This was written by CBC Radio's Matthew Lazin-Ryder
1. Pitch better stories
Frances Woolley rightly states that Canadian journalists put a disproportionate amount of our time into following up on Stats Can reports, OECD reports, and think-tank publications. The primary reason is simplicity. Virtually any of the talking heads in our rolodexes can say something about Stats Can and OECD reports. Think-tanks? Well, think-tanks always, always answer the phone.
If we want to move economics coverage towards research, and I believe we should, economists must do more to communicate their research to journalists. Universities and journals attempt this with mixed success. University communications staff often try to think like a journalist when sending out a press release, which counterintuitively, can be quite unhelpful. What a PR person at a university thinks makes for a good headline is often not what journalists are looking for. And on more than one occasion, I’ve called up an academic who’s told me the press release “torqued” or exaggerated or otherwise distorted their research. Journals have the opposite problem, often giving little consideration to the fact that most journalists, even those covering economics, are humanities majors who know the true identity of Monsieur Madeleine, but couldn’t tell you the first thing about why demand curves slope downwards.
A solution to this is to skip all the baloney and pitch your research directly to journalists. Did you have a chase producer call you up about a Stats Can report, and they treated you with respect, and the final piece accurately conveyed your perspective? Perfect. Hold on to their contact information, and the next time you have a paper published, send them a note not more than two days in advance. Just a simple note that says who you are, reminding them of that time you sacrificed an hour between classes to help them with a story, that your paper’s being published in a couple of days, why it’s important, and what times you’re available to talk. That’s where this piece came from. A Twitter DM from Mark Jarvis. Our weekly national radio show The 180 on CBC gets roughly a million listeners, still listening the old fashioned way, tuned in across the country. One million people for one DM is a pretty good trade.
If you’ve never been bothered by a journalist and have no direct contacts, someone in your department has. Journalists are notoriously egotistical, and if someone sent me a note that said “My colleague Frances Woolley suggested I contact you” I’d be walking on air for the rest of the day.
I guarantee, if you send a few notes like this in advance of your paper, teams of journalists across the country will be discussing the merits of your research in their morning meetings. Certainly with more vigour and interest than if the pitch were based on a university PR department’s press release.
2. Help us find better commentators
On this blog and elsewhere, I’ve read that academics struggle with saying “no” to journalists’ requests for comment. But saying no can be quick and easy, if it’s done quickly and easily. The “quick” part is literally, doing it quickly. Deadlines haunt our lives. We start our day, and the countdown clock starts. You are doing us an enormous favour by saying “no” as firmly and quickly as possible. The more rapidly you can send that “no” in an email, or call back on the phone, the earlier we can call other people. The “easily” part is, give us any tiny hint about who might be a better communicator on a subject that you’re not familiar with, or might have time. If you don’t have a name, scale up. A field of study, a department, another university. Anything that could lead to another human with something to say. This may be a sensitive issue for some, but it would also be enormously helpful if those recommendations included women. While the gender gap in economics is one thing, the gender gap in economists in the media is outrageous. Journalists, institutions, associations, and journals all need to work together to address this issue, but you can help by, when sending that firm and quick “no”, suggesting a woman colleague who might be interested in talking.
3. Be honest about your feelings during an interview
This rant posted by Frances is interesting, but I’d compare it to something like this. Just as there are countless columns and blogs claiming neo-liberal economists are conspiring to use broken models to impoverish the middle class and enrich the global elite, so too are there claims that newsrooms are cesspits of cynicism and entitlement, rife with “gotcha journalism”, pre-meditated quote polishing, and straight-out corruption. But the boring truth is that, in Canada anyway, most of us are gleeful, idealistic dreamers who stress ourselves out for 9 hours a day because we believe the world is basically good, and we think it’d be a little bit better if people just had more useful information. We also walk around with a bunch of assumptions about what economists think and feel. I’ve called up Stephen Gordon and Andrew Leach and Kevin Milligan, fully confident that they’ll say the exact thing I want them to say to help me make my masterpiece, only to find out I have to start over from scratch when I realize my assumptions were based on some outdated thing I overheard in the introductory econ course I took in college.
So, if you find yourself on the phone with a journalist, and you feel they are pushing you in a direction you’d rather not go, say so. It doesn’t have to be rude or awkward, but literally say “I feel like you want me to say X – but I wouldn’t say X because my research shows Y.” Some puffed up reporter might say “I’m just trying to get the truth”, but the overwhelming majority of us would be a little embarrassed and say “Okay, tell me more about Y”.
In any event, what are they going to do, air a story that says “I called up this economist with a bunch of my own assumptions, but they wouldn’t play along!”? No, they’ll edit out the part where you say “I feel like you want me to say X” and call it a day. If it’s a live interview, the host will awkwardly back-pedal, while everyone watching or listening at home will be cheering you on.
4. (The abstract one) For god’s sake, be passionate
The organically-grown Canadian economist celebrity Rat Pack of Gordon, Milligan, Woolley, Tedds, Leach, Moffatt et al. has been of tremendous benefit to both journalism and economics. Vigorously fighting the idea that economists are cloistered number-crunchers, they make daily progress in convincing a skeptical public that yes, economic study can make the world a better place. From my understanding, that’s why economists do what they do. To observe and learn and propose policies which improve the lives of real humans. Which is why I’m surprised, to be completely indelicate, at the number of interviews I’ve seen and heard with economists who don’t sound the slightest bit interested in their own research. I’m not sure if it’s a tradition of academic humility, of not wanting to rock the boat, or of nervousness, but there’s an unsettling absence of public passion in Canadian economics. If there’s a belief among academics that journalists want economists to be dispassionate interpreters of statistics, there’s something wrong. We want to hear about your motivations, your failures, and your successes in doing your research. The story of your latest published paper should be like a gathering of prehistoric hunters, sharing the tale of that day’s kill around a fire.
For example, imagine you and your fellow hunters are hungry for knowledge about the relationship between delayed education and wages. You expect it to be an easy hunt for simple numbers – surely delayed education means lower wages, it’s just a matter of sizing up the degrees. But… deep in a forest of statistics, you notice something strange. A bizarre and confounding relationship between the two! You were surprised and didn’t quite grasp the full nature of this elusive beast. When you returned to camp, you wondered whether what had you observed was true at all, or some strange illusion! Surely, this calls for…. further research.
That’s the kind of storytelling we want when we call up an economist about their latest research. Their motivation for the research, what they thought they’d find, what they actually found, and what needs to be done now. Since economists are dealing with some of the most important issues of our time, a sense of passion for the work helps not only journalists tell a story, but audiences to understand, absorb, and most importantly, care about the significant research.
Matthew Lazin-Ryder is a producer with CBC Radio in Vancouver, making regular calls to economists across the country, and was host of CBC’s national economics radio program The Invisible Hand in 2012.