In a post-truth world, it strikes me that the role of faculty at research-oriented universities like McGill is more crucial than it was even just a decade ago. Professors remain one of the most credible sources of information in our society.
There are two primary areas for which faculty are quoted in the media: their research, and their expertise in an industry. For both, the title “professor” is an important one – we “profess” to know something. That profession is not based on one person’s opinion, but rather on in-depth study into a topic.
For almost all full-time faculty, our terminal degree was a PhD or MD. To earn a PhD you spend years studying a topic in depth and making a small contribution to the sum of human knowledge in a narrow area. It is this base of learning how to do careful, thoughtful research that a faculty member brings to broader conversations in the media. As a faculty member, you must take care to only comment on areas that lie within your field of expertise. Naturally, we have opinions on many things – such as who should play on what line for the Montreal Canadiens – but we bring no particular insight to the discussion more than any other interested fan. I have been studying CEO leadership for more than 25 years and so I might comment on Geoff Molson as the CEO of the Canadiens, but I remain quiet on their lines. (Other than in the locker room with the guys after our regular Monday night hockey game – but to be honest they don’t pay much attention to my opinions either.)
Media’s go-to experts
To my mind, the starting place for commenting to the media is based on our research. After the base of your PhD, your research often broadens out as you develop the skills and the research experience needed for bigger topics. In a faculty member’s early days, others may reach out to media on their behalf to pitch their ideas. It is often university media departments, media people with academic journals or more senior faculty that point out how your research might be of interest to a broader audience. Over time, the media may start reaching out to the individual researcher directly, as they become recognized as a go-to person for a particular area of research and thinking. Another way to promote your research better is by writing opinion pieces for newspapers, journals, and other publications – again this gets you in the “rolodex” of journalists.
What motivates a professor to do this is that we often read and hear a lot of silly, and sometimes dangerous, opinions about something we know a considerable amount about. Thus, we are moved to help nudge the world’s thinking in a healthier and sounder direction. Beyond the particular research we talk about, having our research in the media reminds others of the value research universities bring to society, and reinforces the McGill brand in the minds of alumni, current and future students, and the public in general.
Do your homework
Beyond research, many of us comment on an industry that we know well, perhaps through previous work experience, research, consulting, or otherwise. In my case, when I moved from Oxford to McGill, I suspected that there were two companies in Montreal that the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would call me about: Air Canada and Bombardier. Having done executive teaching at British Airways and similar firms in Europe, I knew a fair bit about the industry. And, as it turns out, many neighbours, acquaintances and colleagues are current or former employees of Bombardier or Air Canada, giving me a wonderful network of people that I could gain in-depth background from when I comment. This makes me a better source – a source that has done their homework. It has turned out to be a two-way street, as there are some very sharp journalists at the top media from whom I learn about further insights on Bombardier and Air Canada.
Winning the Outstanding Achievement Award for Public Engagement through Media brought a great deal of congratulations from people within and outside the university. It’s very rewarding to be recognized for a lot of hard and careful work done in order to comment to the media in a way that is appropriate for a faculty member at one of the world’s great universities.