The Executive Officer’s Column
Public Information and ASA’s Giving Sociology Away
The “care and feeding” of the media are a central part of how ASA as a national social science society connects to larger publics. Although such outreach does not have the high profile of endeavors like the Annual Meeting or journal publishing, the ASA has invested considerable effort over the years in enhancing links to the news media to promote and advance sociology. In an “information age” that emphasizes communication, we take seriously our role in conveying the contributions and uses of sociology to as wide a public audience as possible. The ASA’s Public Information Office aims to do just that by promoting effective communication about sociology as a field and as a discipline to the press and the public.
In steady and deliberative ways, ASA has created a public information presence by communicating information about the Association and sociology to the media and by nurturing ongoing contacts with the press. Our activities take on various forms and styles. Targeted efforts are made to engage the press in issues of concern to ASA and events sponsored by ASA. The press is always invited to congressional briefings and other public affairs activities, and special materials (such as background information, fact sheets, and press releases) are prepared for journalists who attend. Over the past year, for example, the ASA has sought to raise public awareness of egregious cases involving violation of academic freedom and human rights of sociologists. How we get the message out—on the ASA homepage or on the newswire websites at www.newswise.com and www.eurekalert.com—goes hand-in-hand with what we say.
“Posting,” “pushing,” and “pitching,” are the strategies we invoke. While we realize that not everything that “goes out gets out,” the ASA’s Public Information Office has had considerable success with press releases generally and in particular on work published by ASA. A press release on several articles on families, parenting, and divorce in the April Issue of the American Sociological Review produced dozens of inquiries from and coverage by the media. The lead article “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” by Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz resulted in at least two major stories: “Sociologists Challenge Data on Gay Parents,” by Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times on April 27, 2001; and “A Rainbow of Differences in Gays’ Children,” by Erica Goode, New York Times on July 17, 2001. Similarly, the article “The Wage Penalty of Motherhood,” by Michelle J. Budig and Paula England, was featured in a commentary by Richard Morin in the Washington Post, May 20, 2001. A press release on an article by Steven Brint in the July issue of Sociology of Education resulted in more than 150 hits on the Newswise website, one of our favorite spots for “posting.”
Depending on the site location, the number of “prime” weekdays, and what else is “hot” in the news, the Annual Meeting also provides a great opportunity for members of the press to meet sociologists and report on their work. Several types of media opportunities are specifically developed to encourage coverage of sociology by the media, including interviews with sociologists, releases of new research findings, and media briefings on current research. Over the years, the Public Information Office has cultivated links to science writers and connected them to presenters at Annual Meeting events. Press releases on Annual Meeting activities (such as the presidential address, presentations, awards, and election results) are posted on newswires to stimulate coverage. Media briefings are also held at the Annual Meeting—one generating considerable interest in 1998 featured Barbara Reskin when The Realities of Affirmative Action in Employment was released by ASA. Similarly, a press briefing at the 2000 Annual Meeting on “Cyberspace and Society,” with Barry Wellman, Marc Smith, and Keith Hampton, resulted in dozens of inquiries and news stories around the world.
Typically, there is a solid turnout of reporters, about 20-30, covering the ASA Annual Meeting. In Anaheim this year, even with a lower media presence, there were newspaper articles, interviews, and wire reports featuring a wide number of papers as well as the Presidential Address of Doug Massey. For example, Steve Ortiz of Oregon State University, who presented a paper entitled “When Sports Heroes Stumble: Stress and Coping Responses to Extramarital Relationships Among Wives of Professional Athletes” at a panel on August 20, gave 15 radio interviews worldwide. His paper was the subject of about two dozen articles in newspapers around the world.
In addition to initiatives pursued by ASA to inform the press on news, events, or publications, the Public Information Office assists the media by providing good “customer service” in handling routine inquiries. Members of the press frequently contact ASA for referrals to sociologists working on particular issues. Most often, these requests involve identifying a few sociologists with expertise in a specialized area. The requests for expert advice encompass a wide range of topics including, for example, how community and family are crucial to emotional and physical well-being or, more recently, how events involving terror have affected our society. Members of the media come from a wide variety of sources—including all the major broadcast networks, national and local newspapers, periodicals, and freelance reporters around the nation. Although providing this assistance is routine, making connections to knowledgeable sociologists and responding quickly to meet rapid deadlines require research skill, technological know-how, and considerable creativity and good judgment. ASA staff is exemplary in that regard.
The invisibility of much of this work to ASA members is part of what motivates this “Open Window” column. Projecting a “face” for sociology without being “in your face” is an art and a science. We take seriously this mission as we work to give sociology away!—Felice J. Levine