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Monday, March 03, 2008

Law Profs as Political Pundits: Should Schools Do Media Training?

Thanks to Dan & The Gang for having me back.  Like Doug B., I live in Ohio and am struck with how much attention the state is getting from the media and candidates. Obama, Hillary, and McCain have all been through Toledo already, and Hillary is speaking today at my University.  Usually, Toledo is the center of the political universe during general elections:   it’s on the Ohio-Michigan border, so it’s a good place to reach voters from two big swing states.  In the fall of 2004, Toledo was the biggest market for political TV ads, and you couldn’t swing a cat around without hitting Kerry, Edwards, Bush or Cheney on one of their multiple visits. It’s unusual that Ohio’s primary is important, but hey, it’s fun.

One interesting aspect to this, at least in the "how does this affect me, Joe Slater, and other law profs?" sense, is that the media will contact lots of academic types for interviews.  In the past couple of weeks, I’ve spoken to both Al Jazeera and Le Monde about Ohio, labor, and politics.  I got a special kick out of the Le Monde piece, because they translated my answers into French (website only; I can’t give a link because it’s subscriber only, but if you want to see it, send me an e-mail).  I’m not sure I actually said, "There is a structural crises in Ohio," but seeing my interview begin, "Il y a une crises structurelle dans l’Ohio" seems so . . . Continental intellectual.

More seriously, I wonder if schools do any preparation or media training for law profs who do interviews with the press semi-regularly.  I’m not talking about the media-savvy profs who do national press interviews on a regular basis.   I’m talking about folks like me, more typical for law profs generally:  in a mid-sized media market; called up by the local media several times a year and by the national media maybe once or twice a year; subjects range from questions directly within my expertise ("this new case held what, exactly?"); to at least within my general field, albeit not law related ("how long do you think this strike at GM is going to last?"); to broader questions on which, although I have something to say, my knowledge isn’t any better than that of lot of other folks (Le Monde’s first question was, "will any of the Presidential candidates be able to bring back jobs to Ohio?").

My guess it that most law profs have sufficient intellectual and performance skills to avoid looking really stupid in interviews. In part, that’s because there is some overlap between media skills and being good in classroom and other public presentations. But it is different -- you don’t control which part of what you say is used being the most obvious -- and there are specific skills involved TV, radio, and press interviews.

So, my question is, do law schools do media training for their profs? If not, should they? If so, what do they do and/or what should they do?

Posted by JosephSlater on March 3, 2008 at 11:56 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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Comments

I'll state my bias up front: I'm a media trainer and former reporter. I'd agree with Joshua---The interview process is not as easy as it may seem to the casual viewer, listener or reader. The business of saying exactly what you intend, when you're being edited in 8 to 10 second excerpts, or being interviewed live, takes more than working on your own. If it were as simple as knowing your stuff, you wouldn't see the kind of embarrassing gaffes even practiced interview subjects make routinely. The truth is, anytime you leave it in the reporter's hands to make you look good, you're not likely to be happy with the outcome. It just isn't their job. Media training is about learning this is not a passive exercise---and certainly not akin to facing a roomful of students.

Posted by: Aileen Pincus | Mar 5, 2008 9:16:11 PM

One additional comment: as a former PR person, when I think of media training, I tend to (still) think of it with regard to the impact on media interviews. However, I firmly believe that the benefits are far greater than just helping a professor “be a good interview.” As many of us participate in video conferencing with colleagues across the country and around the world, teach interactive distance-learning courses, and/or tape classes for students unable to attend a live class, the art of speaking on camera is more than just self-promotion. Media training, in this sense, can have significant value for students and the institution, as well as the individual professor.

Posted by: Joshua Fershee | Mar 3, 2008 7:23:04 PM

I haven't heard of any schools offering this sort of thing. I'm not sure its needed: Profs who care probably work at this anyway, and profs who don't won't take the instruction.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 3, 2008 6:19:40 PM

I am not sure whether any law schools do media training for their professors (mine, at least to my knowledge, does not), but as a new law prof and former public relations exec, I unequivocally support the idea.

I agree that most law profs are sufficiently skilled “to avoid looking really stupid in interviews,” but that can actually be a problem at times. I used to media train clients who knew far more than I did about their subject areas, but knowledge and expertise can get in the way when you assume others (a) have a similar knowledge base or (b) have any interest in accurately conveying your message. If a speaker is not careful, he or she can end up with a sound bite that appears coherent and sensible, yet does not support or promote their intended message.

Basic media training usually involves working to develop clear and concise “talking points” that will keep the speaker “on message.” Ideally, this will involve videotaped mock interviews, so that the speaker can see and hear their own responses. Usually in a single tape a speaker will make several (relatively) easily remedied mistakes, such as repeating a loaded question before responding (thus unnecessarily linking the speaker directly to unflattering ideas). This process can be much more difficult than it seems. As one who has conducted media trainings, I still recognize that I would benefit greatly from media training. At least, I would if anyone from the media were planning to interview me.

Posted by: Joshua Fershee | Mar 3, 2008 4:16:24 PM

In related news, Joe Slater has volunteered to organize the UT College of Law's first media savviness training for law professors in September, 2008.

Posted by: Geoff | Mar 3, 2008 12:40:51 PM

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