How Should Philosophers Talk to Journalists?

“Whenever a journalist interviews me about whether a certain practice is morally right or wrong I always feel like I disappoint…”

That’s philosopher Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute, on Twitter. Why does she feel this way? Because journalists are “expecting concise and clear-cut answers and my training as an ethicist compels me to deliver anything but.”

As she explains in the thread, she sees her role as philosopher as involving more “mapping the complications” than defending a particular position or taking up an activist role.

I think there are a few interesting matters here. One is a metaphilosophical question about what kinds of things philosophy does (or does well). Another is a public-relations question about communicating to the public and the press an accurate understanding of what philosophy is about.

There’s also a question of whether Dr. Monsó is correct about the expectations journalists have when talking with philosophers. Certainly there will be variability across journalists in their knowledge of philosophy and their expectations of philosophers, but is there a sufficiently accurate generalization that’s worth keeping in mind and addressing? Are journalists disappointed when they don’t get “concise and clear-cut answers”? It would be especially helpful if journalists weighed in on this.

And lastly there’s the matter of practical advice. How should philosophers respond to media inquiries? Several years ago, Kevin J. S. Zollman (Carnegie Mellon) wrote on this very topic here at Daily Nous. I recommend people revisit his post, but to summarize it, when philosophers are talking to journalists, he says, they should:

  • explain why you’re talking about something so as to motivate continued listening
  • tolerate ambiguities, don’t spend much time on definitions
  • focus on the core issue, don’t get bogged down in the details
  • respond quickly, as journalists work on tight deadlines
  • don’t underestimate your own expertise
  • stay on topic
  • make use of stories
  • be proactive in contacting media outlets
  • go easy on the jargon

One thing to note about Professor Zollman’s advice is that one can follow it even if what one is doing is offering a complication rather than an answer.

I’m sure others have valuable advice. Please share it in the comments. Thanks.

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Regina Rini
Regina Rini
3 years ago

In my experience, journalists approach academics with two different motivations:

  1. Intellectual background – They really just want to learn enough about the (likely unfamiliar) topic to be confident synthesizing information, and perhaps also to to defend presentation choices to their editor. The conversation is fluid, like an office hours meeting with an enthusiastic student. In the end, you might not even be mentioned in the article, though you’ll likely be able to trace your influence on its themes.
  2. Quote mongering – They already have a plan for the piece and know what they want to say. But journalists can’t float ideas freely; they need an expert source to attribute the viewpoint. (Quotes are to journalists what intuitions are to philosophers – but obviously not as easy to come by.) They will try to coax you into saying something pithy, straight-forward, and ideally provocative. Your argument for the quote is less important and may be ignored entirely in the article.

This is a spectrum, not a dichotomy. In practice, journalists often have a mix of both motivations, and can even switch between them in the course of a conversation.

But the key thing to notice is a tension between these motivations, from the philosopher-interviewee’s perspective. Conversations with journalists of the first type will be much more philosophically rewarding, but less likely to raise your public profile. Conversations of the second type will get you more attention, but may obliterate nuance to the point of misrepresenting your views.

I think Monsó correctly describes the second sort of conversation. Sometimes it is possible to steer a journalist from the second motivation toward the first. But often that is impossible – the journalist wants the quote and nothing else (they are writing to deadline, it’s too late to change the piece’s narrative, etc.). If it’s clear you’re talking to a journalist with that motivation, then you take a risk providing them the kind of quote they want.

Yet Another Philosopher
Yet Another Philosopher
3 years ago

A relative of mine is a journalist and wondered, before I wrote my PhD, what the topic would be and what the real-life implications of my argument would be. So I tried to summarize my ideas (at the time!) as well as I could, and they didn’t get it at all.

Fast forward five years and I had finished the dissertation, they read it, and then they then said it made a lot more sense.

The case is of course anecdotal, but I guess if there is any lesson to learn from it, it’s that concretion helps. And yes, this will sometimes mean summarizing an idea to the point that you avoid complications, even if it’s not for the sake of generating a quote. (The journalist I’m talking about certainly didn’t quote me – they were just approaching the topic in the way they would be doing in general, and not least when coming from a background of talking with politicians who like to talk a lot but not to say what they mean.)

This means that saying stuff like “I’m interested in topic area x and there are hypotheses y and z and both suffer from problem p but z can maybe avoid problem q – which however afflicts y” won’t be likely to get you far. That is too abstract. Journalists often want answers where we want questions.

