When one of my former PhD students asked for some advice about working with the media as an academic before her first radio interview, I was prompted to get out some notes from a talk I gave to university colleagues on this topic and turn them into a blog post in case others might find my thoughts and experiences useful. So here goes.
I do a fair amount of work with the media – mainly short radio interviews giving commentary and analysis on current events (mostly current events involving Russia, although Trump has been giving me plenty of media work since November 2016), but occasionally in other radio broadcast formats such as roundtable discussions and political week in review programmes. From time to time I write op-ed pieces for newspapers and online publications, such as the Huffington Post, and sometimes get interviewed by journalists for stories that they are writing.
Academics who want to start doing media work are often keen but uncertain that they have anything valuable to offer, and may lack confidence in their ability to communicate with broader audiences than the ones who read their thoroughly-researched and tightly-argued books and journal articles. It is true that media work requires more direct language than academic publishing, but I find that speaking to the general public via radio, television or newspapers is not much different from giving lectures to undergraduates. In both cases there is an element of introducing an audience to something unfamiliar, finding ways to break it down into digestible pieces and adding some insights or context (or maybe an amusing anecdote) that will illustrate the point I am making. Of course, in a radio interview that lasts perhaps 3-5 minutes, I don’t have the luxury of a long lead in, a prepared script or total control over what I say (in that an interview is a series of responses to questions, not a monologue), so there are some important differences. Nevertheless I maintain that if you can teach (especially undergraduates, who may have little prior knowledge of your topic), chances are you can find the right pitch and tone for media work.
One of the most important pieces of advice for someone who wants to do media work is that they should be willing to say “yes” when they are asked. Flexibility (within reason) is important, and we (academics) need to be aware that journalists and broadcasters often work to very short deadlines – especially in news and current affairs. If I am lucky I will get half a day’s notice before doing a piece of radio commentary on a news item. Sometimes it is quite a bit less – the least notice I have had was about 10 minutes, when I got a phone call as I was arriving home one evening asking me to comment on some breaking news about Russia for the 6pm broadcast. I had just enough time to put down the groceries and try to think of something reasonably intelligent to say before I was on air. Although I do not cancel existing commitments such as teaching or meetings with colleagues in order to do a media interview, I am willing to get up early or take calls in the evenings or on weekends. But it’s important for anyone pondering media work to think about what they regard as a reasonable infringement on their professional or personal time.
The other side of being asked to do a media interview at short notice is being stood down at short notice. This is something to be aware of, again particularly for providing commentary on current events. Sometimes a bigger story than the one you have been asked to comment on comes along and nudges everything else out of the way. I have also had the experience of sitting in the radio studio, minutes away from being on air when breaking news comes through and having my piece pushed down the running order while the fresher story is being discussed. It’s important not to take these things personally!
I would advise anyone facing a media interview (either for commentary on current events or about their own research) not to spend a lot of time in preparation. Although I do, of course, take a quick look at recent news to make sure I haven’t missed a relevant development and might write down a few names, dates or other little bits of information to jog my memory during the interview, my rule of thumb is only to accept media invitations to discuss topics I am comfortable talking about based on what I already know.
It’s important also for academics to be aware of what the media wants from us – in my case, it tends to be some broader context and analysis to help the listener/viewer/reader make sense of something that is in the news. I sometimes get asked by fellow academics how to handle hostile or confrontational questions. I tend not to encounter these – after all, I am not a politician trying to defend a policy or a party line, so there is little reason for an interviewer to treat me like a hostile witness. However, there are some programmes out there with more confrontational formats that do use academics, so it is wise to know or find out about the programme one has been invited onto before accepting. (And plenty of academics enjoy the chance to get involved in a more full-on debate, so I’m not advising against programmes with this format – just be aware of what you are signing up for and make sure you are comfortable with it.)
The most difficult questions I have had are the ones that look at the topic from an angle that I haven’t previously considered – so they are difficult in the sense that I don’t have a thought-through position to start from. Fortunately, one of the most valuable features of nearly all of the current events commentary I have done means I rarely face totally unexpected questions. I am referring to the pre-interview chat with a researcher who works on the programme. This usually happens when the phone call comes through with the invitation to be interviewed. At the same time that we sort out the details of when and where (in the studio, over the phone, using Skype or FaceTime) the interview will take place, I am asked to give a sense of what I might say in the interview. This is an important conversation, because it allows me to start thinking through what I will say later but also because my pre-interview comments get written up as notes and shown to the interviewer. The interviewer, of course, has the job of presenting a news programme and interviewing lots and lots of different people about a wide range of issues and stories. The interviewer cannot be expert on all of them and so is looking for some ideas for the interview in the notes from my pre-interview comments. This means that some of the comments I make before the interview might come back to me during the interview in form of questions. “The biggest problem facing Putin at this point is X” I might say in the pre-interview chat. “So, is X the biggest problem facing Putin at this point?” the interviewer might ask me on air. In other words, the pre-interview chat gives me the chance to steer the interview, subtly, towards aspects of the topic that I think are most interesting and that I want to discuss.
One of the rewarding aspects of doing fairly regular work with particular programmes, journalists and presenters is that you can build up a rapport over a period of time that makes the short interview format a lot more rewarding than it otherwise might be. During the height of the crisis in Ukraine, I was interviewed frequently by the same small group of presenters over and over and we did get to the stage where a presenter would say, “now the last time we spoke about this you said X”. This gave a sense of continuity to the experience and made me feel that I was having an ongoing conversation about this topic rather than making a set of disconnected remarks.
The final piece of advice I give to academics who want to do media work is not to judge yourself too harshly or set the bar too high. Five minutes after the interview is over we all think of things that we could have said more elegantly, or a further point that could have been made, but it’s not worth agonising over. Learn any lessons you can from each media encounter and apply them next time, by all means, but most of all try to enjoy the experience.