How the Media Isolate Academics: A Response to Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof usually produces thoughtful and insightful commentary in his columns in the New York Times. However, his recent article entitled “Professors, We Need You!” was such a lazy piece of writing that I found myself wondering whether his byline had been stuck on the column by mistake. The article trotted out very broad and very tired stereotypes of academic disciplines being too isolated from reality, and academics themselves being too wrapped up in their own self-serving work to engage with society or with the public.

Other blogging academics such as the political scientists at The Monkey Cage, the administrator at Confessions of a Community College Dean, and the scientist at Doing Good Science have already dissected the errors in Kristof’s article, along with pointing out the article’s failure to mention the structural, occupational and institutional factors creating the kind of academic work that Kristof denigrates. However, what I want to discuss is Kristof’s very one-sided allegation of academics distancing themselves from public discourse. Because, in many instances, it’s not the academics who are excluding themselves from the media. It’s the media that are excluding the academics.

I was a journalist before I became an academic. Having been on both sides of the fence, I understand how media organizations work and how academic organizations work. There are several reasons why the two don’t get along well – and in my opinion, the responsibility for the hostility lies more with the media than it does with the academics.

First, media worlds and academic worlds run on completely different schedules. Media organizations need content, they need it fast, and they need it 24/7. Academics work either on a semester-driven schedule or on a schedule driven by conference submission deadlines, journal article deadlines, and grant application deadlines. But both types of schedules have a much longer time frame than the typical media news cycle. So when a journalist contacts an academic looking for a quote or for background information, the journalist might not understand why the academic isn’t ready or able to talk to them at that very minute, and the academic might not understand why the journalist’s request is so urgent. As a result, both the journalist and the academic end up getting frustrated with each other, and may try to avoid future interactions.

Along similar lines, academics also get frustrated with the media when they make the time for a lengthy interview and then are not named or quoted in the resulting story. I’ve had that happen to me, and while it’s annoying, I understand why it happens. And if I can see in the story that the journalist has used at least some of the information I provided, then I feel the interview was worthwhile even if I’m not directly credited. However, other academics in the same situation might think their time and effort had been wasted, and may then be reluctant to give interviews in the future if they’re not sure their input will be properly acknowledged.

Second, journalists want information in quick and easy-to-understand pieces, because they have to concisely communicate that information to a large audience with a limited attention span. However, when the media demands that academics communicate in this form, it often misses deeper and more useful information. For example, Stanford University professor Bob Sutton, currently promoting his new book Scaling Up Excellence, reluctantly had to develop “sound bites” to summarize the book’s content for his interviewers –  even though to get the full benefit of the nuanced analyses in the book, you would have to read it in its entirety.

The media shouldn't assume that academic research cuts researchers off from the real world. (credit: austinevans on Commons)

The media shouldn’t assume that academic research cuts researchers off from the real world. (credit: austinevans on Commons)

Third, many journalists lack even a basic understanding of statistical analysis and research design, which can make it very difficult for researchers to describe their work to them. Any professor who’s ever taught an introductory course or a survey course in their discipline (which is pretty much everyone) can explain basic concepts and theories to a non-specialist audience. But explaining more complex ideas or experiments can be a problem if the interviewer has trouble understanding why research might be designed a certain way, or whether the results of a statistical analysis actually prove anything definitive. Personally, I think it’s a journalist’s responsibility to have this kind of training. It’s useful in many situations, the concepts are not that challenging to understand, and journalists should be able to critically assess information from academic sources just as they would assess information from anywhere else.

Fourth, some journalists think, or are led to believe, that academics are difficult interviewees. In my own journalistic experience, academics were not by any means the worst kind of people to interview. There are inarticulate, confusing, shy, evasive, or grumpy interviewees in every occupation. Most academics are very enthusiastic about their work, and are happy to talk about it. The interviewer just needs to show up prepared, demonstrate some interest in the subject, and not be afraid to ask for more details or explanations. Trust me, most academics would sooner spend time clarifying what they’ve said rather than see horrific errors in an article about their work.

And finally, there are relatively limited opportunities in the media for academics, and for other kinds of experts, to participate in discussions where they have a reasonable chance to contribute something meaningful. I’ve watched people I know being interviewed on Crossfire-type TV screamfests, and it made me cringe. Academics may not want to participate in these sorts of media opportunities – and it’s not because they don’t have well-supported opinions or useful information. It’s because that type of media participation does nothing to improve anyone’s understanding of a topic. Why bother?

It’s a shame that Kristof published such a poorly researched and weakly argued article. But it’s especially sad that Kristof criticized academics for their alleged intellectual isolation, while not saying a word about the media’s role in reinforcing that isolation. If Kristof thinks that academics are stuck in ivory towers, he might want to think about how his own industry helps keep them there.

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