15 minutes of fame: What to do when your research hits the media (part 1)
By Elizabeth Daniels
Last summer a study of mine about objectification on social media hit the national and international press. The experimental study examined teen girls’ and young adult women’s evaluations of a peer who posted either a sexualized or non-sexualized Facebook profile photo. We found that the sexualized profile elicited more negative evaluations about competence, friendship appeal, and physical attractiveness compared to the non-sexualized profile. Somewhere around 150 news outlets (print, online, radio, and TV) ran a story on the study including the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Time, New York Magazine, Telegraph, and the Daily Mail. It was a bit of a whirlwind. Talking to reporters is definitely not part of the typical day of most academics, but it is a potentially valuable way to reach a vast audience. It’s also somewhat terrifying. In the post, I’m going to share some tips on how to interact with the press.
First, I highly recommend working with your university’s Office of Media Communications if you think your research will be of interest to the public. Contact them as soon as you get a revise and resubmit. They will then work with you on crafting a press release which they’ll issue when the journal publishes your paper. The press release is crucial. Many outlets will rely on it entirely and never contact you directly. It’s your opportunity to explain your methodology and results in a clear and non-technical way. Your press release should also have a specific take-away message(s). Often for researchers of adolescent development, your message should be aimed at parents and educators. You may also need to think about the message you DON’T want to come out of your work. In my case, I was worried that my findings would be used to tell girls to (further) restrict their sexuality. So I incorporated a message into the press release about the need to break down gender stereotypes that prioritize girls’ attractiveness and sexiness over other aspects of their humanity. I also included a message on the need to better educate both girls and boys on how to use social media productively.
When your press release is launched, be ready for an onslaught of calls from reporters. The first 48 hours in particular will be the busiest. By now, you should have practiced describing your study briefly and accurately and explaining your take-away message clearly. You need to sound confident and like the expert you are on the topic of your study. The Media Communications Office will be invaluable in helping you craft press-friendly language and helping you avoid overly technical or esoteric language. Reporters want a snappy quote from you that captures your message.
The press will call you and want to speak with you immediately, within the next hours, or possibly by the next day. Their clock is ticking. The morning my press release was sent out, I received a phone call for a live telephone interview with the San Francisco local affiliate of a major network just an hour or so before the taping. You have to be ready to jump. And yes, this was terrifying! But, it was also exciting. I should mention that my first experiences with the press were much more mellow than this. My early experiences with the press included being interviewed by students for the college paper and then the local paper and the local cable station. I was fortunate to gain some experience in lower-stakes situations which helped me build my skills and gain confidence. Talking to the press is in some ways like giving a conference presentation. Initially, it’s a difficult and anxiety-inducing exercise, but eventually as you give talks regularly it gets easier and less scary. If you’re wondering why bother, consider that by speaking in the press, we have the opportunity to reach exponentially more people than through typical academic channels on the issues that we are passionate enough about to base our careers on. In the press, we bring science to parents, teachers, youth advocates, and policymakers who can make use of this information as they make important decisions that impact the day-to-day lives of young people.
I hope some of this comes in handy for you in interacting with the press. I’ll be posting again soon about how to control your message in the press. Stay tuned.
Elizabeth Daniels is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In her research program, Dr. Daniels focuses on gender, media, body image, and positive youth development. Her research centers on identifying positive influences on girls' and young women's development including media and activity contexts.