A comment on commenting

When the camera-man turns up at your home

As you will have noticed, there’s a pandemic going on.

I mention this mainly because I’ve spent the past week listening to/watching/reading people give their opinion/knowledge/expertise about what to do with Covid and I realise I’ve become a bit inured to the difference between opinion, knowledge and expertise.

The trigger came a few evenings ago, when someone who I know is usually pretty good about these things getting drawn into questions from a presenter about whether certain government advice was sensible or not. To be clear, pandemics is not their research at all.

Mostly, they just about hovered on the right side of framing things in terms of what they did know about, but it was a pretty close shave.

Perhaps it was that closeness that made me reflect again about all the times we have people in the media opine on such questions when they have no evidence base and (seemingly) little understanding of relevant issues.

Your country might have the same problem.

This matters for academics because we might become part of a response to this. Our work is grounded in a degree of rigour, and presented with a good understanding of what we do and don’t know and what caveats might apply.

But it’s not always that simple.

Most obviously, as we specialise, the more we know that we don’t know, or rather; the more we know that someone else could give a more useful answer.

Unfortunately, the media doesn’t work like that. Journalists know who is likely to be available and worth contacting, based on previous experiences, to generate impactful comment. Your self-discipline might not be someone else’s.

Of course, the counter-argument to that is that if you decline to comment, then some motor-mouth might fill the gap, so shouldn’t we be trying to avoid that?

Some thoughts occur here.

Firstly, we all need to remember that academic work has public value in some way. Research is not only for research’s sake, but helps to advance human understanding. That implies that we all have some societal responsibility to translate our activity back into forms that can be shared more widely.

Secondly, we should all be making sure that we feel suitably prepared for engaging with the media. No, it’s not always the most pleasant experience, but I would say that the large predominance of journalists have a genuine interest in understanding things better and what to know what you know. If your institution offers media training (and it probably does), then get it: it can take the edge off your concerns.

Thirdly, while we need to respect the limits of our knowledge and expertise, that shouldn’t stop us helping the media to work through their questions. In particular, we can help journalists understand that the way they frame debates might be misleading: walking them through a different way of looking at things can be as important for them as getting a quote. So think about what you might bring to the table, especially if the initial contact strikes you as an odd way of approaching a topic.

Finally, if you can’t help a journalist, then direct them to someone who can. If we want to break journalists out of their eco-systems of contacts, then we are really well-placed to help them do that. So reply with a polite decline, but also a couple of people to try instead. Think about the diversity of those names too, be that for gender or seniority.

If we want the media to do a better job of discussing issues, then we have to play our part too.