The Scholar on the Set

Erin L. Thompson gives advice to academics being interviewed on television about how to be a good talking head (even if you’re wearing the wrong shoes).

July 5, 2016

“Mulch.” “Expensive Pink.” “Sushi Flower.” Someone with a label maker and a lot of spare time had affixed these names and many others to each of what seemed like hundreds of containers of eye shadow scattered across all surfaces of the hair and makeup room at CNN headquarters in New York, where I had been invited to appear on live television. My stylist picked up a brush and started pondering her choices. Fearing that I would be at last revealed as a Mulch type of person, I closed my eyes and let the beautification begin.

I have two organizations to thank for my career so far as a talking head: The New York Times and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I am both an art historian and, because getting my Ph.D. was just not enough school for me, a lawyer. I teach art law and art crime, specializing in the study of the deliberate destruction of art and the looting and smuggling of antiquities. Sadly, both of these areas have been very much in the news as conflict has escalated in the antiquities-rich Middle East.

Following this situation, I had written an op-ed to urge the U.S. Department of State to cooperate with Egypt to protect its antiquities from illegal sale to American collectors. To my surprise, the Times accepted the piece and then a few months later asked me to write another one to give my opinion on how to protect the antiquities of Syria from ISIS.

When evidence emerged afterward that ISIS was funding its campaign in part through the sale of looted antiquities, I started to field numerous interview requests. All the reporters and producers said that they had found me not through my scholarship or my website, but through the Times pieces. Coming up with considered quotes to email print journalists and answering the questions of NPR reporters in relatively long-form interviews was challenging, but doable.

But when CNN called (and then kept calling -- I’ve appeared four times so far), that was much more intimidating. I had the opportunity to alert millions of viewers to an issue that I found incredibly important. But I only had a couple of minutes, instead of a whole semester, to get my point across. That dream opportunity could become a wasted chance if I was unprepared, unconvincing or just plain boring.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from my own experience as well as from discussing the role of the academic in the news with various media coaches and veterans.

Get on the radar. Reporters and producers aren’t consulting back issues of academic journals to figure out interview subjects. Instead, just like our students, they turn to Google and start contacting the first results for their search. Make sure you are in these results by writing pieces available and accessible to a general audience. This could be through blogging, tweeting or, in my case, submitting op-eds.

Reading the op-eds in major publications can be surprising -- they cover a truly wide variety of subjects. If your research has any impact on life today (and I hope it does!), it can’t hurt to try to write about it. The requirements for the op-ed genre are particular; I learned about them through attending a workshop led by the Op Ed Project, an organization designed to increase women’s participation in public debates. Their website has great resources, including instructions on how to format and pitch your submissions. You could also start a writing group with colleagues from your institution who are interested in writing for popular audiences or who have had success in doing so.

Know your talking points. Once you’ve agreed to an interview request, the reporter (for print media) or producer (for radio and TV) will usually provide you with a list of preliminary questions, or areas for discussion, and then ask you if you can suggest other topics to add. Pay careful attention, because those questions might reveal the slant of an interview, which you might want to try to correct. They also will generally mirror the questions you will be asked in your live interview, so you can start planning what to say.

Some academics see their goal as giving unbiased information about a topic so the public can decide on their own. If that is true of you, decide on the two or three pieces of information you want to get across and formulate them into short, memorable phrases that you can insert into your answers to the interviewer’s questions. Don’t get bogged down in introductory information or contextualizing, or else you’ll never get to your core ideas.

Other scholars have the goal of persuading the audience. I went on CNN with the aim of arguing that ISIS was destroying archaeological sites in order to convey propaganda messages to potential recruits about the West’s powerlessness, and thus that the media should stop reporting on these events by just wringing their hands and bemoaning the destruction. To achieve this goal, I told producers that I wanted to discuss this issue, gave them background materials in short, digestible formats that they passed on to interviewers and came up with the sentences I knew I wanted to say in each interview, no matter what the questions were.

Be a professional. No one expects an academic to come prepared with knowledge of their preferred lighting angles and sound levels, but there are a number of things you can do to make it more likely that you will be invited back. Most important is to be prompt -- near instantaneous -- in responding to requests. I missed one opportunity to appear on CNN because the producer emailed me while I was taking a nap with my baby (did I mention that I had a newborn during all of this?), and by the time I woke up, he had already booked someone else.

You will also have to put up with what can seem like a frustrating level of focus on appearance. For each three-minute appearance, I had to show up at least an hour beforehand to go through hair and makeup, emerging with artful curls, red lips, spiky lashes and smoky lids -- more makeup than I, usually bare faced, wore even for my wedding. But I had to admit that, watching the clips, what seemed like a thick coating looked just right under the studio lights.

I also started to ask producers for advice on what to wear. For my first appearance, I had taken the expression “talking head” literally and assumed that the lower part of my body would not be visible. I wore a professional black dress … and bright pink shoes, which, of course, featured prominently on live international TV. That said, the media has not been unquestioningly parroting ISIS propaganda messages about the destruction of art quite so much lately. So maybe, despite my footwear, I got my point across.


Erin L. Thompson is an assistant professor of art at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. She studies the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft and the deliberate destruction of art, and has discussed art crime topics in The New York Times and on CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America and the Freakonomics podcast.


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