Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend
Many colleges and universities encourage faculty media engagement to demonstrate the expertise of the faculty, raise the profile of the university, and serve the public good. Media engagement is one of many ways to integrate teaching, research, and service – and often the most visible option available.
As a faculty member at Indiana University South Bend, I engage with media in numerous ways: I host a weekly public affairs television program; I provide expert analysis for local, state, national, and international media outlets; I write research-informed op-eds for local and national newspapers; and I work with local and statewide media to produce televised political debates and non-partisan voter guides. In this essay, I draw upon over two decades of media engagement and more than 700 media appearances to advise faculty who wish to partner with the media to educate the public about politics.
Call back promptly and work with reporters’ deadlines. Reporters are often on a tight deadline. Ask for 30 minutes (or more) to pull your thoughts together. The required lead time will depend on your schedule, your familiarity with the topic, and the type of interview. TV interviews may require additional prep time to be camera ready. (I keep a makeup bag, curling iron, hair spray, and suit jacket in my office just in case reporters call for comments on breaking stories.) Don’t feel pressured to provide the interview immediately. It is appropriate to tell the reporter when you will be available. Find out when the reporter is expected to turn in the story and schedule accordingly. Calling back promptly and making yourself available to reporters is a big part of becoming part of their in-house list of media experts. Accepting only those interviews that you can reasonably fit into your schedule, responding even if you cannot do a specific interview, and letting reporters know that you will be available for future stories will keep you on the list.
Find out why the reporter wants to interview you. Ask what information the reporter is looking for and what information the reporter has already gathered. This will help you determine how much detail you should provide in your interview. It is appropriate to ask reporters what topics they plan to cover or what general questions they plan to ask. This allows you to determine if you are the correct “expert” for the story, while also allowing you to prepare efficiently. Also ask how the information you provide will be used. Does the reporter need a quick soundbite or two on a specific topic for a brief news story or extensive background information for a longer feature story? This is important to know so that you can prepare accordingly.
Refer reporters to another expert if you do not have the time or expertise required. You do not need to be the leading expert in the field to add to the public’s understanding of a topic. Often the story angle is general enough that a specialist – or “leading expert” in the field – is not required. Staying up-to-date on the research may be all that is required.
Teaching a topic in your classes prepares you to explain the topic to the public. If a reporter is writing a story about the nomination of the first black woman to the Supreme Court, you do not need to be a constitutional lawyer, or the nation’s leading expert on the U.S. Supreme Court and the judicial nomination process, to comment. If you teach about the Supreme Court in your introductory American politics course while also teaching upper-level courses in racial, ethnic, and gender politics you can answer the questions of greatest interest to the reporter and audience for this story. The appropriate level of expertise depends on the angle of the story, which is why it is important to ask about this up front before agreeing to the interview.
Leverage your skills as a teacher to make the story understandable to the audience. There are several ways to do this: don’t assume prior knowledge, avoid technical jargon, define your terms, and provide relevant, interesting, and memorable examples. These are all skills good teachers employ in the classroom. Most importantly, keep it simple. Don’t assume the audience has a strong background in politics. Journalists are trained to write their stories so that they can be understood by an eighth grader. Your job is to make political science research relevant and accessible to the public. Focus on communicating clearly and helping the audience to understand the topic.
Prepare a list of key points to cover during each interview, just as you would a class. Make these points compelling, concise, and credible. Being concise is critical. Reporters have a very limited amount of space or time to tell a story. Prepare 2-3 specific talking points that you want to use during the interview to create clear, compelling, and memorable pull quotes that tell a good story.
Use repetition to convey the major points and help the public understand the story. Unless the interview is live, a reporter will choose which quotes to use in the story. It is okay to repeat key talking points throughout the interview and to raise them, again, when the reporter asks if you have any final thoughts. It is a good idea to practice these talking points in advance. For your own sense of comfort and confidence, you might also prepare a note card containing important names, dates, and statistics. Be careful not to become overly reliant on these notes during the interview. Most reporters are not looking for a detailed literature review or detailed research findings, and it never looks (or sounds) good for a guest to search through — or read from — notes on air.
Consider how you appear to the audience for TV interviews. Pay attention to your appearance and body language on TV. Dress professionally and avoid clothing or backgrounds that may distract the viewers. Solid colors are generally better than patterns. Sit up straight and avoid nervous habits such as twitching, tapping on the table, or using excessive hand gestures and facial expressions. If you are not sure what to do with your hands, lean on one arm and fold or overlap your hands together comfortably. Make eye contact with the reporter during in-office and studio interviews (unless instructed otherwise) and look directly into the web cam for Zoom interviews. Speak clearly and confidently and be succinct.
Adjust your interview style to suit the medium. When doing radio interviews or podcasts, speak clearly and succinctly as you do for television, but shift to a more conversational style, and use descriptive words, metaphors, and storytelling, as appropriate, to create visual images in listeners’ minds. While it is tempting to be more informal with print or online media reporters who are not recording the session for broadcast, remember that the reporter can quote anything you say. Be as clear and concise as possible and avoid tangents and off-the-record story-telling that might mistakenly end up in the final story.
