Remembering My Hat

25th January 2012

Media tips for academics

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 22:54
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Today I went on some training for academics on dealing with the media. It was very good. The OU organised it but it was provided by inside edge media training. What follows are some of the key things I want to remember.

(cc) tim ellis

The training was called ‘Media training for experts’, which initially gave me pause – it feels over-claiming to describe myself as an expert although I suppose I am on a small number of topics. But thinking about myself as being positioned by journalists as ‘an expert’ was very helpful. As they said, if you’re being interviewed in your role as an academic, they’re not going to treat you as a politician, so they’re probably not going to push you as hard as they would David Cameron. And, as they didn’t say but I thought, being positioned as an expert who is also an academic will usually tend to position your statements as being more reliable and unbiased than other types of expert. Of course, that’s not necessarily true, but it’s an advantage.

But relatedly, you do want to come over as a real human being as well as an expert. So drawing on your personal experiences of whatever you’re talking about (if appropriate) can be a good way of doing this. I, and I suspect most academics, tend to depersonalise and generalise. But, just as in teaching, you often need to start with a concrete example and then move to the more theoretical point you want to make, so that your audience cares about what you are talking. One of the pieces of personalised feedback I had from the trainers from my mock interviews was that I needed to be clearer about why I wanted people to hear my message. I think saying to myself ‘I feel passionately about this because…’ might help with this.

I was amused to hear them talking about news values, which I’ve written about in K319, so that bit made a lot of sense to me. Hooray for teaching and other work synergy! I need to hang on to a sense of ‘now’ness, action, and things happening, especially when I’m trying to create news, rather than responding to an existing news story.

I need to identify in advance of any media work:

  • what my ‘top line’ is – the key message I want to get across
  • what the contrary argument is – journalists (generally) try to appear fair, so I may well need to argue my case. Or there may be a second guest arguing against me (although they should warn me in advance if that is the plan. But they might forget, so it’s worth checking).
  • what the contentious or difficult questions might be. Then try to think of strategies that would allow me to acknowledge the validity of the difficult stuff but then make a link back to the key message. So saying things like ‘yes, that’s true in a small number of cases but the vast majority…’ or ‘but I do want to make the wider point that…’
  • who does my message potentially put me into conflict with?
  • what are the key examples/case studies/anecdotes that will help me make my wider points.
  • what are the areas I cannot or will not talk about, and agree these with any other members of the team who might be doing media work
  • if it links to my personal experiences, whether and how much I am prepared to talk about those.
A particularly empowering piece of advice was that it’s probably better not to take up an unexpected opportunity to be interviewed than to do it unprepared. The trainers said that most journalists will re-order things if you say you’re not available for an hour, which gives you time to prepare yourself. And if they won’t, you’ve only lost that opportunity, not all future opportunities.

A chronological account of a piece of research might go ‘we got some funding to investigate A, so we did B and the results were C which has the implications D’. But to make it news friendly, you need to start with D.

Don’t get distracted by the mistakes journalists make that aren’t really important. In my mock interviews, the trainer described me as the sole author of a report rather than one of many and used some terminology that I wouldn’t. But correcting that would just have distracted from what I wanted to convey in my precious 3 minutes. It’s hard though, because I do care about my co-authors feeling elbowed out and about precise use of language. But I need to ignore those kinds of things in this context.

Use direct and everyday language, keeping it as concrete as possible. Try not to use jargon at all and don’t use complex language unless you explain it immediately afterwards – in the next clause, not even in the next sentence. It just distracts people. For example, while most people probably know roughly what ‘LGBT’ means, if you don’t immediately say what the letters stand for, people start trying to work it out, so stop listening to what you are saying. Also, don’t mention details that are irrelevant to your key message but important to you, like who your funders were or where an event is taking place. They’ll distract too.

Some very practical tips:

  • at the end, don’t hurry to take the headphones off or get out of the chair, even though you really want to. You might still be audible/visible/wired up.
  • don’t wear noisy clothes – things that rustle or jingle
  • feeling at ease is your responsibility – the interviewer is unlikely to have time to try to help you.  Try some breathing exercises or shoulder rolls.
  • journalists are often looking for someone to interview in the 6-7am slot. And if you do that, you may get to set the day’s news agenda.

I’m anticipating doing some media work when The Bisexuality Report is launched next month. I may not actually be asked to do any interviews, but I feel much better prepared than I did.

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14th January 2012

Some gerontological thoughts on The Iron Lady

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 00:04
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I went to the cinema this week and saw The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd’s biographical(ish) film about Margaret Thatcher. There’s lots I could comment on, but I’ll limit myself here to some things that struck me as a gerontologist and someone who is particularly interested in normative and non-normative life courses.

(cc) Joybot

One of the things I really liked about the film was the fact that the central character was (when not in flashback) an old woman. So few films have protagonists even in mid-life that it was really refreshing and interesting to see one in deep old age (for further discussion of older people in films, can I recommend ageing, ageism and feature films and the work of Josie Dolan at UWE). One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last couple of years is how people can be enabled to better imagine their own ageing and eventual old age. Fictional portrayals of later life are an obvious way of helping with this but there aren’t many out there (although the FCMAP project has a collection of novels here). While I loathed the real Margaret Thatcher in her heyday with all the fervour of a leftie teenager and young adult, I found the fictional portrayal of her old age deeply moving and sympathetic.

As I understand it, hallucinations are rare in most common forms of dementia, including the form that Margaret Thatcher is thought to have, but I’m not talking here about the reality or correctness of what is portrayed. As a way of representing the sheer impossibility of believing that someone who has been an intimate part of your life for 50 years is no longer there, I thought the hallucinations of Dennis worked really well. I don’t know whether that is how people feel after such a bereavement but it certainly made me imagine being in that situation.

I also thought the film did a good job of conveying the ways in which older people are so often treated as incompetent, irrelevant and foolish. Scenes such as the one in the corner shop – when she is pushed out of the way by the man on his mobile phone – are entirely everyday. For example, the Research on Age Discrimination research, undertaken by some of my colleagues from the Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies (and me, in a minor way) found that being treated as seemingly invisible was reported as one of the most prevalent forms of everyday ageism. But seeing this happen to someone who used to be the prime minister makes even clearer the fact that it doesn’t matter who you used to be, once you are put in the category ‘old person’ you are at risk of being treated in this way.

(cc) rileyroxx

I was also interested in (but much less keen on) the way the film ended up focusing so much on her personal life, especially her relationships with her father, husband and children. I am suspicious that one of the reasons the film-makers decided to do this was because if they had failed to do this for a woman who was known to have been married and to have had children, it would have felt like too incomplete an account of her life. Filming a biography of a male public figure with only passing reference to his private life would probably be unremarkable but, since they wanted to make her at least somewhat sympathetic, I wondered whether this partly pushed them into featuring her private life more heavily. I don’t know. I may be coming over all second-wave feminist on this one. It has been known.

And this made me think about the cultural difficulty of telling a story of someone’s old age that doesn’t make it seem as if it was their family and any descendants that really mattered in the end. In societies such as the UK, where paid employment is so highly valued, I wonder whether, once you are beyond paid employment, the main culturally available narrative is of the significance of family. Certainly my colleague Jill Reynolds has found that some older people without children report that their friends with children and grandchildren seems to have lives (boringly) limited to their families. I’m sure that, for many people, their family does become the main focus of their lives when they are old. And that’s fine. But for other people, such as those who haven’t had children, who are estranged from their families and whose lives have not revolved around their families, such as Margaret Thatcher, I’d like there to be a greater range of ways of telling the story of someone’s life.

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