How To Put Yourself Out There: Media Advice For Academics (Guest Post by Kevin J.S. Zollman)

The following is a guest post* by Kevin J.S. Zollman, associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. He has had a bit more experience than the average philosopher with popular media, and he kindly offered to present some advice to help philosophers and other academics get the attention of, and successfully communicate with, journalists.

How To Put Yourself Out There
by Kevin J.S. Zollman

With recent threats to the humanities, there has been growing interest in philosophers engaging with the popular press. This might take the form of direct engagement, by writing OpEds and articles, or indirectly by increasing our visibility to journalists. In this blog post, I offer a few tidbits of advice for philosophers who are interested in engaging with public discourse via the media.

Who am I to offer advice? In addition to being an associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon, I’ve co-authored a book for popular audiences, The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting (2016, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux). My co-author is noted science journalist and author, Paul Raeburn, who has many years of experience writing for popular audiences. Over the course of writing the book, Paul took time to discuss many issues about science journalism with me. In this article, I’ve distilled Paul’s advice and added a little of my own. As goes without saying, any dumb ideas are mine.

    • You’re not teaching. This is an easy mistake to make. We’re used to communicating our ideas to a captive audience. Student may quit listening, but they know that they’ll sacrifice their grade. If they want an A, they have to follow us. We can spend a day talking about Descartes and the wax, knowing that later on we’ll connect it back to the central issues of metaphysics.This is not so with popular audiences. They can stop reading at any time; their only motivation is their own curiosity. Similarly, the journalist interviewing you can decide that this interview is finished. You need to spend more time explaining why you’re talking about something. You need to forgo background if it risks losing your audience.
    • Tolerate ambiguities. This is a hard one for all academics, but especially for philosophers. Our business is clarifying. So when we are writing or talking to a journalist, we are tempted to begin by “defining our terms.” Don’t do it. Yes, misunderstanding and ambiguity will slip through. But you’d rather someone read your piece and take something away than stop reading because you spent three paragraphs defining what it means for a scientific theory to be confirmed.
    • Journalists need summaries. Journalists are not dummies. I’ve been remarkably impressed by the science journalists I’ve dealt with (especially my co-author Paul). They are incredibly smart people who can learn a new topic far more efficiently than I can. But, they are also operating on tight deadlines and they have many projects going at one time. They need your help to distill an issue for them. Give them the big picture and the bottom line. Focus on the core of the problem – the part where all the tough work is being done. Don’t get bogged down in details.
    • You must be quick and available. This was a big one for Paul. Journalists are working on incredibly tight deadlines. Their world isn’t like ours. We can take an extra week (or month) to finish a referee report. They can’t take an extra hour past their deadline. If you’re asked to do an interview, respond right away (even if you’re unavailable). Make time ASAP. When you have to decline, suggest someone else who will be quick and helpful.Avoiding delay is also important for writing for popular audiences. Newspapers and magazines work on a quick news cycle. If something happens and you have something to say, don’t mull it over for a few weeks. By that time, the news has moved on. Write something up quickly and get it out, even if your prose is not as polished as you like.
    • Don’t underestimate your own expertise. In academia we define our expertise narrowly. I have AOS’s and AOC’s that define what I can teach and where I conduct my research. But, I’ve learned a lot about other areas of philosophy as well. When you say “no” to an interview, a journalist might just abandon the idea or (worse yet) might find someone even less qualified than you who’s willing to talk. Journalists can’t spend five days tracking down the most qualified person on a topic only to find that person is not available. Even if the subject is outside of your area, don’t turn down an opportunity. Do the best you can.
    • Don’t stray too far from the topic at hand. This is my Achilles heel. Philosophers see all sorts of connections. “You’re asking about abortion, but to talk about that we need to discuss what’s bad about dying. To answer that question, we should start with Epicurus…” While this is important to a philosophical understanding of the issue, a journalist or lay reader is unlikely to follow you far afield. Even if it means coming at an issue in a way that feels backwards, don’t go somewhere without making sure that your reader or listener knows why she is going with you.
    • Embrace anecdotes. This is something that my editor, Amanda Moon, taught me. Maybe your readers don’t follow your main thread, or maybe they don’t care. But, little tidbits might stick with them. Tell a funny story about David Hume or use a creative example. Those things might keep your reader engaged when your main point doesn’t. This is hard for us analytic philosophers who are trained to take everything out that isn’t critical to our arguments. Forget grad school and put all that stuff back in!
    • Put yourself out there. Before I started talking with Paul, I got annoyed at how often philosophers were overlooked by the science media. RadioLab, for example, constantly talks about interesting philosophical topics, but somehow they never talk to philosophers. (I once sent them an email complaining.) Now, I realize this is our fault. Most science journalists took one philosophy class as an undergrad, where they undoubtedly read the “canon.” They aren’t aware of philosophers working on contemporary topics like: the ethics of democratic practice, the epistemology of expertise, and the nature of consciousness.We need teach better, but even more, we need to start putting ourselves out there. If an issue in the news could benefit from a philosopher’s voice, reach out. Write an OpEd, email a local journalist, offer to do a guest post on a blog, whatever you can do. Journalists aren’t going to comb our journals to find us, we need to reach out to them.
    • Don’t overdo terms of art. New words place a high cognitive demand on your reader or listener. Don’t introduce too many new terms, and definitely don’t assume your reader knows how we use technical vocabulary. (Not everybody uses “know” to mean “justified, true belief”).When I first started writing my book, I went overboard with this. I avoided technical terms at every opportunity. Amanda Moon, my editor, asked me to put a few back in.  “People want to feel smart,” she said. But, I still tried to keep it to just one or two. And when I introduce them I spend extra time to make sure my reader understands the nuance.

Overall, I’ve found writing for popular audience and talking to journalists to be an enjoyable and rewarding part of my work. I would strongly encourage any philosopher to try it out. Hopefully, with a little work, we can remind the world that philosophy still deserves an important place in public discourse.

Aggregation 16-JA011 / Star 3 (newsprint sculpture) by Kwang Young Chun

Aggregation 16-JA011 / Star 3 (newsprint sculpture) by Kwang Young Chun

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Barry Lam
Barry Lam
8 years ago

Great advice Kevin. Its really hard trying to venture out. The kind of training we get in our jobs, right up to the kind of writing we do and kind of presentations/q & a we have beats into us a mentality of “what is going to be the objection, how do we head off this objection, how do we structure in such a way so that the objection never arises, how do we formulate so that we can easily respond to the objection.” Sometimes I think we’ve become objection-generating and objection-responding machine. Much of the public has so little tolerance for this stuff (understandably). I feel like so much of your advice is aimed at overcoming this tendency, but its so hard to do because of the curse of knowledge.

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  Barry Lam
8 years ago

Thanks, Barry. That’s a great way to put it. The motivation to be very careful in how we define our language stems from heading off equivocation and misunderstanding. Good for academic writing, but terrible for popular writing.