Nicholas Kristof ignited fierce protests—and enthusiastic support—by saying that most academics “don’t matter in today’s great debates,” because they (we!) write dreadfully and in obscure journals, rather than for broad audiences. Both Kristof and his critics got a lot right. But they focused on what academics and academia do wrong and right, missing what journalism does to make the problem worse.
Coincidentally, only weeks earlier Ezra Klein, a fantastic wonky journalist, articulated journalism’s problem, explaining why it drove him to start a new journalistic enterprise:
New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic… Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.
Journalistic outlets today provide news, not what Jay Rosen describes as helping “us grasp the stories we care deeply about.” Why does journalism’s obsession with newness hinder academics trying to reach broad audiences?
First, it limits the topics. An academic might study how government pays nonprofits to manage foster families. Probably some people care deeply about that issue. But unless there is some new angle or some related news event, it will be hard to get into regular media outlets.
Second, journalism’s obsession with newness limits the time frame for writing about stuff. Say the Republicans propose an alternative to Obamacare. From a media perspective, the time for an article describing the alternative’s effects is immediately. Later that day is good. The same week is okay. And sometime within the next two weeks is probably the outer limit of acceptability.
But much of what academics can usefully contribute is intrinsically complicated. We need time to analyze, time to describe complicated stuff as simply and clearly as possible, and time to make our writing as engaging and fun as possible. And while academics’ time is flexible, we do have time sensitive obligations, like teaching.
This focus on timeliness—obsession from my perspective—surprised me, an academic trying to do as Kristof suggests. The advice I have been given is practical: Write the piece you want, wait for a relevant event and rewrite pegging it to that…Is there a historical anniversary or holiday you can use as a peg? But this seems unnecessary and not the best way to serve the public. The anniversary thing seemed almost silly. Why should an oped on public universities, if genuinely useful to enough people, have to wait for some anniversary of the first land grant university (precursors of the public university)?
Speaking to various journalists, I pushed back on the absolute necessity for timeliness. The most common response boils down to: it’s news and news must be new. I think Klein and Rosen have addressed that one.
I found another response more compelling: if it’s in the news, people are already paying attention to it and you don’t have to convince them to pay attention. Fair enough. But it just means a greater burden to explain why your contribution matters. I still think it’s silly that opeds wait for anniversaries.
By now you may be objecting that this is the Internet age. Who needs journalists and the media? Can’t we just blog and publicize ourselves with Twitter? For that matter, can’t we just post our research papers on line and wait for others to translate them? Absolutely. And all that is changing the world.
But getting attention is very hard. That’s the flip side of free entry onto the Internet. For academics, getting pieces into the regular media and gaining journalists’ attention for their blogs and research is the difference between public attention and painstakingly getting readers one by one.
I do not mean to undermine Kristof’s position that the main barrier is academia itself. Many of the academics highlighting their own public engagement described the problem: What counts for tenure is producing new generalizable knowledge—some new understanding about how the world works. That means that our training, the norms surrounding us about what is important and interesting, what we must put time into to have a job—none of those help us with the media or with making the public “grasp [what they] care deeply about.”
“That’s academic” may be an insult in journalism, but “that’s journalistic” is an insult in academia.
At root, the problem is that journalism’s and academia’s core conceptions of themselves do not overlap. “In academia ideas must be new, while data (facts) can be old. In journalism, data (facts) must be new, while ideas can be old.”*
Both missions are worthwhile but together they leave a big gap in the public’s needs for information and understanding. In our increasingly complex world, the public needs established ideas explained as clearly as possible without sacrificing important complexity. It needs those explanations all the time, not just when something new happens. That’s how I would describe what Klein calls context. To fill this gap, both journalism and academia need to evolve.
Professors appreciate that Kristof said, “we need you.” I hope we respond, not only as individuals, but as institutions and as a profession. But journalists, we professors need you to change too.
*This point is from Academic Journalism, an academic paper I wrote with Andrea Gabor, a journalism professor, and Don Waisanen, a communications scholar, as are some other ideas in this post.
There’s an underlying problem that both Kristof and Klein dance around, how to draw eyeballs in an increasingly cluttered media marketplace. Unfortunately, neither of them have an answer for that; neither seems to recognize the bigger problem that no real information no matter what the source seems to draw the vast majority of the available audience, comprised mostly of people who’d forward cat GIFs rather than take a second to read a piece not written in under 300 words designed to induce rage rather than provoke thought.
Until that issue gets resolved, anything proposed by either side is just going to shift the flat tire from one axle to the other.
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