Lagassé’s rules for academic commentary in popular media

A few years ago Glen McGregor caused a row among Canadian political scientists on Twitter.

McGregor was laying out a few rules for political reporters and he included this one:

No more quoting political scientists:  It’s lazy and signals the reporter couldn’t find any other apparently neutral or objective source to talk. These people work in academics, not politics, so I’m not interested in their opinions on anything but their own research.

We got defensive, but as Andrew Potter and Paul Boothe pointed out, he was making an important point: Both journalists and academics are better off when professors only comment on what they know or what they can show.

This advice has become all the more important in light of the Potter Affair.

Potter’s ‘resignation’ from the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada has raised questions about academic freedom, the link between academic freedom and tenure, and the threat that McGill’s actions represent to women and minority academics.

But the Potter Affair has now given rise to another notion: that his op-ed represents the dangers universities run when they encourage professors to be visible in the media, write op-eds, and share their views with audiences outside the academy.

I think this presents a false dichotomy and turns our attention away from the real problem: the responsibilities of university administrators and the relationship between universities and powerful donors.

Nonetheless, I fear that the Potter Affair will be used by professors who never bought into public outreach, social media, etc., to cloister academics back into the safe, comfortable world of the ivory tower.

(Columnists who don’t like sharing the op-ed pages with academics may not mind that either. We can’t ignore the tensions that Potter pointed out between journalists and academics.)

As an academic who thinks wider engagement is important, and that professors make a valuable contribution to public debates through op-eds and media interviews, I’m determined to resist efforts to drag scholars back into a monastic model, where we only speak to one another or only blog about our latest peer reviewed articles.

But I also recognize that these critics aren’t totally off base. They’re right that we hurt the reputation of academics when we opine about things that fall outside of our areas of expertise.

Unless we avoid that damage, we may fuel efforts to cloister us.

So, in the sprit of McGregor’s Dogme95 of political reporting, I offer my rules for academic media engagement:

1) Only do interviews or write op-eds on subjects that fall under your area of expertise.

This is pretty simple. Don’t comment on American politics if you work on Canadian politics. Don’t write about international political economy if you study international security. I’m not saying you can’t have an opinion about subjects that you don’t research, but you shouldn’t use your professorial status to give your lay opinions more clout than they’re worth.

2) If you’re asked to do an interview or op-ed on a subject that you don’t research, recommend a professor who does work on the area, especially if you know qualified women or visible minorities.

Journalists need people to give informed takes and opinion page editors need content. If you are respecting rule 1 and can’t comment, direct them to people who can. And while you’re at it, help women and visible minority professors get more recognition. Again, pretty simple stuff.

3) Be provocative and exploratory in op-eds or blogs, but acknowledge that’s what you’re doing.

Op-eds and blogs are a great way of offering an informed, but provocative perspective. If there’s a topic in your area of expertise in the news, you should write about it and use your knowledge to offer a novel perspective, particularly if you expect most columnists to stick with rote points. You can also use op-eds and blogs to put new ideas out there. If you’ve got a hunch about something based on your expertise, then you can use these venues to test the waters. In both cases, however, it’s imperative that you tell the reader that you’re being exploratory or that you’re making an educated analysis, not representing the findings of a research project.

4) Finally, use op-eds and blogs to present analyses and arguments that wouldn’t be novel enough (or long enough) to publish in an academic journal or book, or when academic publishing would take too much time to get it out there.

I’m sure you’ve all been there. You see something in the news and want to offer an expert analysis of what’s happening. Or you see politicians deliberately misleading the public on an issue that falls under your area of research. You want to offer a corrective, but you know you aren’t saying something sufficiently novel for a peer reviewed journal article or book. Or you know that the issue will be long forgotten if you do go that route. In these cases, write an op-ed or a blog.

In closing, none of these rules are meant to silence academics. On the contrary, they’re meant to get us better prepared for the push to shut us up that seems to be brewing post-Potter.

I suspect most of us already follow them. But putting them out there offers a helpful counterbalance against the false dichotomy of academic research versus public engagement.

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