Avoid self-promotion, but draw upon your own expertise as appropriate. Providing a list of publications or cataloging your own accomplishments and awards is not appropriate. Sharing the findings of highly relevant research that you, or others, have conducted is very appropriate. This is particularly true if you were contacted specifically because you conducted groundbreaking research with direct relevance to the story. Keep in mind that most news stations cover current events, not political science research. While an occasional national newspaper or news magazine reporter may want details about your research findings, most reporters are seeking basic comments on political trends or current events. You are there to help the audience make sense of the news or put today’s events in a broader context, not to give a political science research seminar.
Limit technical jargon and details about your research design when sharing your research. Include only those elements of the research design that are critical to understanding why the study is important and explain the significance of such design decisions in a language that non-experts can understand. Also simplify research findings to focus on key takeaway points rather than detailed numbers or statistics. Keep the use of numbers to a minimum and don’t assume strong quantitative literacy skills. It is generally best to talk about overall trends and findings rather than percentages. Only use numbers if they are essential to support a key talking point.
Focus on top line findings and main effects with direct relevance to the story. There is a big difference between a conference presentation, or classroom lecture, and a media interview. If you discuss specific research at all, focus on a key finding that the audience should know rather than presenting a full list of hypotheses and findings.
Understand the audience. Audiences may be suspicious of specialists and experts, including college professors. Avoid playing into the stereotype of the out-of-touch professor. This is especially important if there are town-gown tensions in your community or you work at an “elite” institution. Knowing the audience and thinking about how best to reach them is important. Using accessible language, providing a fair and honest analysis, and focusing on known facts is critical when seeking credibility with a skeptical audience.
Consider how you add value to the story. When working with local or statewide media outlets, it is usually helpful to think about how national or international events will affect people in your community, state, or region. Providing a local perspective on the national news is a big part of the job for reporters working in local media markets. You should be prepared to discuss the impact of current events or new legislation for local readers and viewers. How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affect gas and grocery prices in your area? What will the changes to the federal child tax credit mean for local families? How will the Supreme Court decision on abortion affect laws in your state?
Decide what name and title you will use when granting an interview. If you serve in several capacities, clarify with the reporter why they are contacting you. Is it in your capacity as a college professor, a local elected official, or a civic group leader? Your remarks and title should reflect this focus. Also consider whether you will act as a spokesperson for other groups at all if you are granting interviews in your role as an academic. Only you can make this decision and it is important to consider how wearing “several hats” might (positively or negatively) affect your perceived credibility as a subject matter expert. Regardless of your decision, it is important to clarify the spelling and pronunciation of your name and your correct title at the beginning of each interview. It is also a good idea to clarify the name of your institution. If administrators prefer a specific abbreviation (e.g. “IU South Bend” versus “IUSB”) let reporters and producers know this.
Avoid saying more than you know and making predictions as much as possible. Reporters love to ask political scientists to make predictions about elections and court cases. Stay within the scope of what we can reasonably predict based on the data available. Stating that you feel confident that the Republicans will retain their majority status in the Indiana General Assembly makes good sense, but predicting that Trump will once again win the GOP nomination and the presidency in 2024 is a much bigger gamble. Similarly, noting that the president’s party almost always loses seats in the general election and talking about the factors that will make the 2022 midterm an uphill battle for Democrats is better than predicting exactly how many seats Democrats and Republicans will win in the House and Senate. Consider whether you want to go “on record” making early predictions that may not come true. While making an educated guess after researching past performance, forecasting models, and current political context may be reasonable, providing an “off-the-cuff” prediction on air, or in print, might undermine your credibility.
Develop positive relationships with both new and well-established reporters. Follow-up after a successful interview isn’t necessary, but can be useful. A thoughtful message – with an invitation to contact you again in the future – can increase the likelihood of repeat interviews. If you make a mistake, it is fine to contact the reporter to correct or clarify. It is also appropriate to let a reporter know when they got something wrong. Local reporters are very seldom experts in politics and misstatements of facts and misquotes can often be corrected quickly for the online version of the story. The “compliment sandwich” approach is useful when offering advice or requesting a correction. Compliment the reporter on good things about the story, notify the reporter about any errors that need to be corrected, and end by offering to work together again — unless the error is intentional or so egregious that you feel a need to add the report to your “no contact” list. The frequent turnover of reporters at local media outlets provides an opportunity to mentor new reporters who may be completely unfamiliar with politics in your state and region. Cub reporters often appreciate an opportunity to learn and grow, especially if communications and “teachable moments” are handled appropriately. This is another way that teaching experience comes in handy when working with the media.
In conclusion, the same skills that make a professor successful in the classroom make them a potentially valuable media contact. Working with the media is a rewarding way to put the teacher-scholar model into practice. It draws upon your scholarly expertise while allowing you to serve the public by teaching beyond the classroom.
Elizabeth A. Bennion is Chancellor’s Professor of Political Science at Indiana University South Bend, and she is co-chair of the APSA Section on Civic Engagement.
Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.
Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)
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