“How To Work With Academics For Media Folks” – Tips From Tressie McMillan Cottom

Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD student in sociology — but more aptly, a very successful and insightful public intellectual, provides a wealth of knowledge, resources, and insights, particularly on education, race, gender, and class.  Her blog, tressiemc, is widely read, reproduced (e.g., HuffPo), and cited.  Did I mention she was interviewed by Dan Rather? 

She has been kind enough to share some of her tips for working with the media (or, rather, the media working with academics!).


How To Work With Academics For Media Folks

I have had the good fortune to work on a topic that has some minimal appeal to popular media. I have done a little radio, a little print and a little TV, at this point. Along the way I have had some incredible experiences. However, I *am* a sociologist. It would be impossible for me to experience these engagements without applying a little bit of the sociological imagination.

I give academics a hard time for talking to small audiences when we draw so heavily on the larger social world. I think we owe some of ourselves and our work back to people who make it all possible. I also champion the idea of alternative academic paths for those with PhDs. It is ridiculous to think that learning to analyze, organize and write isn’t a transferable skill. One way of giving back and honing the transferability of our skills is to be open to media inquiries and public engagement. However, there is also some responsibility on the side of media for a successful relationship with academics. I am going to start by assuming good faith on the part of all. These are suggestions based on that assumption. If you’re just a selfish, unprofessional lout, there will be another post at some point in the future. It will likely be very short and involve calling your mother. For the rest of the folks, here’s a primer on the careful feeding and caring of your media relationship with academics.

Your Time Is Not Like Our Time

I am not talking the 9-to-5 grind of the “real world” to the imaginary leisure of the life of the mind. I mean that the sense of urgency that often drives media folks is not the same as the urgency that orders the priorities of most academics.

If you need a response to a story in 24 hours you need to say that upfront. That helps me understand if I can comply or not. It sets expectations, which always minimizes negative consequences. And, remember that your timelines do not magically become the timelines of your sources. I like doing media folks a solid, but I am not judged successful as an academic by how many times I’m mentioned in a news story. That has to order how I prioritize my time. If I cannot address your request this time, that does not mean I don’t want to maintain our relationship. It means that in this moment what is most important to you is not most important for me. A nice thank you for the consideration and a note to stay in touch communicates that better than radio silence when I politely decline or direct you to someone else.

It helps if you note the times that are simply not conducive to media requests.  If you absolutely must contact an academic during those times tread lightly with a really big need. The beginning and end of an academic semester is very, very hectic. Also, learn the lingo of time. “I’ve got a paper to get out” or “I’m up for tenure right now” or “I’m defending soon” are all signals that now is not the best time to ask for favors. If you must, make a response as easy to provide as possible. I mean, keep it squarely in my area of expertise so I don’t have to look something up; provide clear questions that need answers; if possible, even provide a template so that I don’t even have to open a black document to respond. And for God’s sake please say thank you.

We Don’t Exactly Owe You The Time

I think this is a consequence of the urgency that drives media folks and not arrogance. You are in a rush to hit deadlines. You need a money quote and some perspective and you need it now. I don’t mind providing that sometimes but it is not my job to provide it. What you are generally asking academics for is to provide to you for free what we are usually paid to provide elsewhere. That does not mean we should jerks about it but it would be nice if media folks approached it this way. On occasion I have gotten a short email request or message that seemed to assume that I owed them a response. Take the time to not assume that position.

Pay In Kind

No, you usually aren’t paying for my services and I accept that. I’m fine with it, even. But that does not mean that the relationship has to be parasitic. I may not expect money but recognition for the access and intellectual labor I provide is nice. Think of it as showing your work and citing your sources. I have had more than one instance of seeing my words and my arguments in print but not seeing my name.

Also, if you intend to ever return to the well you should think of this as a relationship. If I clear my deck when you email, you should at least respond to me should I ever email you. I have had instances of giving away upwards of 36 hours of my time, for free, to a journalist only to have them totally ignore a request from me six months later for some guidance that they could provide. As Dolly Parton says, it costs a lot of money to look this cheap. Someone invested in my skills, knowledge base, and ability. When I give it away that does not mean it is free. It means you just didn’t pay for it with money. Paying for it with mutual consideration is another way to go.

If I Introduce You To My Network Don’t Act A Fool

This one will get you cut quick. For the sake of the Patriot Act let’s all assume I mean that metaphorically.  All of work is built on relationships but in academia relationships are particularly valuable. We are a clannish lot. An introduction is not just a how-you-do. It is me saying that I vouch for you. I’m spending a little bit of my (limited) social capital to save you time and money with a shortcut to a valuable resource. If you get that access and then do any of the above or worse? You are dead to me. Worse, you are dead to my network. If I can make it happen without incriminating myself, you are even dead to all cell phone companies and Zagat rated hoteliers. Don’t do it.

Treat The Work With Respect

There’s this weird thing that happens with humans. We tend to assign a value to a product based on our perception of how hard it was for someone to produce it. I may make it look easy to rattle off ten relevant academic sources and conceptual frameworks on a topic but that does not mean it was easy. I won’t bore you with the details but I earn that knowledge base. And, the fact is, if it was easy to find the information you would not have reached out to me. So, before you start asking for more details or sending follow-up questions, think of what I have told you as a starting point for your own research and not a quote machine for insta-press news articles.

And, I wish this went without saying but please acknowledge responses. I have put together full out briefs covering an entire area of study for people before only to never have them acknowledge receiving it or using it. If I want to be ignored, guys and girls, I can be ignored by academic journals and senior colleagues. I don’t have to take that from you. Seriously, respond to responses.

Finally, I think there is a lot of room for media and academia to build more bridges. We have both a shortage of expertise in our culture and , arguably, an over-production of experts. That strikes me as ridiculous. All those hip cool trends? We do that! We do data. We analyze statistics. We read archival documents. We construct arguments. We understand archaic ideas, language, and processes. Your work will always get more eyeballs than ours and we will almost always have devoted more time developing expertise in a subject matter. Those two outcomes are shaped by two very different set of incentive structures. We trade in prestige and you trade in access and timeliness. Those two things can bump heads and cause unnecessary friction when we don’t acknowledge them and act accordingly. With a little care on all sides they don’t have to.