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Field Notes

Meet the Press

The theoretical value of talking to the media isn’t hard to appreciate. Who doesn’t want to shape the public conversation, whether to make it more nuanced and reasoned or to bring injustice and wrongdoing to light? Issues you’ve studied are in the news and you get to be the expert, pointing out what’s wrong, or right, or offering another way of thinking about a difficult question. If you’re lucky, you get your name in print—and in a publication your friends and family actually read.

But it can also be intimidating. I used to feel like the hapless witness about to be cross-examined by the wily attorney. I’d heard about the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the push to appeal to the lowest common denominator. What if I got skewered? One minute I’m saying something reasonable about why late-term abortions are morally troubling to some people, and the next minute I am a pro-life extremist who approves of bombing abortion clinics. Less distressing, but also a concern: what if I spend thirty minutes talking with a reporter about how financial conflicts of interest can threaten trust in medicine, but also pointing out that a complete ban on physicians interacting with pharmaceutical companies might be unrealistic and even unwise, and the only thing that appears in the article is, “Josephine Johnston says, ‘It’s outrageous.’” Or I’m not quoted at all and that’s thirty minutes down the tubes (and on top of everything, the reporter calls Art Caplan, who says something cleverer).

Nonetheless, like my colleagues, I speak much more often with reporters now than I did just a few years ago, before the Hastings Center launched its Public Interest Initiative. Thankfully, it’s going pretty well. Most journalists are not trying to skewer you. They really want to understand the issues, and they appreciate talking with someone who has been thinking about them longer and perhaps more methodically. As a result of talking to you (and others), they will write a better piece. That’s satisfying, whether you’re quoted or not. Occasionally, they just want someone to say, “These people are downright unethical,” but in my experience, those calls are rare and easy enough to handle.

Also, it turns out that preparation on your end can make a big difference. Take five—or twenty-five—minutes to catch up on what’s been happening with this issue. Then note, in plain English, two or three points that you want to make. What do you think is at stake? Try to relax, listen, and treat the reporter as the smart human being she almost certainly is. Media training definitely helps.

All this eats up time and energy, but the issues we study are on the minds (and in the bodies) of thousands, even millions, of people who won’t read academic publications but might read a newspaper story or watch a television documentary or listen to a radio show. Helping a reporter craft that piece is one way to improve the public discourse. And often, in the process of talking the issue through, it just so happens that I learn something, too. [End Page c2]

Josephine Johnston
Research Scholar