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Thursday, October 02, 2014

What Do We Talk About When We Talk to the Media?

One of the fun things about being a law professor is talking to journalists.  Even as a junior professor, one will often have the opportunity to comment in the news media, especially if one writes in a timely area or lives in a city with a decent media market.  It's also important. Professionally, one might spend two years writing a piece which redefines the theory of, say, tort law, to be rewarded with 89 readers on SSRN. But in a 15 minute interview with a major or even local media outlet, one can generate immense positive attention for a law school and an affiliated university.  From a mission standpoint, moreover, one of the things law teachers can do is educate the public about legal rules and institutions, and the public reads the news a lot more enthusiastically than it does 450-footnote articles.

Below are a few thoughts about talking to the media -- not meant to be exhaustive by any means, in keeping with the "tips" theme of some recent posts:

1. Talk in sentences:  Advising student writing, whether in the form of legal memos or law review Comments, we teach our students to write in paragraphs.  The media isn't interested in paragraphs.  At most, a journalist will quote a few sentences of your thoughts.  While you don't have to limit yourself to soundbites, you're unlikely to have more than even a few sentences quoted even after conducting a 20 minute interview.

2. It's not your story: I've seen a few professors complain over the years about being quoted out of context.  If you're worried that you won't be able to give the complete law professor answer, "it depends...", then you shouldn't talk to the media.  Once you hang up the phone, it's out of your hands.  The good news is that you can always elaborate or clarify on your own blog, or on your Twitter feed.  Thanks to Twitter, these days we're all insta-pundits.  So save the full explanation for a different venue.

3. Be right most of the time:  The best way to get a repeat call from a journalist, or have her refer you as a source to a colleague, is to be right most of the time.  If you can accurately predict, say, the outcome of a labor dispute, then you're far more likely to get a follow up call for a future story.  In scholarship it may be that being interesting is more important than being right, but that's not usually what interests journalists.

4. Air quotes don't show up on TV or the radio: I recently gave a 30 minute interview to a local TV channel. I summed up a somewhat confusing explanation by saying, with visible air quotes, that "my 'expert assessment' is..."  Of course, the video clipped out my air quotes.  It would be funny if I actually talked like that, but when my mom watches the .wav file it sure looks like I do.

5. Keep a jacket in your office: Not everyone boasts a Serious Professor Goatee that's worthy of Joe Slater. And sometimes we show up to work, particularly when writing in the summer, in plastic pants.  Amazingly, one can don a lawyer costume from the waist up in  a matter of moments.  I don't want to veer into this blog's alleged sartorial obsession, but it's handy to be able to look the part when an unexpected opportunity arises.

6. A wire service is worth a dozen interviews: It's super cool to know what you sound like in Croatian. If you are lucky enough to comment in a story for Bloomberg, AP, or Reuters, particularly one with international application or interest, you can find yourself quoted in dozens of papers, including many overseas.

7. You know more than you know: There are of course reporters who cover legal issues exclusively, or are lawyers themselves, and they may know as much or more law than you do.  But many reporters are really looking for someone who has legal training to respond to an emerging development, not for the world's leading expert.  You need not have written a treatise on an issue to be able to add some value.  Free of the conflicts arising from having to represent clients, with a little bit of legal research you can often help a reporter unpack legal issues and translate our professional "-ese" with ease.  It's okay to take a few minutes to read up on some issue before offering to talk to a reporter. 

8. TV will cancel your interview if Gary Bettman is available: I've had more than a few TV stations call to see if I could rush down to the local affiliate (after rushing home to change out of my plastic pants) to appear on some show or other via satellite uplink. And then, as I don my professor costume furiously, they call back to cancel because the commissioner of the league the story is on wants to appear instead.

