A recent article on Wonkhe asked why there aren’t more academic experts in the media. The answer, coming out of interviews with thirty “media active” academics, focus on institution support that could be offered by press offices, as well as the need for a change in mindset about media engagement. However, there are far more invisible barriers which stand in the way of early and mid-career academics, which will take far more than new initiatives to overcome.
The biggest of these is what I call the Rolodex problem. When journalists want a comment on a story, they often want it very quickly, and they need to know it will be fit for purpose. Their instinctive choice will be to look through their list of pre-existing contacts and reach out to somebody they already know – which is precisely how academics with a high profile in the media maintain it. Particularly in a smaller discipline, where there are likely to be fewer people engaged in research around a particular subject, one person can quickly become the “go to” contact for journalists.
Getting on the list
Who these “go to” people are may not be defined by their knowledge. As has been well documented, people tend to attribute expertise to white men rather than women or people of colour, even if they’re saying exactly the same thing. Media appearances also breed media appearances: previous engagements make it more likely for other journalists to add you to their list of contacts. Getting on the radar of media people working in your field, or becoming “discoverable”, is a common piece of advice to people wanting to engage with the media, but in practice it is incredibly difficult to do.
In the report the established media academics acknowledged that their rise of prominence had been accidental. That said, behind serendipity there often lies a hidden network of mates from uni, old students, and people met at dinner parties. We can now add a lively social media presence to the ways in which we might seek to influence serendipity, but following the accounts of journalists and tweeting optimistically at them won’t always work.
Equally, many opportunities for freelance or interview work come through the medium of the DM or direct message, a note sent from one user to another privately – however, many people choose not to enable the DM function on Twitter or other social media websites because they also are used to send unsolicited explicit pictures or messages, or sexist or racist abuse. Decisions to keep yourself safe on-line can shut down doors that others feel able to leave open.
What media training misses
It doesn’t help that the focus of a lot of media training available to academics focuses on what to do once you are in the interview seat, not how to get there in the first place. An informal call for experiences on Twitter brought out lots of responses from people whose media training had focused on how to be interviewed and what pitfalls to avoid – there was very little evidence that people were being given guidance on how to be proactive about publicising their expertise.
Part of this is, I suspect, down to a very particular model of how working with the media functions: a journalist in search of an expert contacts a university press office, who in turn check their database and provide a suitable expert who is willing and able to do the interview. Yes, these kinds of approaches do happen from time to time, and many press offices do great work in proactively raising the profile of their academics – but in the current pressured world of media where speed is of the essence, it’s so much easier just to open the Rolodex and go with who you know.
There is a large group of early career academics and mid-career scholars who would love to be doing more media work and to be building better connections with journalists, particularly women and people of colour. Yet invisible barriers get in the way, and the problem with them is that those people who have got to the other side can’t see them any more. Those first encounters that media experts talk about happened so far back in the past that it’s hard to pinpoint what made them successful – very few people talk about the personal connections which may have played a role in that initial lucky invitation. We can revamp our personal websites, tell our press offices what we’re up to, and tweet to our hearts’ desire – but until we’ve found the way into the Rolodex, it won’t make the slightest bit of difference.