities have rules about consultancy and payment. They know this, of course, but can't be blamed for trying: half a dozen freebies may be all they need. If you are the one they want, they'll be back.

We all seek recognition for our work. Mostly this comes through career-building research, publication and the respect of our colleagues.

Sometimes there can be a wider public dimension. Bear in mind that most media professionals earn more than we do by cutting and pasting news and expert opinion in creative and often informative ways. But it doesn't always work. It may take months to write that career-defining article, but only seconds to make a slip during an interview or, worse still, for someone you have never met to badly edit a final cut.

The media can publicise our work and our institutions, and we can learn valuable presentational skills from them. But, in the end, we are masters of our own fate. If you're up for it, it's a steep but exciting learning curve. If you are in two minds, steer well clear!

Nick Saunders is lecturer in material culture in the department of anthropology, University College London.

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