Beki Grinter

Media in the Modern University

In academia, academic management on February 5, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Does talking to media outlets have a place in the modern University?

The answer to this question is one that I have heard debated among my colleagues. It’s a complicated proposition, but I have long thought that the media does have a role to play in the life of a faculty member.

I understand the concerns.

It’s not usually the case that media outlets care much about a particular finding or result. There are exceptions of course, but I think what the media usually want is an expert to comment on a topic of their interest. This gulf takes some time to cross. I was once interviewed about the World Wide Web. It was when the 100 millionth web site was reached. I did not realise it was for television at the time I agreed to comment. I was asked a variety of questions, and luckily I know my web history since one of them was about the origins and intent of the original WWW site.

Why did they ask me? I’ve not done much research on the web. I mean I use the web, and certainly some of the things I have written about imply the presence of the web, but I would not describe the web itself as a central interest. They asked me because I think they wanted someone who could answer their questions. I could tie the pick up of the Web to both a driver and a reason for the Internet explosion, I could offer some reasons why people would use it (to form online communities) and so forth. I’m certainly not alone in being able to answer these questions, but I didn’t mind spending the time preparing for the interview so that I would provide the answers that they wanted and that would be useful.

Another concern that people have about engaging the media is that they may mis-characterise or miss the significance of the topic being discussed. I’ve certainly felt that sometimes the best things I have said during an interview were not picked up, and some of the more obscure things were. I think this is another type of translation work that I, as much as the reporter, own the responsibility for doing. What matters to me, or to my research community is not always what a reporter thinks will sell papers/adverts/etc… so I have to either decide that what they think is important is OK or work harder to explain the relevance clearly.

I wondered myself whether having my research appear in some places was potentially damaging to my reputation. I decided some time ago that it was likely not the thing I feared. So, when my research featured as the number 1 Threat Down on the Colbert Report I was actually quite proud. Some of it, especially the robot work, has been picked up in a variety of ways, all featuring the rather entertaining side of the work. What I think is most important now is to a) protect and explain the subjects of the research (we dont want to make fools of the people who have given us the data that we’re discussing) and b) to ensure that students involved in this work also don’t feel that their research has been subject to derision. Again in the case of the robot work, it is the case that people dress up their vacuums, indeed there’s a substantial revenue-generation industry in this area, and people do it for reasons that are similar to blinging phones and so forth. It’s very human, and it is, when you think about it, something that makes you smile. No-one was harmed, it’s actually a discussion about good feelings… heartwarming in a world that is full of bad news.

And good news is one reason to talk to the media. I was asked to comment on Atlanta’s increased wi-fi density. Without hesitation I said that I thought Atlantans should be proud of this because it reflects an orientation towards being experimental with technology (this was back when it was fairly new and San Francisco was the type of place people put in this wi-fi dense community network genre). That story generated a lot of positive feedback. A few people talked to me about it directly, but the Institute also collects metrics about the role of media and positive attributions of Georgia Tech. That story, which was not much longer than this paragraph, with that one quote was ranked one of the highest stories in that year. Surprised. I was too. But, I was entirely sincere (not just trying to boost GT’s reputation, that never occurred to me, usually I just think what do I say that reflects and doesn’t embarrass :-) and it seems like there was lots of good to just a little good phrase.

Something I don’t like is when I can not get the reporter to include all the names of the people who worked on the work. I have had stories that attributed pieces of research to me that were actually products of groups. In fact that’s often the case. That always makes me sad when that happens. The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is to attempt to share some of the work of talking to reporters around. Assume that the person who does the talking will be the one who appears in print. But you can’t predict which stories will take off, which will be the ones picked up by many outlets. So, it’s an imperfect solution. The difficulty of this situation is only mitigated by the fact, at least in my experience, that the majority of what has appeared in the papers is not actually about my research, but about things that I have the expertise to comment on.

Of course, the arguments for engaging with the media turn on the value of translating the work that we do at Georgia Tech into things that potentially help inform the public, help people make decisions, or understand the significance of things that they are (in the case of technology) already or will use in their daily lives. In so doing it’s a way to communicate what the worth of an Institution of higher education is, what they get for the time that faculty are not in the classrooms teaching, which is the result of our research. Breaking down the walls of the ivory tower…

And then there is the question of continuing to promote and position Georgia Tech in what will be an increasingly competitive market. As my colleague Dick Lipton recently discussed there is stiff competition for education from a new type of University, characterised by the University of Phoenix. Media, and the visibility that Georgia Tech gets through the stories, is one way to explain our value, through making the products of what we do as well as the processes by which we do them clearer to groups of people who support us. So that’s why despite concerns, and sometimes the difficulty of attribution, I think it’s worthwhile.

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