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Why talking to the media about my research scares me

I was fortunate enough to talk to a reporter from a national news group today.  This is a great privilege but it scared the heck out of me.  A friend who 30 years ago was my undergrad research assistant and is now a professor asked me to write about this fear for her class, so here goes.  I’ll give four reasons.

  1. I’m running on fumes.  It’s the end of a long semester and semesters wear down faculty just as they wear down students.  To add to that I was foolish enough to not do my shoulder exercises for a few days and so they were barking at me a couple nights ago and I had a bad night sleep.  So I go into this interview knowing that I’m not in my best form, making it more likely I’ll err in some way that will bear on the rest of this.
  2. I’ve never talked to this reporter before.  In the past I’ve had some great experiences with reporters.  Years ago I did a series of interviews about my university’s governance crisis with two reporters from the Washington Post, both of whom I found to be very professional.  I grew to trust them.  When one major story broke they were both unavailable and so a different person conducted that interview.   The quote he took from me was, indeed, something I said, but it also cast me in a slightly bad light in a way that was not necessary.  How do I know I can trust the reporter?  I’ve been told she is good at her work and I love the group for which she works, so this wasn’t that much of the fear, but it’s still a part.  Will she get what I am saying and accurately convey it?  That’s beyond my control.
  3. I know people will read about my work and misunderstand.  Perhaps some will, as a result, make bad decisions.  I think about this when I teach, too.  As a psychology professor I teach all sorts of students who have gone through, or are going through, their own particular form of hell, some of whom are turning to a psych class to try to figure things out.  They are often sleep deprived, distracted, caught up in their struggles, and likely to hear only part of what I say.   I want to go to every last person who takes an interest in what I’m talking or writing about and ask them to come, drink some tea or a beer and talk till we understand.  The student will think she has it the first time, but won’t, so I’ll try again, and then again.  And maybe the fourth time the student will start to get it.  How do we change?  I believe that dripping hollows out rocks.  (Think of me as the big drip.)  Repeating an idea again and again can shape someone.  But I can’t spend all the time I’d want with any student.  Too many students, too little time. With students I get a semester and so I at least get some chance to have repetition work its magic.  To be able to correct a misinterpretation or my own misstatement.  With an article I have only a few sentences that will barely sketch the idea, with the reader mistakenly filling in the details.  And perhaps acting on them.  I have a responsibility to those who read.
  4. I worry about my field and my world. My field gives people all sorts of reasons to give up on us.  We say things thinking they are right only to find out they are wrong.  We have some who just make up data.  We have some who go beyond their data in ways that will be called out by the wise reader, who might then think that psychologists are a bunch of dunderheads.  And so also with the media.  Trust in the media has eroded, and a bad article can contribute, in its own dripping way, to that.  Without trust we have no community.  Without community so much is lost.

So….I really don’t want to get this wrong.  I don’t want to mislead some poor soul reading my piece who then decides to break up a perfectly good relationship.  I don’t want to make some person give up on the field of psychology, or on the media, because of something that I’ve said.  And I know that I’m more likely to get it wrong because I’m not at full speed, and I’m doing this interview with someone I do not know.

And that all makes me afraid.

So why do it?

Because I find the research beautiful and I want to share.  Because some other poor soul might see in it some little glimpse of truth and start to live differently in a way that is healthy.  Because some reader might see the piece and think that the field of psychology is a great thing and the media an important part of our culture. I’m given this short time on earth, the benefit of a stunningly good education, a family that helped me develop in so many ways.  I’m part of a tradition of psychologists, following Kurt Lewin escaping the Nazis to study why democracy is better than autocracy.  Of Milgram trying to understand why people obey.  Of Beck, thinking that thought might matter for our mental health.  Of Bandura, developing a new way of thinking about what makes humans their own unique selves.  I’m here in my own small way to contribute to this great tradition, one that has to be renewed with each generation. I’m here as part of a culture I love, one that’s passed through Runnymede and Concord, Gettysburg and Normandy, Seneca Falls and that Birmingham jail.  This culture, too, needs to reinvent itself with each generation and in my small way I help that as I better do an interview.  Perhaps that sounds a bit grandiose, but we are part of these larger groups of people. And if we dream, why make our dreams small?

And what of my mistakes, or ways I am misunderstood.  A wise friend once told me “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”  If I wait till everything is perfect, nothing is going to get done.  All I can do is trust to grace, trust that others will make up for my deficiencies just as, I hope, I am doing my small part to address other deficiencies.  I can find faith in the possibility that I am not the only drip, that instead we have a waterfall.

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