Date Submitted: 1/21/2020
How much do I need to know to engage media
It’s important to have humility, but not too much humility. Academics should not aspire to be the “expert on everything” chasing cameras, but they also shouldn’t take themselves out of the conversation when pundits with far less actual knowledge dominate the media. If your expertise is in the Middle East (for instance) and you’re asked for comment on Taiwan, say no — and direct the media team to people who you think are qualified to do so. In particular, try to identify women or people from the region in question who might typically fall under the radar for the media organizations. But if you have expertise in the general area, you should engage at the level where you feel comfortable. Always be clear about what you don’t know, and don’t misrepresent your background or try to bluff your way through. But if your research is on Israeli-Arab wars and there’s a spike of conflict in Iraq, you most likely have strong historical background and theoretical perspective which allows you to discuss generally the significance and implications. Audiences don’t need to know the latest academic literature or highly detailed case knowledge so much as they need context, perspective, and measured insight. I would add that there’s a difference in media type here, as well: newspaper / magazine journalists likely want and need the background context, and will value your perspective; TV producers often just want a soundbyte, and that doesn’t play to the typical academic’s skill-set. So think about what you want to contribute on an issue and what you realistically can contribute, say yes to those and decline the rest.
Your university media relations team knows you generally as an IR person, they tend not to get more specific than that. Fine to defer on topics on which you don’t feel you have sufficient expertise, although don’t take that as too narrow a limit confining only to what you most publish in. Our general IR training does equip us to contribute to the broad public’s understanding of a real range of current issues that help folks get some grasp beyond politically oriented talking heads. Your university may offer media training if you feel that’d help as well; you also might consider programs like the Bridging the Gap International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI), http://bridgingthegapproject.org/programs/ipsi/