My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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On Being a Press Expert

When my quotes first appeared in press in 2003, i was an ecstatic bunny bouncing up and down. Since then, appearing in the press has lost its mystique (except of course when the irony is bleeding). Back then, i knew nothing of what it meant for someone to be a press expert. In the last few years, i’ve become one. Now, some folks tell me that i’ve become famous as a press expert. I.Want.To.Scream. Instead, i decided to address some of how i’ve seen this process work for those who don’t get to deal with press so often, those who will and all of you who read the press and wonder how it all works. These notes are a little scattered, but i think they’re still interesting. For those who can’t stand my long articles, here are some of my key points:

  • Dealing with the press takes a LOT of time and is completely exhausting and often doesn’t help you get your point across.

  • There are many “experts” who have a lot to gain from being in the press all the time.
  • American press competition does not produce better articles, but instead encourages scary articles that will entice readers to read more.
  • “Fair and balanced” promotes experts who can keep scary or emotional stories flowing.

Reporters seek experts on “both sides” of a news story in order to give balance. If you happen to be publicly arguing something in opposition to something that everyone else is arguing loudly, you’re likely to end up as a target for press. The more credentials you have, the better you are for their story. Normally, academic experts are professors because that looks much better than being a lowly PhD student. This is how i become things like “cultural anthropologist” — it’s a way of giving me a title that is not “student.” You also end up as a target if you know a lot about a particular topic and can verbally provide them with all of the background material they need so that they don’t have to research it themselves.

I first became an expert on Friendster. Press would call me up to find out what it was. This made me feel so special and i’d spend hours talking to reporters about the details of how the site worked, walking them through everything. I was rarely quoted in those articles. I was doing their work for them. This was exhausting.

At this point, i get very irritated when reporters ask me to explain MySpace and i often make an excuse to get off of those calls fast. It’s a waste of my time if they don’t know about the site – none of my arguments about what’s going on will stick if they’re learning about it for the first time.

Talking to reporters takes a LOT of time. If you see a single quote by me in the paper press, you can guess that it came from an hour long interview. Only about 70% of my interviews result in a quote. Articles that feature me in any way take even longer. The New York Times article back in 2003 that featured me involved over 40 hours of interviewing. Photos are another layer. If you see a photo of me in a newspaper, it probably took 1-2 hours of photographing to get there. If you see a simple one in a magazine, it probably took 2-3 hours. One national magazine (not yet published) is supposedly featuring me; that photograph involved four hours of hair, makeup, clothing and cameras. Five people came to my house and ran around primping me.

Radio and TV are even more time-intensive. With paper/magazine press, you can call them at a time when you’re both awake. Radio and TV news both require you to be available during the scheduled time of recording. You don’t get any flexibility on that. Often, you have to appear at a location as well, requiring travel time. The 3-minute appearance on Bill O’Reilly took 3.5 hours of travel, makeup, sitting around waiting, camera checks, interview. And this was recorded in-time (no second takes). I got 3 hours of warning for that piece – i had to appear at TV’s beck and call.

Radio and TV features both record ahead of time which means that you have a little more flexibility regarding timing (at least you get some warning). These also take much much longer because they can afford to do re-recordings. I recently did a recording for a TV feature. I will probably appear for 2 minutes or so. It was 4 hours of _taping_ let alone the pre-interview, travel, getting ready, etc.

Talking to press can be a full-time job. This is why those who make PR their living or those who seek to gain from the attention are more likely to appear in the press all of the time. For example, the people who from organizations that run around talking about how scary the Internet is…. they appear *everywhere* because they will appear at the beck and call of all press. When reading the news, you should think about what the person has to gain from speaking to the press. If a person’s job security is wrapped up in being in the press, worry. This is why academics are such good experts – we have little to gain from talking the press except for the excitement of seeing our name in print and feeling like someone listens to us (cuz goddess knows our students don’t). But, personally, i’d rather the MySpace fear shit go away so i can get back to my research. Most of the people speaking for the fear rely on that fear to keep their jobs. It is unbearably frustrating to have to face off in the press with people who have more time, can jump higher and at all hours, and have a lot to gain from keeping the topic going.