Zack Beauchamp
3 years ago

Hello — I’m a journalist at Vox who frequently references philosophical work in my articles. Justin asked me to pop in to give the media perspective on this issue.

Candidly, I think most people in my profession don’t understand philosophy. I don’t mean just that they haven’t read the key texts in an area, though that’s likely true. I mean that they do not understand what philosophical inquiry is and what philosophers can contribute to public discourse.

There are some exceptions. Typically magazine feature writers, opinion columnists, and “ideas” writers will be more knowledgable than a straight news reporter. At some publications, like Vox, there’s an institutional culture that takes philosophy seriously. But as a rule, journalists aren’t very philosophically informed.

This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t talk to us! It just means that you need to start with the assumption that your interlocutor isn’t familiar with what you’re talking about and will likely have a skeptical editor. So how do you deal with this?

Back when I was a philosophy student, I sat in on a job talk where one of the senior faculty members told the candidate (who was not a specialist in the candidate’s area) to “treat me like a junior-year philosophy major.” When it comes to journalists, treat us like freshmen in an intro class: we wouldn’t be reaching out if we weren’t interested, but also have little in the way of baseline knowledge and may not be taking another philosophy course again.

Try to be as accessible as possible, connecting your work and knowledge to the applied questions the journalist is doubtlessly interested in. Prof. Zollman’s advice cited in the actual post provides some more helpful guidelines on how to do that.

That’s the “how” question. But what about the “why” question: if we mostly don’t really know what we’re talking about, and might mangle your ideas in service of a quote, what’s the point in talking to journalists at all?

Beyond the obvious — things like spreading your ideas and getting your name out there — there are broader intellectual stakes. The minority of journalists who are philosophically inclined need your help: we need to prove to the rest of the profession that philosophers have vital things to say, that the public conversation is lacking absent your voices. Engaging with journalists, even more skeptical ones, is a way of helping strengthen and deepen the nature of democratic deliberation itself.

This is especially true for those of you who work in normative areas. Currently, the public discussion of political and social values is dominated by some combination of economists, social scientists, and activists. These groups all have something worthwhile to contribute, but none of them have the normative sophistication that philosophers do. I know this, and you know this. But the vast bulk of people don’t. So help people like me prove it.

I’m biased on this score for somewhat obvious familial reasons, but I think bioethicists have done a good job on public engagement during the pandemic. They’ve benefitted from the fact that the defining trait of a good journalist is curiosity: we go into this field in part because we want to learn new things, generally from other people. Engage us in that spirit and I think the conversations should work out well.

David Velleman
David Velleman
3 years ago

The best preparation for speaking with journalists is Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which begins with the sentence “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” A journalist does not aim to tell your story; the journalist uses your words to tell his or her story, over which you have precious little influence and absolutely no control.

Matt Knachel
Matt Knachel
Reply to  David Velleman
3 years ago

The juxtaposition of Beauchamp’s thoughtful, helpful response and Velleman’s flippant dismissal is quite striking–as is the lack of push-back from any philosophers.

Beauchamp: Philosophers are normatively sophisticated. Help me prove it.
Velleman: lol, no.

David Velleman
David Velleman
Reply to  Matt Knachel
3 years ago

My comment isn’t a “dismissal”. I am merely pointing out that when talking with journalists, you should be careful not to say things you wouldn’t want to see quoted out of context in print. That’s perfectly consistent with — and, in my view, a helpful addendum to — Zack Beauchamp’s advice. (Maybe I should have mentioned that Janet Malcolm is a journalist herself.)

Ingrid Robeyns
3 years ago

I suspect there might be significant differences between ‘journalistic cultures’ between different countries/regions, so I think it would help if commentators would mention from which geographical location they write. My experience with journalists from Belgium and the Netherlands is overall positive, but I benefitted a lot from “media training for scholars and scientists” that was given by trainers who worked in journalism themselves.
Here are some key experiences/insights/recommendations:

