advice · change · faster feminism · outreach

Please say yes when they call: women in the media

First a pitch and then a bootstrap. People, this is serious. There are not enough lady academics participating in the public conversation that happens in the news media. There are not enough lady academics on expert panels on current events shows. There are not enough female experts giving context on news stories. There are not enough smart women setting the agenda on issues through venues like the op-ed pages of newspapers.


On TV, on the radio, in the newspapers, it’s still 80% men appearing a pundits and experts, and 20% women.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this including the usual old boys’ network, which I guess we continue to counter by putting together some binders full of women. But one big reason, that I keep hearing both from professionals working in the media and from academics seeking to increase women’s participation in same is this: the women get asked to participate, and they keep saying no.

Here are some reasons:

  • I need more time to prepare notes and research if I want to do a good job.
  • You want an expert in ABC(a), but I actually research ABC(b).
  • Oh, I couldn’t possibly offer an opinion: my research is objective.
80% men. Some of them are great men, but a diversity of opinion and expertise is always better than the same three 50 year old white guys. Men do not say things like “I’m not well-prepared enough” and they don’t say “My subfield is a hair’s breadth removed from the one you want” and they don’t say “I will let the data in that peer-reviewed article hidden behind a paywall and linguistically and pragmatically accessible to only 42 people speak for itself while I go home and revel in my imposter syndrome.”
Sometimes, yes, they mansplain and this kind of overconfidence and arrogance is to be avoided. But we’re never going to be more than 20% visible in public discourse unless we start to say yes to media calls.
For the love of all that’s good and feminist, PLEASE SAY YES WHEN THEY CALL YOU.
It’s not that hard. Here’s the bootstrap part.
Saying Yes
Here’s how it happens. You get an email or a phone call from a reporter or a producer or an intern working in radio or television or print. They ask you if you can give context or background on an issue, or to explain something, or to be part of a panel just generally discussing an issue. They give you a timeframe, which varies from “the camera truck is on the road now, let us know where we can meet you,” to “I’d like to discuss this briefly with you before the end of the morning tomorrow,” to “we’re doing a show on this early next week and would like you to appear.” They might want to engage with you over the telephone, over email, in a recording studio, on a location “stand up”, or in a television studio.
Here’s what you do. If the timeframe is ridiculously fast (“in the next hour”) Google what they’re asking you about, get the gist and ask yourself: “would I have something vaguely sensible to say about this to an undergrad who doesn’t know about this topic?” If the answer is yes, you are qualified to appear. Remember the bar is “undergrad who doesn’t know about the topic” and not “superstar researcher in the field.” If the timeframe is a little more relaxed, actually, the same standard applies.
Now you call back. Say yes. 
Last week, the host of a local current affairs television show emailed me to ask if I would appear for about 16 minutes on a show devoted to bullying and to Amanda Todd. I said yes. Am I an expert in teen suicide? No. Am I an expert in high school? No. Am I an expert on bullying? No. But she had already got experts on those topics and wanted to talk to me about the social media elements. That, I’m an expert in.
So of course I said yes. And it was great. And the host was even happy to take a goofy pic with me so I could convince you all that doing TV is really not scary, and that everyone is really nice:
It’s me! And Hayley Zimak of Rogers Talk Local Waterloo Region!
Sometimes, all you have is that couple of minutes of Googling before you have to do your thing. Usually all they want for print or radio or TV is about two minutes of contact of which they will only use about 20 seconds, one soundbite, or one sentence. This is why you don’t need three weeks to do a literature review.
For the talk show, I had about five days notice. The host sent me her general topics and I sent her back a link to my post from last week. She amended her questions and we decided to zero in on the gendered issues.
Generally, I prepare like this: I surf the internet for what’s happening (because my field is new media studies, and people are asking me about what’s happening on the internet.) I read media coverage of the same issues. I already have my scholarly knowledge from the research and teaching that I do, but sometimes I look up some reports or articles. That’s only for long interviews, though, like when I was on TV last year talking about Canadian internet privacy law. I was on for 20 minutes, and my notes looked like this:
Google, google, think, think, scribble, scribble, DONE.
That’s it. Not hard. Please note that you shouldn’t bring your notes on camera with you if you’re doing TV, or into the studio if you’re doing radio, because it sounds / looks really stilted and unnatural.

Be on TV!

People can see you when you’re on TV. There are some general guidelines to make you more successful in this regard.

  • No skinny stripes on your shirt (mostly people only see your top half, sometimes only to your shoulders)
  • You need to wear a lot of makeup on standard definition television. Like crazy amounts, or you’ll look like a squinty eyed puffball.
Here’s a picture of me in my “TV face” we took at home:
“Homer! I think you left the makeup gun set to ‘whore’!”
I know, right? Omigod. But on TV it looks like this:
“It’s not the Internet, actually, it’s sexism that’s the problem”
Also good to know when you’re on TV:
  • Try not to look at the camera
  • Be animated–it’s okay to smile or vary your facial expression to show your own interest in the topic
  • Remember you’re talking to the equivalent of curious undergrads: it’s not necessary to footnote your commentary
  • It’s just a bunch of people sitting at a breakfast bar, chatting.
“Please make sure your phones are turned off while we tape!”
The Upshot
Can I just say how extremely empowering this most recent talk show appearance was? After complaining so bitterly about misdirected media coverage of this case, I GOT TO BECOME THE MEDIA COVERAGE OF THIS CASE?

For me, this is pure knowledge mobilization: I research identity online, and it’s in the news, and therefore, I need to be on the news. But there are a lot of other reasons someone might call you, and for the most part, it’s nowhere near as hard or as much work or as scary as you think it’s going to be.
And until you start saying yes, it’s still going to be 80% men and 20% women leading the public conversation on everything from food to new media to politics to driving. Everything.
Please, take that PhD into the world with you. Hayley is very friendly, and I’ve got more makeup tips for you. Please, say yes when they call.

One thought on “Please say yes when they call: women in the media

  1. Congratulations, and thank you for being such a great role model. I missed the interview, but I already know you did an amazing job (I did read your post here, after all, so I am already a fan). Also, what you write about men being more highly represented as public experts is very true, and women do seem to be less inclined to say yes. I remember during congress the professor I was working with and myself were contacted about the press kit (meaning possible media interviews) and neither of us were kindly disposed toward being interviewed so thankfully no one contacted us after we filled out the obligatory information :p But I can see why it is so important for women to start saying yes, or at least to say yes to interviews more frequently.


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