April 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 4

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Lessons Learned from Media Coverage

Johanna Olexy, ASA Public Information Office

The American Sociological Association Public Information Office helps to facilitate conversations between journalists and sociologists. The staff works both to respond to media inquiries quickly and to proactively publicize the important work of sociologists, such as writing and distributing press releases on the research articles in ASA’s journals or answering press requests for experts. We recently followed up with a few members to learn more about their media experience and to find out what positive or negative lessons they may have learned.

A Little Stressful and Overwhelming

“My ASR article with Diane Felmlee was covered by about 200 media outlets,” reported Robert Faris, University of California-Davis, who received significant media attention for his February 2011 American Sociological Review article, which found that popular kids—but not the most popular ones—are more likely to torment their peers.  “At the time, I was doing radio and newspaper interviews every 15 minutes and it was all a little stressful and overwhelming, but there were a number of positive consequences. First and foremost, it drew the attention of the producers of Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, which led to a great collaboration and replication of the original study… Sitting across from Anderson Cooper and Dr. Phil was a surreal experience to say the least.”

Similarly, Jennifer Van Hook, Director, Population Research Institute at Pennsylvania State University, said, “Responding to media inquiries about my research on competitive food sales in school and child obesity took a lot of time and careful attention to the message.” Her January 2012 Sociology of Education article found that—at least for middle school students—weight gain has nothing to do with the junk food and soda they can purchase at school. “My co-author and I spent a lot of time talking with reporters. I tried to respond to everyone’s questions because I wanted to ensure that their stories accurately represented the research.”

Appealing to a Broader Community

Van Hook found that media coverage of her research was wide-ranging. “[M]edia attention tends to increase my visibility as a scholar to a broader community. Some prospective graduate students who have since contacted me knew of my research because of its appearance in the news. Additionally, the media attention to my research helped initiate conversations with other scholars around the world who had found similar (and sometimes different) things in their own research.” 

“My recent media exposure forces me to ensure that my research is accessible to a wide audience,” said Kris Marsh, an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland. Marsh has received a good deal of media attention and has been referred to the media by the ASA for her expertise on the black middle class and demography. “It is refreshing when non-academics contact me, requesting to read more of my work and other sociological literature. I am now more cognizant than ever that various people are engaging with my research. I try to satisfy my various audiences with language that can be understood by the public.”

Unexpected Consequences

Being interviewed by the media was not the end of the story for Faris and Van Hook. “I think there was also an equally significant consequence, which was that I learned very directly what people really care about,” said Faris. “I know that for millions of Americans, bullying events are not data to be analyzed but painful times they or their kids or their friends experience, but it takes on a new meaning when you are inundated with letters and e-mails from strangers whose children are tormented in some cases, to the point of suicide. Many said that our research helped them understand the underlying processes that led to such tragedies.”

“I found the experience to be incredibly helpful for thinking through the meaning and limitations of our research findings,” said Van Hook, who discovered that despite trying to clearly state the facts of the research, things could easily be misconstrued. “I found it very important to try to control the message; however, I noticed the appearance of headlines all over the web that suggested my study found that junk food doesn’t lead to child obesity. This was misleading because we did not examine children’s food consumption. Rather, we found that attending a school that sold competitive foods was not associated with increases in obesity.”

In the end, these sociologists felt that it is important to try to get the message to the public. “In our case, the media came to us after the ASA did a press release, but I hope researchers do not wait for journalists to find them and are instead proactive about getting their research out there,” said Faris, “because it’s important to educate the public about what we do.”

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