This is why reporting is often so problematic. It’s not about truth, it’s about what all of the relevant players have to gain/lose and who can out-do each other. Scary stories work much much better for press than statistics. Fear sells better, it makes better stories, and more experts have something to gain from it.

I talk to press every time i’m in my car, in the airport and walking around. I spend a good 15 hours a week addressing press right now. It’s exhausting. I can only get back to a fraction of those who contact me and i’ve missed most TV and radio opportunities because i can’t just jump when people ask me to jump.

At first, i felt really badly for those who were coming from non-national press. Most experts only want to talk with national press because you have more of an impact. Unfortunately, i’ve learned that there are other reasons. National press understand that your time is precious and rarely keep you for more than an hour. They get to the point ASAP – they are looking for a handful of quotes. They know their material better, having done the research (or used some poor sucker who was stoked to even get to talk to a press person). Talking with smaller papers can be very frustrating at times because they are not that savvy at dealing with experts, they are often looking to repeat a story that national news has already done, and when it comes to stuff like MySpace, they simply don’t understand it. I feel guilty that i too have gotten in habit of being more responsive to national press than to local press, but considering that i can only respond to about 40% of the current contacts, i’d rather deal with people who know their stuff and will engage me in a new and interesting conversation. Of course, not all national press do this, but your chances are better.

With most print reporting, they are just looking for a single quote. People more savvy then me tell me to make my quote and go on auto-repeat with slight variations so that the press won’t be able to get you to say something else. I’m not good at this. I’m trying.

When reading the press, you often see that XYZ refused to comment on the story. This is usually someone the story is focused on and usually someone who is going to be getting a call from every press on the planet. There are a couple of reasons. First, many public figures know that they cannot change the story the press is writing. (Many of us stupid experts still think that we can and we try really hard, often meeting failure regularly.) The public figures often have nothing to gain and a lot to lose. They also simply cannot deal with the influx so it’s better to just say no universally, missing both good and bad opportunities. For example, if Tom Anderson would respond to every press call about MySpace, he’d spend over 500 hours a week talking to press. There AREN’T 500 hours in a week. Considering he already works 80+ hours a week doing his job, adding press to this doesn’t sound so great. Of course, MySpace should have PR faces but they’re definitely still acting like a startup on that one. (When you hear Company XYZ says “blah blah” this means that the reporter talked to the PR person not anyone who works on the product.)

Reporters get to key figures either because they have press junkets or by promising the person something special. Front page photo. A certain angle. Something that makes it enticing. Of course, if the reporter fails to deliver, they can end up on a blacklist. Likewise, many experts keep a blacklist of reporters who misquote or otherwise are not worth your time. We also share these lists and check in on reporters. As someone reading the news, you’re better off following reporters who cover an area repeatedly in detail. They cannot afford to piss off all of the experts in the area and so they are better by them. There are exceptions, especially insidious reporters and talk show hosts that have impressive coverage and attention.

The competition component of the press is quite problematic. Most American reporters are freelancers – they need to sell new, unique stories to the outlets. Outlets buy stories that will sell more papers/ads. They want juicy stories. Fear, crime and personal struggle stories sell well. Fact of the matter stories do not – this is a huge problem for getting “truth” out there. Foreign press are a lot more sane. First, most of their reporters are employees who are not terrified about losing their job if they don’t find a hyper juicy story. Second, most of the top press outlets are government funded which means that they’re not psycho-obsessed with selling papers/ads at the detriment of getting news out there. Americans think that government funded news would be deceptive. Ha! Try corporate/ad/paper sales funded news. It’s all about addicting you (the public) into buying more more more regardless of truth. Of course, some competition is good because it makes people look more closely… but often, with 24-hour news, it means making news outta nothing and maintaining stories that keep people’s pulses high so they come back for more.

Anyhow, these are just a few notes from what i’ve learned talking to reporters. Hopefully they provide folks with a new eye for thinking about what you read. (And a new appreciation for why i’m so goddamned exhausted and frustrated – truth can’t prevail in this system and that’s just painful to experience.)

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9 comments to On Being a Press Expert

  • Bernie Hogan

    Thanks for this Danah. I’ve started to notice a bit of this myself.