9. Answer your phone: The best way to get a media opportunity is to be responsive, both to telephone calls and emails. For me, the reporter most likely called McCann and Feldman and only got to me because they were booked or couldn't comment due to other obligations.  But even if I'm not the first person they call, if I answer the phone or respond within a few minutes to an e-mail, I'm more likely to be the one they use for an interview than the next person down on their list.

For more useful tips, you might want to see this list of go-to answers by Colorado's Pierre Schlag, or this guide for faculty from DePaul University.

Posted by Geoffrey Rapp on October 2, 2014 at 04:22 PM in Current Affairs, Deliberation and voices, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


Thank you for the post, this is all true and very informative. I actually have the opposite problem right now. I talked to a reporter from a national news outlet for 45 min. They've already run two news stories using the material I provided (including facts from an empirical study I did) without attribution. Other than refusing to talk to the reporter in the future, is there anything else you would do?

Posted by: Urska | Oct 11, 2014 5:54:06 PM

Beyond not minding that you seem to be making me the Al Snow to your Mick Foley (there's a reference not many law profs will get), this is all good advice. I would only add that one should be conscious of the fact that the one-two sentences a newspaper or TV station will take out of your 15-20 minute conversation with a reporter may not be the one you think actually represents your thesis, so you have to be careful (unless you know you will be quoted at some length) with the sort of "on one hand . . . but on the other hand. . . ." analysis law profs normally and properly do. I remember one interview where my main point -- and one I made at length -- was that attacks on the rights of public-sector unions to bargain collectively were bad policy. The interviewer asked me at the end if there was anything I thought the unions could "give" on, and I said some pension plans could be trimmed back a bit, maybe. Of course that last point was the only one the paper used. . . .

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Oct 11, 2014 5:44:44 PM

Great post. I have found that journalists love when I send them some easily-digestible source material after the interview, especially if I mention something relevant that they haven't seen yet. Often they use a hyperlink to the source if the news article will be online as well as in print. Looking forward to more posts like this.

Posted by: Marcia Narine | Oct 7, 2014 10:07:53 PM

My #1 rule: always read the source documents yourself. Don't rely on news reports or third party summaries of what happened. If necessary (like when a big Supreme Court opinion comes out), tell the reporter you'll call them back after you've read the materials yourself. Some reporters won't wait, but most will, and you'll substantially reduce the likelihood that you'll look unintentionally silly when the dust settles.

Posted by: Eric Goldman | Oct 4, 2014 6:43:05 PM

Before I was a prof, I was involved in lobbying for a major client. One of the golden rules taught was to talk in short sentences, the kind that distracted folks won't miss. And that means that a lot of careful detail won't survive; but, those who are interested at a deeper level will ask for more and those that were happy/convinced with less won't need to ask more.

This self-limiting speech pattern also lends itself to pithy quotes, and journalists like that too.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 2, 2014 10:29:11 PM

Good observation, great suggestion. Agree with the quibble, though I what I meant to communicate was more about assessments of the future than about comments about, say, what the law currently *is*. We can't always be right about what will happen in the future, and I meant to suggest that a decent batting average about how events might unfold, how a court might decide a novel issue or resolve an ambiguous question, is the best way to maintain your credibility. Like the CIA says, "If you're right most of the time, you're doing pretty well." https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/97unclass/axioms.html

Posted by: Geoff | Oct 2, 2014 5:33:01 PM

One observation, one quibble, and one suggestion:

Observation: professors in very small media markets are important too, and can really drive the conversation because they are often the only experts in town.

Quibble: be right ALL of the time. Media might take soundbites, cut things out, get things wrong, and generally maul what a professor has to say. But accuracy is our stock-in-trade, and inaccuracies can follow us forever.

Suggestion: When speaking with the media, have two simple things you want to get across, and put each of them in a clear, compelling sentence. Whatever question is asked of you, turn it back to those two things.

Great post, Geoff! I agree that speaking with the media and contributing our expertise to a subject is important.

Posted by: Steven R. Morrison | Oct 2, 2014 5:24:33 PM

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