  • for written media, always request before accepting to give an interview that you can read and edit the text before it goes into print (in the netherlands, that is standard practice – in fact, so standard that I’ve stopped asking it before accepting. But a British magazine recently refused this request, saying that “this is not their practice”. I would decline giving an interview if I cannot check what will be in print, because (a) there are often errors of misunderstanding (which journalists are always willing to change in my experience), and (b) sometimes the framing is misleading. My experience, with one or two exceptions, is that as long as the word-length of the piece remains the same, journalists will happily accept any revisions you propose.
  • for television/radio, there is no editing necessary, but the main insight from media training is: know what the point is that YOU want to get across. Don’t just answer their questions, but try to bring to the table the insight you want to get across to a wider public.
  • The decision whether or not to accept an invitation for radio/television, I make dependent on the [track-record of the] program. There are some programs where the interviewer is likely to be rude, aggressive, and very likely to interrupt. For those kinds of programs, one has to be willing and (mentally) prepared to do the same in order to not be ‘slaughtered’. I would only do this if one would reach a large enough audience that is unlikely to otherwise hear about the ideas or insights that you want to talk about.
  • as with teaching and most other activities we do: doing more of it, being willing to learn, and trying to sollicit feedback, makes one better at it. One important thing to get used to, and to get experienced in, is to get a sense, during the interview, of what one can and cannot explain to a particular journalist (and to a non-academic/non-philosophical audience in general). The biggest challange is often how to “translate” (=simplify) complicated arguments into something that is understandable to a broader audience.
  • why speak to journalists at all? Perhaps it’s not helpful for all fields of philosophy, I don’t know. But in applied ethics and political philosophy, it surely is. Take climate ethics. It really is not that difficult to disseminate some basic insights from that literature with an interview. But one can also get some basic insights from ‘solid reasoning’ across (from which the quality of public debate would hopefully benefit). Today, a journalist talked to me for 35 minutes about the government measures against COVID (restrictions etc.). He asked me three times (in different wording) whether I felt the government had done a good job, and what my judgement was. I sensed he was looking for a juicy quote, but I refused to give it. I explained him why I could not answer that question, not because I didn’t want to [help him write his piece], but because necessary information was lacking to make that judgement and that, in my view, no-one has that knowledge. He ended up putting my explanation for why I think we have to be careful not to judge too quickly in such complicated conditions in the piece. So I think one really can get some basic insights, and also some typical philosophical ways of reasoning into the media.
  • And then there are the numbers: with national media it’s easy to reach hundredthousands or even millions of readers/viewers/listeners. Even if a small fraction of those readers/listeners/viewers learn one basic insight from philosophy, I would consider this a huge gain.
Mark van Roojen
3 years ago

I’ve gotten frustrated with the philosophy blogosphere, but this particular posting and the replies are really useful and well-informed. Thanks to all the contributors so far.

Lisa Johnson
3 years ago

I’m a broadcast journalist of over 40 years. I just did this interview with philosophy professor Alexis Elder last week. And although my philosophy minor (and broadcast journalism major) is fairly old now, I don’t remember anyone explaining that – or why – what I do is “morally indefensible.” See, I thought that characterization only applied to things like stereotyping people you don’t know.

Lisa Johnson
3 years ago

“Whenever a journalist interviews me about whether a certain practice is morally right or wrong I always feel like I disappoint, because they’re expecting concise and clear-cut answers and my training as an ethicist compels me to deliver anything but.”

1) explain to the journalist exactly what’s outlined in the article: what philosophy does and doesn’t do

2) encourage the journalist to reframe the question: “Is the use of dogs in police work good or bad?” could become “If we’re trying to figure out if the use of dogs in police work is good or bad, what are some of the ways we can think about the situation/things we need to consider?” There is not a “concise and clear-cut answer” to the first question; there IS to the second.

3) Re-frame the question yourself: “Philosophy is more about questions than answers; and more about process than absolutes. For instance, we don’t ask “Is the use of dogs in police work good or bad?”; we ask “If we’re trying to figure out if the use of dogs in police work is good or bad, what are some of the ways we can think about the situation/things we need to consider?”

4) Take/Make the time to talk to the journalist to assess how much they know about how philosophy works. Develop an “elevator speech.” Test it out on friends, family, colleagues until you’re comfortable that it does what it needs to do. If you’ve ascertained that the journalist needs educating and they’re open to it, educate them. If you’ve ascertained that they’re not, either bulldoze them and give the interview you want to give, regardless of the questions (a tried and true method employed by almost all politicians and CEOs) or politely decline the interview altogether.

5) Ask the journalist politely if there is anything *more* important about the issue than how to parse the way we think about it and endeavor to consider all the nuances. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything, which is why the study of philosophy and ethics has always appealed to me.

6) Consider focusing your time and attention on public broadcasting outlets, NOT commercial or cable television. For a variety of reasons, many times they will not have the airtime/personnel, etc. to devote to a thoughtful understanding of what you have to say. Public broadcasting is not as locked into the “no story longer than 2:00” paradigm and you might find, between the interviewer and the audience, more ability to appreciate your insights.