Academics in Mass Media “Only those who exaggerate get noticed”

Out of the lab and into the spotlight: scientists and academics are increasingly looking for ways to raise their public profile. Why this should be the case was revealed to media studies expert Dr Beatrice Dernbach by a number of well-known researchers during interviews she conducted for her book “Vom Elfenbeinturm ins Rampenlicht. Prominente Wissenschaftler in populären Massenmedien” (i.e. From the Ivory Tower into the Limelight. Prominent Academics in Popular Mass Media).

Media studies expert Dr Beatrice Dernbach; © Photo: Wilfried Wittern Media studies expert Dr Beatrice Dernbach | © Photo: Wilfried Wittern Dr Dernbach, what is driving German academics out of their ivory towers and into the limelight?

Almost all the people I talked to explained that they believe they have a duty as an academic to conduct research on behalf of society and to pass on their knowledge. It is obvious that this cannot happen only via academic journals.

How do scientists and academics attract attention to themselves?

One way, for example, is to summarize a study in a way that is appealing to the media. Prominent academics such as the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer and the historian Michael Wolffsohn confirmed this: anyone who does not exaggerate will not be noticed by the media. And vice versa – a person who is able to present a topic in a highly concise and somewhat exaggerated form will become the darling of the media.

Once an academic has made it into the mass media spotlight, what will be the consequences for him or her?

Entering the media spotlight is a double-edged sword for academics. On the one hand, they of course enjoy the attention. All 14 people I spoke to also said, however, that young academics should be cautious about having their faces shown to the public too often in popular media. In certain circumstances this can be counterproductive when they come to apply for higher-level academic posts. At any age, it is not the done thing to comment on every conceivable issue, as otherwise people will say “Oh God, not him again – he seems to have an opinion on everything”.

In the introduction to your book, you explain that academics in Germany are more hesitant about cooperating with the mass media than those in other countries. How are things done elsewhere?

From comparative studies such as that conducted by Hans Peter Peters from Forschungszentrum Jülich, and from discussions with academics who have spent time abroad, it is clear that the standing enjoyed by academics in other countries, especially in the USA, is quite different. For a start, academic literature in the US never reaches such an abstract level as German-language publications do. In Germany, it is still considered an insult to describe a scientist as “popular”. In the US, communicating science appears to be taken more for granted. It is not frowned upon to approach popular media with a provocative thesis. Anyone in the US who has not featured on the science pages of the New York Times will not be noticed.

How long has there been a trend among academics in Germany to seek greater public attention?

For around 20 years. The major academic institutions in Germany have launched initiatives such as Public Understanding of Science and Humanities (PUSH) and Wissenschaft im Dialog. Academics have recognized that they need to coordinate communication to a greater extent and work out ways of bringing science into the public arena.

What does this mean for the individual academic?

There is increasing pressure on academics to present themselves to the outside world. This is also something that all my interview partners had noticed: the allocation of funding depends on whether a particular discipline or subject happens to be en vogue. This was especially visible in the case of climate research. Even in the academic world there are trends and fashions, and decision-makers are certainly not immune from the pressure to observe them.

Apropos fashions – as far as you are aware, is there any one discipline that is more popular among readers/viewers than others?

According to the rankings I have quoted, there is no doubt that academics in the fields of the humanities, cultural and social sciences are regarded as the authorities on many topics. I am currently in the process of studying the reporting on Fukushima. It would appear that nuclear physicists are brought in to explain the technical aspects, yet the question of “What does this mean for society” tends to be answered by scholars from the humanities and cultural sciences. Opinion surveys show that citizens in Europe are very interested in technical and scientific topics such as nuclear energy, yet the number of those who actively engage with these issues is very small. In other words, people are curious to learn about the technical aspects, yet are not willing to explore them in detail – because that means hard work and is complicated.

So that’s why viewers love academics who appear on television as experts and quickly answer all questions in a generally comprehensible manner?

Yes. Science shows on German television such as Quarks & Co. and Abenteuer Forschung are successful thanks to the personalities of their presenters, such as the physicist Ranga Yogeshwar or the astrophysicist Harald Lesch. They have a gift – they can be entertaining and can communicate things in a minute and a half, things that others would take at least ten minutes to explain, and which even then nobody would have understood. They are naturally talented. But you cannot expect all academics to be able to do this sort of job.

What retrospective influence is the trend towards medialization having on the academic world?

Some academics may as a result choose their research subjects according to their marketability, though that is pure speculation. I would also not view this only as negative. If academics are supposed to be there for society, they must also address the questions which are discussed in society. To then accuse science of populism would be schizophrenic. Although science must initially be unbiased and free from external interests, it also cannot be entirely indifferent to the topics which are currently relevant in social, political and economic terms.

What do academics say about their experiences with journalists?

All academics gave a unanimous response to the question about how they view journalists – namely that they find it particularly annoying if a lot of time is wasted during an interview because a journalist is not properly prepared.

Dr Beatrice Dernbach is a professor of journalism theory and practice at Bremen University of Applied Sciences and director of the Institute of Science Communication. For her book “Vom Elfenbeinturm ins Rampenlicht. Prominente Wissenschaftler in populären Massenmedien” (Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2012), she conducted interviews with 14 prominent German academics from different disciplines. In the interviews, they recall the events that brought them media attention and talk about their experiences in the media spotlight.