I was down in New Orleans late last month to give a talk at the Society of Biblical Literature conference. The topic: How to Talk to the Media. It was useful for me to think about the transactions between experts and journalists. I heard some eye-opening war stories from scholars who feel that they have gotten burned by media folk, especially by film-and-TV people in search of a quick sound bite about the Lost Tomb of Jesus or whatever the sensational find of the moment is.
My message was simple, obvious, and worth repeating: Journalists are not necessarily the problem. We can be a channel by which ideas make their way to a larger audience.
To make the expert-journalist interaction as smooth as possible, though, it helps to understand the constraints we work under, what we’re looking for when we ask you to share your expertise, what you should know before you talk to someone like me, and how you can help me and my colleagues find you. (We can’t interview you if we don’t know you’re out there.) I’m jotting a few pointers down here in hopes they might come in handy for some of you. This is not a complete list by any means, just some basics to think about.
First, the constraints:
–time. Deadlines, deadlines, dealines. In the trade, we call this feeding the beast, and it’s a hungry one.
–space and story length. I might love to write a 5,000 word story about your work. The paper may only have room for 500 words. I don’t like it any better than you do, but that’s life.
–editors. I like to tell my editors that it’s my job to get as much material into the story as possible and their job to take it out again. They love that. They’re higher up the food chain than I am, though.
–a general audience. You write for your peers; I write for the senior scholar in the history department and the guy in the chem lab and the grad student in comp lit and the secretary in the provost’s office and some random neighbor of mine who might pick up the newspaper or find an article online.
–ourselves. It’s not quite fair to say that journalists are generalists; we have our own forms of expertise. But I have a better grounding in some subjects than in others, and that may be reflected in the questions I ask you.
Second, what a journalist is looking for when she/he approaches you. Sometimes I want an overview of a subject. Sometimes I want an informed reaction to an event, discovery, or idea. Sometimes I’m after context: How important is this event, really? What does it mean, how much does it matter? What do we need to know to understand it? Always appreciated: lively quotes, enthusiasm, passion for the work or the idea.
Third, what you should know before you talk to a journalist.
–What kind of story is she/he working on? Is it a scene-setting overview, a quick-turnaround news story, an in-depth analysis? It’s fair to ask if you don’t know.
–What kind of media outlet is the journalist working for? Do you know the publication or show? Again, ask or do some research of your own so that you have a sense of what kind of venue you’re being asked to appear in. Don’t make the mistake of treating “the media” as one animal; there are many species of us, and we function in some very different ways.
–Be prepared to have a long and complex conversation reduced to a handful of quotes (accurate and in context, we hope). See note about space and length constraints, above.
–Stay away from jargon or theory-speak. This is not the same as dumbing it down. Just remember you’re not talking to a roomful of fellow experts in your field. A caveat: Terms of art and expert detail are necessary and welcome–anything that gives the story context and flavor.
–The journalist’s reputation is on the line too. I don’t want to get it wrong any more than you do.
–Most journalists do not pay for interviews, nor will we show you the story before it runs/airs.
Fourth, how can journalists find you?
–Think about what aspects of your work may be newsworthy or of interest to an audience beyond your field. Be honest, now. Not every journal article merits a universal press release.
–Make friends with your campus news service. The good ones know when to pitch, whom to pitch, and how often.
–Look to book and journal editors you work with to help spread the word about nifty ideas/monographs/special issues/reports/exciting debates and controversies/what have you.
–Make use of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. as a way to share news (selectively) about what you’re doing or to flag new twists and developments in your field.
–If you have a good tip or idea, get in touch with a journalist directly, but be judicious about it. None of us is lacking for email to read these days, and I have come to dread the epic voicemail pitches I sometimes get.