    Although, a missed point in here is:
    Be careful with very complex ideas about abstract comments – “the public”, “network management”, or even “community”. Reporters often screw them up. I’ve been quoted a few times now where I felt they really didn’t get it (and a few times where they did) – but it was mainly me not doing enough conceptual pre-chewing.

  • Having been a press subject, and morphed into press, I want to speak to this a bit… First off, it’s pretty much all true in my experience. That said, my experience isn’t extensive. I’m as interested in looking back on how this looks when I am better at this as sharing what I know now.

    I try very hard to not take up too much of an expert’s time by researching the subject beforehand, though it’s a tough balance. Occasionally you go in to get a quote from someone and they want to chat for a long time about this field, cause you know, this is their life passion. I think sometimes I get in and out too quickly and offend people. It’s tough to feel out at the beginning of a conversation how much time and depth someone I am interviewing wants. Also, I have a very strong ethic of making sure they get something out of it. Sometimes this means asking an interesting question, giving them a resource they might not have known about, buying lunch, or just being amusing and fun to talk to. I don’t feel I’ve done a good interview if I don’t get the “Ohh, uh, good question” moment. Not all the interviews have to be good; some of them have to be quick. It’s funny you talking about reporters taking up too much time, and the nationals being better about it- I suspect it’s not because they are better reporters, it’s because they’re on nastier deadlines. I am sure many experts before talking to locals because, damnit, those reports take their time to talk to the experts. :) Anytime I am writing about a contensious issue I try to make sure the experts I’m talking to can change my mind. I’ll write down my bias beforehand, and try to set up questions that knock it down. I don’t try and pretend I don’t have one, personally, that doesn’t work for me. I think it might for others.

    As for being a cultural anthropolgist vs phd student. oh man. What I am selling to an editor is access, so your status is a proxy for my ability. We’re paid by the word, we’d love to say “danah is a phd student at berkeley who has made her particular field of study social networks, beginning with friendster and moving onto myspce. She’s published much cogent research on this, and is quick unique that way… etc etc etc” But we’re paid by the word, so the editor would shorten that to “Cultural Anthropologist.”

    A lot of what people think is evil or bias in the press is just lazy. Even lazy isn’t the right word: often just low paid. I was interviewing a famous figure (who was also a friend) and he railed against the ignorance of the media in his field for a while. I stopped him and said, ok, I’m being paid $300 for this article, you tell me, how much effort should I give it? He was fairly shocked. This is why we try to cover the same areas again and again. Often the people you talk to are under a hell of a lot of pressure and not making a ton of money, plus they have to be experts in a half dozen fields a week.

    Making a whitelist and a blacklist: I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been part of communities that have reporters they talk to and reporters they don’t. As a reporter, you pass around experts. The same people get the call all the time, it’s the network effect. If you’re on deadline it’s nice to have someone to call that a) knows how to talk to press and b) has a history of being reliable.

    As for the “would not comment” thing, that’s complex. There’s “did not respond by press time” type no comment, which is meant to make clear we couldn’t give them much time. There’s didn’t respond to inquiries, or didn’t respond to multiple inquiries, which is pretty obvious. Usually declined to comment means, at least ime, I had them on the phone and they said “we won’t comment on that” or something similar. I’ll usually say something like I’m going to say you declined to comment, and get them to agree.

    Some people tell me exactly how much time I have with them when I call- I appreciate that, and I imagine it keeps my kind from eating their lives. I can understand why some people would say give your quote, then just rephrase it, but I disagree. That assumes bad reporters and punishes good ones that want more than a reaction quote. I’ve had articles that wound us in places that surprised me. That couldn’t have happened if the people I was talking to hadn’t talked to me like a human being.

    I totally disagree about European reporting. It’s just as bad. Or good, depending on your editor. There are better and worse publications, and better and worse reporters. I don’t buy there are better and worse continents.

    Also, I do photography for my stories. I have nothing to add there, we’re just obnoxious. :)

  • Part of the challenge with dealing with the media is providing them concepts in bite-sized chunks or soundbites. Don’t think of it as an intelligent conversation, you’re just part of a machine; part of the x number of stories that they have to film, or words that they have to type in a day. Think of the response to their question of consisting of three parts:

    Answer – respond to their comment
    Bridge – moving the statement to where you want it
    Close – end on the message that you want to get across.

