Josef Korbel School of International Studies - Ethics of Engagement

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Thomas Schelling testifies before Congress in October, 1969

Date Submitted: 1/21/2020

Question summary:

How much do I need to know to engage media

Full question:

Our university's media relations team has asked me a couple times this semester if I can speak to a reporter about issues that are not my core areas of expertise (specifically, about drones and Iran). I probably know more about these issues than a man on the street, but I don't think I'm comfortable talking about them to the press. How do you know when you know enough about a topic that you should weigh in? Some people seem to think there's no such thing as bad press, and take every call they get.

Response 1

The question is a great one, but doesn’t make clear whether the reporter is writing a story and is getting background from you and possibly a quote or whether you would be going on tv to respond to questions. Either way, your role is that of an expert not a pundit, so whatever the questions are, you should focus your answers on things you know thanks to your expertise. There are plenty of pundits, many fewer experts. If it’s a reporter calling for a story, you can always say you don’t know the answer to a specific question. That’s harder to do on tv! But even there, you can take your answer in a direction where you have expertise. If this is about going on tv, you should ask your university if they do media training. That can be a really helpful way of getting feedback and also getting comfortable. If you are speaking to a reporter for a story they are writing, you should ask how they plan to identify you if they quote you so that you make sure it’s the title or area of expertise you want associated with your name. The most frustrating things about speaking to reporters for stories they are writing are 1) they talk to you for a long time and don’t use anything you say or 2) they talk to you for a long time, and use what you say but don’t attribute any of it to you. That’s annoying! Maybe try one of these calls, see how it goes, and then decide if you want to do more. The more you do, the more comfortable you will be. And if you are providing your expertise for the public, that is a service to your community.

Response 2

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.


Response 3

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/