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.