5 Helpful Media Engagement Tips for Academics

Robert Kelchen offers advice for working with journalists in ways that may help you become a regular source.

August 16, 2018

In an era of growing political polarization and partisan distrust of many media outlets, it is more important than ever for academics to share their expertise with journalists and the public. Yet although a growing number of colleges and funding agencies are rewarding (if not expecting) academics to interact with members of the media, few of us feel comfortable doing so right out of the gate.

As someone who researches topics such as student loan debt and higher education accountability while maintaining a visible online presence, I have had many opportunities to succeed -- and fail -- in working with journalists. In this piece, I offer five tips on engaging with the media in ways that may help you become a regular source.

Tip 1: Work on being comfortable speaking to broad audiences. While talking to a journalist and lecturing in front of a class of undergraduates have some broad similarities, the latter is usually much easier than the former. Classes usually last for at least 50 minutes at a time, and faculty members have the opportunity to plan what they say well in advance (although we do not always do this!). Journalists, especially those who work for local or regional outlets, may have little to no prior knowledge of the area that they are covering that day -- a big difference compared to advanced undergraduate or graduate students. The goal in talking with a journalist is to distill key points about a topic in the form of manageable sound bites, which is not something that we are trained to do.

I highly recommend taking advantage of any media training resources that your institution or professional association may have to offer. The American Astronomical Society has a nice set of online resources, for example. But since most of us do not have access to free personalized media training, the goal should be to make the learning curve as manageable as possible for the journalist. Speaking concisely, confidently and in nontechnical terms when possible is crucial to master if you want to be able to provide useful and informative sound bites. (These are also great things for those of us who are teachers to work on.) I also strongly recommend doing mock interviews with a friend and listening to the recordings to gauge progress and to look out for annoying verbal tics (“um” or “uh”) or pauses.

Tip 2: Make yourself known to members of the media. Unless your institution has a large and active public relations office, you have two main ways to let journalists know you exist. The first is by leveraging your professional network. Certain professional associations, like the American Chemical Society and the American Political Science Association, provide lists of academics who are experts in various subjects. Other formal and informal groups, such as the Scholars Strategy Network, Women Also Know Stuff and People of Color Also Know Stuff, seek to connect affiliated scholars with journalists.

The second way is to develop your own relationships with journalists using social media. As many reporters are being asked to generate a larger number of stories each day, they are often grateful to meet a helpful academic who can provide them with information. Many reporters spend quite a bit of time on Twitter, so responding to requests for assistance and sharing useful links -- and not only to your own work -- is a great way to build a following. This process takes time, however, so do not expect to have a following of thousands overnight.

Tip 3: Be available on fairly short notice whenever possible. Most journalists operate on incredibly short timelines, as they may have only a few hours to work on a story before it is due to their editor. This means that if you see an interview request in your inbox and decide to wait to respond until later in the day, you are unlikely to be of any value to the reporter. I often see journalists complaining on Twitter about academics’ out-of-office reply messages and slow response times, which is why they may turn to sources outside colleges and universities -- such as think tanks or lobbyists -- if they need a prompt response.

Academics who want to become regular media sources need, as much as possible, to be available on short notice to do interviews. Many journalists are understanding if you have to wait to talk until after class, but setting up an interview time in advance gives them peace of mind about obtaining sources. And consider ditching the out-of-office message for people outside your college or university. Microsoft Outlook, for example, provides instructions about how to set up automatic replies that only go to people within your institution without scaring away outside journalists.

Tip 4: Think of other potential sources who can also talk about the topic. When reading or listening to the news, pay attention to the number of different people who are referenced in one article or segment. Outside the briefest pieces, you’ll usually see at least two different experts quoted. Journalists are often encouraged by their editors to talk with multiple sources, and they often do not know more than one expert in a certain area.

This is where you come in. By thinking about other academics who can also talk about a topic before doing an interview, you cement yourself as a valuable resource who can connect a reporter to a broader network of experts. Journalists often end interviews by asking for other people they should talk with, so being able to come up with a list in advance makes sure that you do not go blank on sources after being engrossed in a conversation. If you are unable to do an interview, either due to time constraints or lack of comfort with the topic, it is also a good idea to send along a list of other people who may be able to talk.

Tip 5: Realize that not all interviews end up with your name in lights. In my experience of responding to hundreds of media requests as a faculty member, only about two-thirds of them ever result in my name appearing in an article. That relatively modest success rate may be surprising to people without much experience being interviewed -- and it is admittedly frustrating to spend time doing an interview that never sees the light of day.

So why would an interview not be published? It could potentially be a result of your responses, particularly if you were unable to offer a concise answer to questions that could be used as a sound bite. (You also may not have said what the reporter wanted you to say to a certain question, which is more the reporter’s problem than your problem.) In other cases, the journalist or editor may be responsible for your interview never appearing. The piece may have been abandoned due to another breaking news item or harsh editor comments, or you simply got cut out due to space constraints. That does not mean that your time was wasted, though. If one interview went well even though the quote never ran, the reporter is likely to come back to you if given another assignment that would benefit from your knowledge.

To close, interacting with members of the media is one of the most rewarding parts of being an academic. I hope that the tips presented here will help other scholars share their knowledge with the public, and I encourage readers to add their helpful recommendations in the comments section.


Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) is an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. Visit his website at https://robertkelchen.com/.


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