    Keep the answers simple, use simple language, keep them snappy. Get a list of the questions in advance or at least the areas of interest. See if you can do them as an email or an IM, for print journalists.

    Best of luck in your role as media pundit.

  • B

    Just my two cents:
    What I have hear here (Europe) is mostly the opposite: journalists that couldn’t care less, made no efforts to understand your point or even get out of their ex ante normative point of view. The result is dramatic ethos, and papers full of insinuations, calomny and prejudice. *If* after all of what you did, they got your main idea (“it is like yesteryear market place”), that was a 500h/week worth it.

    Just the economist’s idea:
    To avoid repeating yourself, maybe you should tell them that you are fed up with spending so much time going through the same idea, and give a journalist-only class on whatever they all seem to care: your University can provide you with a room and a mic, right? For once, the “students” might want to listen. I’m sure they would feel ackward, back on teh benches.

  • Sports journalism gives us a freedom denied to those covering most non-sports topics. That is often overlooked by most media commentators. Especially in boxing, we can explode myths and stereotypes, of course if we want – or the editors want.

    And that is a point which your otherwise observant post omits. The mainstream media exists to protect the mainstream institutions. They try to socialize people into behaving and believing a certain way. There is latitude in a democracy, but only within acceptable and non-threatening limits.

    The Internet provides everyday people with the tools to become publishers and broadcasters. Liebling’s Law on freedom of the press is just about repealed. That, more than just simple ignorance and technophobia, is why they fear sites like MySpace so much.

  • danah,

    Some folks, such as myself, are very – very – very greatful that you (and others Catarina and Stuart and…) do this so we don’t have to. It gives us the freedom to dedicate ourselves full-time to effecting the changes you talk about. :-)

    Thanks!

    randy [Who isn't a press expert. :-D]

  • http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/POSPUB.html

    Public Intellectuals
    A Study of Decline
    Richard A. Posner

    “In this timely book, the first comprehensive study of the modern American public intellectual–that individual who speaks to the public on issues of political or ideological moment–Richard Posner charts the decline of a venerable institution that included worthies from Socrates to John Dewey.”

    A good read on the subject.

    Once infuriated after participating in a panel discussion on digital media at some dotcom era conference, Ian Rogers reminded me, “You don’t need to give those fools the heads-up; they don’t get it anyway.” Ian Rogers is always right.
    http://fistfulayen.com/

  • Tim Wu

    Danah, well said, and well explained. What you didn’t add is that scary feeling of becoming of parody of yourself, something especially damaging to the soul of an academic.

    If you’re a paid spokesperson, (I did a little of such work for a company) you just put the message out there, and then go home and cook dinner. But academics are supposed to be saying what they believe, what they stand for.

    That’s why, for example, I think Larry Lessig as an example often looks so exhausted. Larry is fact has somewhat nuanced views on copyright. Yet he has the public duty of being the point man contesting expansion of CR in every debate, in debates where nuance and subtlety are taken as concessions.

    The truth is he does a better job than others would. But for him, (and for others) press and lobbying work are a part-time job. Result is soul-draining exhaustion.

    Let me also mention a related East Coast / DC angle. As you suggest, some of this is, in short, why lobbyists work — because money buys someone’s time to talk to the press, to talk to Congressional staffers, to talk at obscure conferences, over and over and over again.

    Others have said this, but political debates in the U.S. today are mostly a volume play. Quality of argument times volume = strength of argument.

    I’d only say that occasionally — particularly on NPR, though maybe I am biased — talking makes you think of the issue in a new way, because you’re forced to connect it down a few levels of abstraction. But as you say that’s the exception.

    One final question. Do you ever feel that complaining like this feels like complaining about a self-inflicted injury? After all, you or we could always simply say ‘no….’ Some people always do, and the world does go on.

    Its like David Sedaris said in an interview on NPR — he said, I don’t write as much about my current life (basically as a famous writer) because no one can relate to it.

  • Sceptic

    Reading how screwed up the mass-media system is makes me realize why GWB is still in power

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