Working With Mainstream Media

Kim I. Mills

Kim I. Mills

Kim I. Mills
Senior Communications Advisor, American Psychological Association
kmills@apa.org

On a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago, Ramani Durvasula, a psychology professor at Cal State, Los Angeles, took her daughters ziplining. While the group was getting set up, Durvasula noticed some people staring at her and then shyly asking if they could take a picture with her.

“I agreed but couldn’t fathom why,” she says. “Then they turned their computer around–apparently an Oxygen show I co-hosted called ‘My Shopping Addiction’ had been dubbed into Spanish and I had become a minor Costa Rican celebrity for a Warholian minute.”*

One result of this encounter was Durvasula got a discount on the ziplining. But an even more valuable result was that Durvasula’s work as a psychologist had reached people thousands of miles from home, long after she had appeared on the TV show.

There’s no question that mainstream media constitute a powerful way to explain the science and practice of psychology to a broad audience–one that has a clear interest in human behavior but a shallow grasp of the discipline. For example, we know from public opinion polling conducted by the American Psychological Association that the majority of Americans (82% in 2009) have a positive view of psychology, yet most associate it primarily with the couch and don’t see it as a STEM science. The opportunities to educate the public about the full breadth of psychology through mainstream media are vast, but often daunting.

Working with the media “is one of the MOST important things we do,” says Kim Gorgens, a professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. “I always think that if you don’t talk about an issue on air, then someone else who is less well-informed, less empathic or less genuine will jump at the chance. In that way, you can see there is a cost to forfeiting the chance to use that platform.”

Christopher Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University, says science is “kind of pointless if nobody hears about it, and working with news media is a good way to get the word out and shape attitudes and policy. It’s also essential to helping news media cover science accurately.”

So why don’t more psychologists work regularly with the mainstream media? Psychologists interviewed for this article cited the hassle factor, i.e., the amount of time and preparation it takes, the fact that they don’t view it as helping them professionally and that they are often misunderstood by ill-informed journalists, or worse.

Ferguson recalls one experience when he and a colleague were invited to appear on the TV show “20/20.” Once the interview got under way, Ferguson says, the reporter seemed to be trying to whip up viewers’ fears. “It was clear she just didn’t like our answers and seemed to be hoping to make us look like fools,” he says. “In the end, they only used a few seconds of our hour-plus interview, which I guess was ‘good’ as we managed to hold our own with her. But it was the most dishonorable experience I’ve had with a journalist.”

Nonetheless, Ferguson has not soured on mainstream media and said that “20/20” experience was unusual. “I’ve had a lot of good experiences working with media,” he says, citing an interview he did with “Nightline” on video game violence after the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. “The interview was professionally done and ‘Nightline’ did a nice job of balancing arguments for and against video game effects. It gave me hope that news media could be objective, even in the midst of a clear moral panic.”

Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, has had mixed results with reporters. “It is clear that some reporters have really researched the topic and have a good understanding of it before they ever talk to me,” she says. “In some cases, the conversations with reporters have been really interesting and have advanced my own thinking.”

On the other hand, she has encountered journalists who don’t understand the research process and have described her as presenting results of a study when she’s reporting on a survey of other people’s research. “Think about simplifying your message, or at least clarifying it,” she says. “Recognize that reporters do not have the knowledge base that we take for granted in talking with other psychologists. Be sure to decide on your core message ahead of time. Specific cases or examples work well for the media.”

GETTING INTO THE STORY

If you are affiliated with a college or university, or if you work in a corporate setting, you probably have a public relations department that can help get you into news stories. Make sure they know what you are working on and your areas of expertise. Chances are they regularly get calls from reporters seeking expert comment, probably on topics that mesh with your areas of expertise. The professional PR people where you work should also be able to provide you with media training, or help you find it elsewhere.

“Our university has a PR person, and I am listed with APA’s Media Referral Service. Both are great options for getting attention to your work,” Ferguson says. “If you have an article coming out, you also may be able to work with the journal editor and publisher on a press release. As with many things, trying out different ideas and seeing what works is part of professional development.”

After 10 years of working with mainstream media regularly, Durvasula says many reporters just call her directly, having established a mutually beneficial track record. But she doesn’t just sit there waiting for the phone to ring or emails to pour in. She suggests having a website and a YouTube channel, writing books for mass media, doing podcasts and registering with HARO (Help A Reporter Out). (https://www.helpareporter.com/) “I had a PR person at one time,” she says. “It’s VERY expensive and did not yield much for the cost – unless you are independently wealthy or already very well-known.”

She also suggests asking a local newspaper or magazine if they’d be interested in a mental health column, or launching your own blog, which could help you build a following. Outlets like the HuffPost will often reprint good blogs, but the downside is they don’t pay. Indeed, most media outlets won’t pay for your work, unless they hire you to be a regular “talking head.”

Other possible methods for getting into mainstream media include:

Following targeted reporters on their social media accounts. Many journalists crowdsource stories and you might discover you’d be a great resource for something they’re working on.

