The Political Science Professor and the Media

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Political News Tuesday, December 22, 2015 View Count = 3284

The Political Science Professor and the Media

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The Political Science Professor and the Media” is written by Anna Esselment from the University of Waterloo. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Anna Esselment and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

The 2015 election was when I truly committed to public commentary. For many years the thought of a journalist calling me for observations on some aspect of Canadian politics struck me with fear. I was worried about sounding incompetent by missing a key fact, or saying something offhand that would end up in print or on TV. I’m not alone among my academic colleagues reluctant to immerse ourselves in public discourse. Where we tend to be long winded, providing context and nuance to our thoughts and arguments, the media require succinct and snappy analysis. Not the greatest strength of most scholars. 

Three factors changed my mind about engaging with the media this time around. The first is that 75% of commentary in Canada is from a male perspective. This is according to Informed Opinions, a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging women to offer their analysis and views on subjects within their area of expertise. As a female scholar, I feel an obligation to help shift this disparity. Second, the advent of digital communication technologies and a 24-hour news cycle requires thoughtful insight to balance what is on offer from politicians and political insiders who, in my view, are more than happy to fill the airwaves and blogospheres with what is primarily partisan spin. Persuading the public in opinion formation is a legitimate endeavour, but one that should be countered with objective understanding from academics. The final factor is my sense of responsibility to the wider public. We know that many Canadians have little knowledge or interest in politics. Part of my job, both inside and outside the classroom, is to extend knowledge and spark interest in Canadian politics, even if it can be a struggle to explain a complex issue in an accessible way. Through media commentary we can extend the democratic conversation that is integral to an engaged and informed citizenry.

There are obvious challenges to what I have set out above. The broadcaster’s short interview timeframe sets a trap for making obvious and banal observations. I noted several times during the campaign that it was a “tight three way race.” I’m not sure a PhD was a prerequisite for that sort of analysis. Another issue is the time required for media interviews. I, for one, will not go into an interview unprepared. I request questions in advance, consider them carefully, and set out the points I want to deliver to Canadians on that subject. Relatedly, some interviews require that you be in a studio. Thus travel and set-up time must be considered. The time requirement has a third aspect: once you have appeared on TV or radio, and the producers happen to like you, you can be inundated with requests to appear again. While the opportunities to contribute to the public debate are frequent, being able to do so without it having a deleterious effect on your time with students or on your own scholarship is a significant consideration. We also shouldn’t be naïve enough to think that our commentary will somehow rise above the fray and influence public opinion or policy making. With thousands of voices, ours is only one of many. But unlike our books or journal articles, often read by only a handful of fellow academics, media reach is exponentially wider. 

These challenges aside, I have learned a few things about the relationship between the professor and the media. I have found that journalists are not generally combative or adversarial but are instead interested in your insight and expertise to help their audiences understand a political issue or ­problem. Print journalists in particular will take time to talk with you, ask you questions, and think about your explanations on the subject about which they are writing, and solid, professional connections can result. Accommodations regarding the time requirement can also be made. Methods of communication are such that giving an interview over FaceTime or Skype, from the comfort of your own home or office, is increasingly popular. At the same time we must remember that choosing when to engage in public commentary, and how, remains our own. We do not owe anything to the producers of 24-hour networks or radio programs and should never feel pressured to comment on areas outside our expertise. Opinion editorials, for example, are often better venues for scholars to set out an analysis in a way that allows for nuance and context. 

My media experiences during the 2015 campaign have shown me that I can simplify, explain, and help Canadians understand issues of politics. I may occasionally miss key facts, and I often wish I could rephrase an answer, but the democratic conversation is what matters. Consequently we should, as scholars, be keen contributors. 

annn-esselment-227x315Anna Esselment is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. Esselment has published on issues of federalism and intergovernmental relations, political marketing, and permanent campaigning in Canada. Her most recent publications include “The Governing Party and the Permanent Campaign” in Political Communication in Canada (UBC Press, 2014) and “Designing Campaign Platforms,” The Informed Citizens’ Guide to Elections: Electioneering Based on the Rule of Law, Special Issue, Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law (2015).

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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