Looking for some tips on how to contribute to the public conversation regarding your work? Participants in IonE's Boreas Leadership Program got some great ones from the pros at the final media workshop of fall semester. In the first half of the workshop, students heard from reporters at the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio and an editor from the Institute on the Environment's own Momentum magazine. In the second half of the workshop, Mike Burbach, editor and vice president of the Pioneer Press, and Susan Albright, co-managing editor of MinnPost, offered observations on how to write an effective op-ed.
The media panel offered insights into how to complete an effective media interview. Many of the suggestions fell into three categories.
1. Preparation. Preparing for interviews happens at two time-scales, long-term and just before an interview. Long-term preparation involves getting comfortable with interviews by practicing talking about your research. Elizabeth Dunbar from MPR suggested talking to friends and family about your work as good practice for media interviews. Boreas participant Megan Kelly chimed in on Twitter saying she calls this the "'Thanksgiving test": If you can explain it to your [in-laws'] parents... and keep your wits, you pass. While preparing for a specific interview, the media panelists suggested writing down your research in a way anyone could understand, figuring out your best story and being able to answer, "why does this matter?" in one sentence.
2. Passion. It seems obvious that a good media interview should be clear, and that is why preparation is necessary. But it may not always be so obvious that a scientist giving a good interview should also show some passion. Noting that there is always an underlying reason why scientists do what they do, Momentum associate editor David Doody suggested, "Be less professional and more passionate." Perhaps the best interview has both professionalism and obvious passion.
3. Helpfulness. Giving a good interview involves doing your job well, but it also involves helping the reporter do her job well. Of course get your story across and get your facts straight. But also try to be helpful. It can be challenging to give an interview as a scientist because scientists are very aware of what they don't know. If a reporter asks a question you don't feel you have the expertise to answer, Josephine Marcotty from the Star Tribune suggested trying to find a way to be helpful. Couch your answer with your concerns about uncertainty and suggest someone else the reporter could talk to about the topic.
Writing an Op-ed
After practicing interviews with the media panel, Boreas participants transitioned to hearing from a couple of editors about how to write an effective op-ed. Two observations stuck out in the conversation.
1. Individual Voice. Burbach made it clear that the best op-eds reflect an individual. "[They] give me something from the writer that I couldn't get from anyone else," he explained. Whether the writer brings personal experience, professional expertise or both, in order to write a great op-ed, the writer should be engaged with the subject and argument.
2. Expertise. The public sphere is full of many different voices, which can be overwhelming for readers. However, for scientists it can also be an opportunity. According to Albright, "It's important for people who know things to weigh in." A scientist may or may not want to take a specific policy position. However, clearly articulating an area of research or the science behind an issue is a useful and important contribution to the public dialogue, and one many scientists have the expertise to make.
At the end of the workshop, Boreas students had more experience doing interviews with media professionals, a better understanding of op-eds, and some great ideas for potential op-ed subjects. Look for these students to join the public conversation in coming months and years.
Kate Knuth coordinates the Boreas Environmental Leadership Program and is a doctoral student in the University of Minnesota's conservation biology program. She has served the residents of 50B in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2007. Kate previously worked at Hamline University's Center for Global Environmental Education and holds a M.Sc. from Oxford University and a B.A. from the University of Chicago. She was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Oslo. Kate recently completed her first triathlon and tries to get to the Minnesota State Fair at least a few times a year. Photo of Boreas student Whitney Place being interviewed by Elizabeth Dunbar from MPR courtesy of Sarah Karnas.