When scholars think about doing interviews with the media, we often imagine ourselves to be doing some kind of great public service–wherein we deign to come down from the ivory tower and share our wisdom and knowledge with naive, uninformed journalists and their massive, mostly ignorant, and fundamentally distracted masses. There is some truth to this conceit. Writers and producers often approach a story or a topic with a limited, fairly narrow frame of reference, and sometimes don’t even know the most basic facts or more general trends that are involved. I average maybe an interview a week, and find myself spending much of my time in these exchanges trying to get the writer or producer on the other end of the line to expand their scope, attend to some of the broader social forces or issues, or reframe their pieces in one way or the other. Sometimes this effort to frame and/or reorient stories works, sometimes it doesn’t (and rarely do we get credit either way).
But none of that is really the point of this post. The point of this post is that journalists often know a lot more than we give them credit for, and that we scholars–especially us sociologists–have got a lot more to gain from working with them than we usually realize.
For one thing, the best journalists are not ignorant or uniformed. To the contrary, they know a ton–more than this, they know what they know, know what they need to confirm and support, and what they don’t know yet and still need to figure out. That’s the whole point of them calling us. And even reporters who aren’t so curious, well-informed, and self-aware usually know a lot more about what is going on in neighborhoods, communities, and cities in regular people’s lives at this very moment than we do. This shouldn’t be surprising. We talk a lot in the academy, especially in the social sciences, about being empirical, staying grounded, and understanding the lifeworlds and world views of others. But these are folks who actually have their ears to the ground on a daily basis. It’s their job, and most of them–like most of us–work hard at it and do it fairly well.
And this knowledge and perspective is–or at least should be–a real resource for a sociologist like myself. Thus it is that I have come to think of my conversations and exchanges with journalists, reporters, writers, and producers not so much as an obligation or responsibility (though I do believe that to be the case) but as one of the most important and unrecognized benefits of “public engagement” as a scholar. It brings me into contact with people in the real world who know a lot about things I am otherwise not party to or disconnected from. It helps me to learn about what is going on in that big, bustling, ever-changing, always-evolving social world all around me.
This past week provided me with another little reminder of this basic truth–which was fortuitous because with the start of a new academic year (where I get paid to stand up and tell young people what I know and their job is to be prepared to be tested on that) I’m sure I was otherwise soon to fall into that old “I’m-the-expert” conceit myself once again.It started in the middle of the afternoon last Tuesday when I got a voice mail from a local sportswriter, one who I know fairly well, asking me if I might be available to comment on a high school sports story he “thought I might be intrigued by.” Obviously, knowing my schedule and that it was the start of class, this guy was trying to be coy and get me to call him back on a deadline by appealing to my curiosity and, truth be told, vanity. And the current of underlying urgency in his message was confirmed by a series of additional voice mails and text messages. Still, it was a typically busy day for me too (class, followed by a department workshop and a three hour board meeting with a local community group) and I sent him a quick text asking what his deadline was and apologizing that I might not be able to squeeze it in.
Anyway, despite the temptation to not be bothered and just do my own thing, I decided to do the right thing and called to talk the following morning on my drive in to campus.The story my reporter friend was working on turned out to be about a local, Friday night high school football game that was going to be televised live, nation-wide on ESPN 2 that week. This was a big story, a national story, driven mainly by the fact that one of the teams had a player, a defensive lineman, who was rated at the very top of national college recruiting lists over the summer. So I had heard about it but I didn’t know a lot about the actual details. Nevertheless and as is my won’t, I had a few (mostly critical) ideas about the general trends, pitfalls, and problems of turning high school athletics into big-time, national media events to offer. Indeed, I spent about twenty minutes explaining what I thought most scholars and researchers in the field would be concerned about, and trying to convince him to use the story to talk about some of the larger, longer term developments and implications.
This sportswriters listened patiently to what I had to say and dutifully asked a few questions, but from the point of view of my usual smarter-than-thou, scholarly expert self, the exchange was far from a complete success. The story that ran two days later in the paper (on the front page, mind you) didn’t have any of the larger scope or more critical nuance I had worked so hard to cultivate. This, to such an extent that the quotes I gave him that he was able to work into the story (as is common practice and professional courtesy) were cut by his editors. (My guy emailed before the story even ran to apologize in advance and explain that his editors insisted on that my contribution be cut from “an already too long story.”) Adding insult to injury, this version of the story was scooped by a rival outlet in the Twin Cities; when this reporter insisted that “ours was better,” I couldn’t help but get the message that my primary contribution was simply to make the piece late.
But as frustrating as all of this was for the reporter I was working with, it actually turned out to be a pretty good exchange for me. After all, looking back, I realize that learned a ton of facts about the dynamics of high school sports I previously could only have guessed at. I learned about how ESPN producers sitting in Connecticut make their decisions about what national games to televise, and that they themselves are fully aware of (and indeed somewhat circumspect about) the broader impacts and implications that we scholarly critics only pontificate about. I learned that the games are actually produced by subcontractors working out of various regional offices (this one in Chicago), which have become a whole industry in themselves–talent, camera operators, techies,and road crew to be sure, but also lighting operators, advertising specialists, crowd control etc. Talk about production! And just for a high school football game. I learned also just how much money each school was going to make, and that the locals really had very little sense of whether they were getting a good deal in this (or not, as the case may have been), nor of any of the larger, systemic pitfalls and problems that this coverage may be creating. In short, I learned a ton of facts and inside information about this whole system that is emerging that I otherwise would have known nothing about. The reason, obviously, is because my reporter friend is out there, with his ear to the ground in the real world, learning about all of the developments and dynamics around high school football that are threatening to reshape the sporting landscape right in front of us.
We scholars, at least we sociologists, talk a ton about being empiricists, about identifying new social trends, about gathering facts and learning about the lives of those who are different from us. Yet far too often (if, for reasons we can’t entirely control–the world is big, our resources are limited, and we’ve got on own, fairly extensive teaching responsibilities ), we remain isolated and disconnected from all those people and trends we are supposed to know about (and regularly asked to comment upon). So here’s part of the answer how we stay–or at least can stay–grounded and fresh: talk as much as we can to those other folks who also do this for a living. Perhaps it is verboten to suggest, but I think we may actually get more than we give in this relationship.