February 22nd, 2011
A notice came round the wire the other day asking for experts—that is, scholars—on Iranian policies. This was obviously in response to the current street protests in that country in the wake of the alleged success of the Egyptian demonstrations against their autocratic president. The request came from a British Columbian-based media outlet. I wondered, gosh, aren’t there any such experts at one of the BC universities?
This got me to thinking, perhaps the BC experts weren’t media-friendly enough—that is, perhaps they knew their stuff but didn’t know how to communicate it to a broad audience. This is pure speculation, but it was an odd request, and we all know how rare it is for academics to speak in intelligible sound bites, so perhaps my speculation isn’t off the mark.
The whole steadily exploding situation in the Middle East is screaming for an informed and diverse set of voices. As I write this blog, it is being reported that hundreds of protesters have been wounded and many killed in the streets of Behrain, where the military have obviously been given strict orders to stem the demonstrations. The same is apparently happening in Iran, and there is much uncertainty now about the whole region, where autocracy, censorship, and intolerance of one form or another thrive. It’s exciting and a bit scary and ultimately a watershed moment for so many Arab countries—and the world.
But I am not writing this to comment about the Middle East as much as to say that if ever there were a time in recent memory when the media required intelligence and calm, rational commentary this was it. And that commentary can only come from our social sciences and humanities communities, of course, where such experts reside.
I am constantly struck by the grim irony that despite the perpetual under appreciation of social science and humanities research in most public discourse we are so dependent on the kind of knowledge such fields keep producing to understand our world. It’s as if much of that world is simply in denial about the value of social science and humanities research, even while being heavily dependent on it for interpretation and analysis.
Our own Canadian public broadcaster, the CBC, trots out the same bunch of seasoned experts for such analysis. They are almost all singularly bright and informed and helpful, but we see and hear them so often we might as well start considering them to be CBC reporters. Our universities are filled with so many more voices, and many younger ones (with no disrespect to senior colleagues) whose fresh perspectives on the obviously complex realities of Middle Eastern politics would be so welcome.
But, to return to my main point, the real question is: can they talk the talk well?
Many of my colleagues have been interviewed by media outlets for one story or another over the years, only to find themselves cut out of the broadcast version of the report altogether or never even remotely in sight of it from the start. Without either a natural talent for or a learned experience with communicating both to the reporter and the camera, all their hard-earned expertise doesn’t stand a chance of getting air time.
Teaching is one thing—and we have learned to teach our future teachers how to do so. But speaking to the press is quite another. For the most part, we have not given very much attention to such a basic skill. I admit some people are better at it than others, but that’s true of everything. There are, however, pretty basic elements of speaking clearly and succinctly to the media, and it’s time we started not only passing them on but urging our graduate students to practice them. It’s a truism that highly educated people tend to be long winded because we have so many qualifying things to say about any one subject. Nothing is as simple as the media wants it to be. But there’s the challenge: get what you want to say and need to say down to the key phrases, the key message. No one cares or will listen to the qualifiers and subordinate clauses. They’ll end up on the cutting room floor, anyway.
When I was a grad student the few public speaking courses being offered for undergrads, and taught by grad students, were considered pretty low level stuff, as if anyone taking such a course—let alone giving it–was developmentally challenged. How short sighted was that.
I’d like to see our professional development workshops for graduate students turn more and more to this important social function: explaining complex ideas in short, clear, lucid ways, as if talking to a reporter who is standing in front of you with a microphone, stifling a yawn, while tapping her foot and looking at her watch, and wondering if you are going to be part of the story on the evening news or not, her mind already made up anyway after your first wordy independent statement.