University Affairs by Shari Graydon 23 July 2014

Last year, Walrus magazine editor, John Macfarlane, persuasively argued that the “widespread public expression of uninformed opinion has been facilitated by an increase in polling, the advent of the blogosphere, and cable television.” The result, he suggested, was that in critical debates on climate change, a learned climatologist might be accorded equal time with an evangelical creationist.

You may see this scenario as a reason not to do media interviews. But surely it’s worse if the learned climatologist doesn’t show up at all!

I understand why many scholars are reluctant to engage with the media. Even if you’re available at the requested hour, you may not have time to prepare, or want to bother for the sake of a 10-second sound bite. You don’t want to dumb down complex issues or take the risk you might be misquoted and condemned by colleagues for favouring crass self-promotion over serious scholarship.

But here’s why you might want to think again. The late Steve Schneider, a distinguished professor at Stanford University who made significant contributions to the ‪Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, frequently gave media interviews. He also warned academic colleagues who have specialized knowledge that might help solve a serious problem against shirking their obligation to do so:

“If you feel that the process of dealing with the media is somehow dirty, involves compromising your integrity because you can’t tell the whole story, that’s not the high ground that you might think it is. It just passes the buck to someone else who’s probably less qualified than you.”

Every week, dozens of news stories make clear the pressing need of genuinely informed opinions. Public relations’ spin on the safety of a new drug begs scientific interpretation; mendacious campaign promises demand objective context; volatile international events scream out for analysis.

But disinterested perspectives offering genuine insights are often in short supply, even though Canada boasts thousands of highly educated, extremely articulate and civic-minded scholars. Many routinely decline media interview requests. Relatively few craft and submit written commentary of their own.

The latter, in particular, represents a missed opportunity. When you write your own commentary, you have control over how the issue is framed and which words are published. It may seem that the web has diluted the power of expert commentary in traditional media, but well-crafted expert analysis remains influential in traditional print and broadcast media, as well as online. Politicians and policy makers, business and NGO leaders all pay attention.

Also, writing an opinion piece for a newspaper often leads to radio or TV interview requests, which can be more rewarding in this sequence since, having already crafted your observations, you’re less likely to be fighting against someone else’s agenda.

Our experience working with hundreds of Canadian scholars suggests that writing commentary constitutes a kind of “gateway drug” to media engagement. Many previously media-shy scholars grow more comfortable giving interviews after they’ve already condensed their knowledge into a concise, focused argument. It’s easier to deliver sound bites if you’ve already identified concrete examples and compelling analogies.

It’s true that most tenure and promotions committees don’t give credit for mainstream media publications, but universities across the country are starting to acknowledge this kind of community service in other ways. Simon Fraser University, Queen’s University and the University of Ottawa provide annual awards recognizing faculty members who contribute to public discourse. Funding councils are increasingly looking for scholars with innovative approaches to knowledge mobilization.

At the same time, engaging with the news media offers its own rewards. It’s exhilarating to enlighten hundreds of thousands of people at a time.

Just ask Sarah Foster. A marine biologist focused on conservation, she recently participated in a media-engagement workshop at the University of British Columbia. Within a few weeks, supported by UBC’s media relations office, Sarah had published a newspaper commentary and done radio and TV interviews about her research and its impact.

“I feel like I have managed to make more of a conservation difference with one 600-word op-ed than I have with all my scientific publications put together,” says Sarah. What are you waiting for?

Shari Graydon is a journalist and the founder of Informed Opinions, a social enterprise that trains experts to share their knowledge in more accessible and engaging ways with a broader audience.