Why to talk to the media: Turtle edition

Academics are like turtles, pulling their heads in when reporters come knocking.

An article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education has the best metaphor for this syndrome that I’ve heard: Scientists become turtles. They’re discouraged from media relations, and thus never get better at it, and they don’t think it’s their job.  As author Michael Munger, professor of political science at Duke University, puts it:

“So whether it’s ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not paid enough,’ faculty members turn into turtles. They draw their heads and limbs inside a protective shell and won’t come out. If they do poke their heads out briefly, they embarrass themselves because they have no mental framework for media relations. It is not hard, really, compared with teaching. It is just different, different enough that turning into a turtle becomes a natural, permanent response.”

Munger makes the interesting case that even though reporters sometimes ask bad questions, use quotes that you don’t want them to use, and get the crux of the story wrong, we shouldn’t blame them or question their motives. Instead, we should remember that they are professionals who know their jobs and know what people will find most interesting.  So if a reporter uses your flip comment about stem cells instead of the meaty bit about your research, Munger suggests that you turn the blame on yourself. Ask yourself, he says, “How did I allow the producers to make that choice? Why did they not use what I thought was the best part of the interview?”

Obviously this blogger thinks that science communication is a public duty that scientists should engage in. And, as Munger points out, the better you become at it the more fun it will be.

What do you think about scientists engaging in media outreach? Is it a worthwhile endeavor that can reach out to the under-informed public, or is it a bother that takes time away from the important things, like research?

Read Munger’s five tips for doing press interviews in the Chronicle article.

Author: Christine Buckley

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6 Comments

  1. I think that this is really a question of trade-offs rather than of whether or not this is a “worthwhile endeavor” or a “bother”. Scientists are already engaged in a large number of activities. Those of us employed as faculty are teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, advising our own graduate students as well as those in other labs, training and mentoring postdocs, writing grant proposals, serving on committees, reading the literature, conducting peer review for journals and granting agencies, and conducting research. I think that recommendations such as this one always need to be considered from the point of view that in order to be better at talking to the media we are going to have to take time away from something else. Is it a laudable goal? Yes. Would it be valuable if some researchers chose to invest more time in this area? Yes. Would it be worth the cost if in order to engage in this more broadly as a group we allowed the quality of classroom education to decline, the rate of scientific progress to slow and the thoroughness of peer review to lapse? That seems like a much more complicated question.

  2. Ethan White wrote: “Would it be worth the cost if in order to engage in this more broadly as a group we allowed the quality of classroom education to decline, the rate of scientific progress to slow and the thoroughness of peer review to lapse? That seems like a much more complicated question.” That also sounds like what a good reporter would call a “loaded question.” Good scientists seem able to do all that they do, deal with queries (both learned and inane) from the press, and still make valuable contributions to the advancement of the human species, even to speed “the rate of scientific progress.”

  3. @Fred – It’s good to see this blog actually generating some discussion. Thanks for responding.

    I don’t disagree with you that it is possible for talented folks to wear a variety of hats successfully and to in fact have this breadth result in positive feedbacks amongst the various activities. But I think we can agree that there are limits. Time is a zero-sum game and as a result at some point dedicating time and effort to one enterprise must take away from one’s ability to put energy into another. Where those sacrifices are made will vary from person to person. Some will spend less time with their graduate students, others less time with their families.

    I’ll also concede to the “loaded” accusation because I think that all of this discussion at the moment is loaded. The question is almost always phrased (as it is in the original post) so as to imply (intentionally or not) that scientists are some how lazy or self-centered if they don’t want to dedicate time to activities such as these (e.g., “or is it a bother that takes time away from the important things, like research?”). That’s certainly a legitimate opinion, just not one I happen to agree with.

  4. To the moderators – It might help facilitate this kind of dialogue if you could make RSS feeds for the comments on individual posts available. I just happened to stop back today and see Fred’s comment, but that isn’t something I’d normally get around to doing. Having even whole blog comment RSS feeds would be a real step forward in encouraging conversation.

  5. Thanks for the suggestion, Ethan. I’ll look into getting RSS feeds for individual posts or for the whole blog…

  6. Thanks Christine. I see it’s already taken care of and it’s a nice addition to the blog.

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