Being active on your own social media pages – and retweeting or sharing good stories in your areas of interest and expertise. If you do this regularly, key reporters might also start to follow you.

Launching your own podcast. This can be a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of work, and if you don’t have help from the PR people at your job, it might be a heavy lift. On the other hand, you might know other psychologists who would be interested in doing a podcast with you, which would spread the workload and potentially make for a more engaging product.

Cultivating relationships with local reporters who cover your areas of expertise. Once you’ve done an interview with a journalist–and the story turned out well–you’ve got an entrée to continue the dialogue. Drop occasional emails pitching ideas or even pick up the phone to make suggestions, keeping in mind that reporters are usually scrambling on their next story so try reaching out in the morning before they’re crashing to file.

Writing op-eds. These can be a challenge, both to write and to get published, but your work doesn’t have to appear in The New York Times “Week in Review” to be successful. Start by offering a piece to your local paper or a paper in a smaller media market. There are many online resources that can help you structure a compelling op-ed and find outlets that might be inclined to publish you. Tie what you write to something in the news, if possible. And whatever you do, don’t write it like a scientist and save your main point for the end.

GETTING THE COVERAGE YOU WANT

Mary Alvord, a psychologist in private practice in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, does a lot of interviews in all kinds of media. “My best experiences have not been determined by length of interview, but by the journalist asking follow-up questions for clarity of content,” she says. “Some have been relatively short (10-15 minutes) and the journalist got it correct, some long and I felt like the main point was lost.”

As a result, she developed a mnemonic process she calls REPAC to “repackage” psychology for a mass audience. It stands for: Responsive, Ethical, Prepare, Accurate, Comprehensible:

Responsive: Call or e-mail reporters back quickly.
Ethical: Don’t discuss your clients in any identifiable way and don’t step outside your expertise.
Prepare: Review the relevant research. If the reporter’s story is grounded in a specific research article by a different researcher, ask for a copy.
Accurate: Stay true to what the science says and don’t overstate the implications. Back up what you say with data. (It helps to have at least three evidence-based articles to back up what you say.)
Comprehensible: Avoid jargon and use easy-to-understand comparisons. Have three key points you would like to make.

“I like speaking with health reporters about stress and psychological issues since they have a good grasp of the material,” she says. “In addition, because I always prepare a few journal articles for the interview, I offer to email those to them if they would like the info. Many are interested.”

Durvasula notes how important it is to understand the pressures journalists face, including “tight deadlines, a constantly breaking news cycle, editors who want what they want, or producers who want what they want, playing to the prurient and entertainment desires of an audience, and quick soundbites. They also want actionable takeaways …. They want us to take science and turn it into something digestible.”

At the same time, the onus is often on the psychologist to explain his or her work in terms the reporter will understand. “Make sure you disabuse them of rookie research interpretation mistakes (e.g., causation and correlation, third variables, sampling issues, dangers of generalizing), but you need to do it in a way that is user-friendly,” she says. “For example, if they mistake a correlational finding such as eating sugar causes sleep problems during final exams for students, you need to help them see that final exams are a stressful time, students often will have disrupted sleep because of workload stress, and that poor food choices are also part and parcel of that time.”

Her other tips echo Alvord’s, but she added a few others. “If journalists give you source material, read it. … Know what they are asking you about. Basically, always be prepared.”

Ferguson notes the importance of checking out journalists before agreeing to talk to them. “What is their likely angle? Do they have a track record of doing good work or having an ax to grind?” he says. “It’s OK to turn down some media requests that may be dubious.”

Additionally, if a reporter asks you to respond via email – essentially doing the interview in writing – do a good job with your answers. “They will often lift your words and won’t even wordsmith them (and will obviously attribute to you),” Durvasula says. “If it is not well-written, it is not a nice reflection of you.”

Others have arrived at helpful advice by trial and error. Gorgens notes that drinking cold water during an interview dries up your saliva. And, she says, don’t wear patterned clothing, especially on TV, which is now in high-definition. Plus, talk slowly. “I still forget that lesson every single time,” she says. “Truthfully, you’ll be sure you are talking in 33 RPM, but it will sound like 45 (pardon the old school LP reference).”

*Author’s Note: All direct quotes are from personal interviews conducted by the author via email.


APA’s Medial Referral Service

APA has long been journalists’ go-to source for psychology experts on hundreds of subjects. The Public Affairs Office maintains a Media Referral Service, a database of nearly 2,000 APA member psychologists who can speak knowledgeably on about 1,000 aspects of human behavior and psychology. Thousands of journalists call APA each year and the Public Affairs Office uses the service to recommend sources for them to speak with. If you want to be listed with the service, you can apply here: http://www.apa.org/news/press/media-referral-application.aspx. The form asks for your professional background, areas of expertise and relevant publications, languages spoken, and any previous experience you have working with the media, all of which are reviewed before Public Affairs adds members to the database. For more information, email public.affairs@apa.org.


 

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