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Dance monkey! Dance! Dance!

September 21st, 2007

Dr Petra

This is quite a lengthy blog so you might want to get yourself a cuppa or a nice glass of wine before settling in for the long haul.

As you hopefully know I’m very much in favour of educators and academics working with the media. I’ve been very vocal working with both academics and journalists to improve our working relationship and encourage good practice.

But occasionally I have a ‘why do I bother?’ moment, and that usually happens when I’ve had dealings with TV companies. Although it can be exasperating working with print media and radio it doesn’t reach the levels of personal distress that TV causes.

A couple of recent incidents have really upset me, and due to some other writers being brave enough to speak out on this topic I’m going to share my experiences too.

Performing monkey story #1

I was asked by a television company to become the resident agony aunt for a morning show. I explained I couldn’t work on Monday or Tuesday mornings, and they said that was fine. I outlined my skills and professional boundaries and they seemed okay with this. I also asked if anyone else was being considered and was told no. All seemed positive and as advice giving is something I love doing I was keen to get started. I met with a researcher and producer and we went through some of the things I could offer and ways to help viewers with their problems. During the discussion I mentioned I’d had a baby recently and wanted to the filming schedule so I could sort out childcare. It was then they revealed filming could only take place on Tuesdays, although I’d previously made clear I couldn’t do that. Once I explained this they couldn’t get me out the door quick enough. As I left the producer commented on my large handbag and said ‘it’s a shame when you have a baby isn’t it? I bet you used to wear nice clothes and have nice things’. Cue me leaving feeling fat, frumpy and knowing I’d had my time wasted but they’d had a nice lot of free information. And this from a team who were planning a programme supposed to advise an audience largely made up of mums.

Performing monkey story #2

A new series was being planned giving people advice on how to overcome problems with their lives. A team of psychologists were required. I was approached to screen test along with a few other people. Before attending the test I referred them to the about me and research pages of my site (plus this blog) so they could get an idea about the kind of work I do. I suggested these could inform any questions they might have which we could cover during the screen test.

When I arrived for filming I had to sit on a high stool which was uncomfortable and almost impossible to climb onto. I had to perch on it and tell them ‘something about me’. It was obvious they’d not bothered to read anything in advance and didn’t understand that not all psychologists are therapists. I outlined how I teach postgraduates in international health care (and what that meant), how my research is on sex and relationships issues (and what those were), and how I apply that work via public education and media advice giving. There were two TV researchers present and one then asked me in a bored voice ‘it sounds like your work is very far removed from the public, do you actually help anyone?’ I explained how the teaching work improves other medics’ performance, my research has involved speaking to thousands of people about their sex lives, and my education and advice giving means helping people find solutions to problems or sources of advice in face-to-face, radio or online settings. They pressed on ‘yes, but it’s not very real is it?’. I thought back to ‘real’ parts of my work that had affected me – babies who were HIV positive, stroke survivors who’d been left by a partner, teenage prostitutes, people run out of their villages for being gay, and countless folk with fears about their sexual health and performance. I got a message from the TV company weeks after the screen test saying I’d looked okay but wasn’t ‘suitable’ for this venture. I had the impression if I’d guaranteed to ‘fix’ people I’d have got the position.

Sadly I’m not alone. I’ve been sharing stories with other academics, experts and writers about their experiences with TV companies as part of media training I’ve been running. While there have been some positive stories a lot of them are pretty grim and make it fairly obvious why many people don’t want to work with the media.

Here are some other examples (used here with permission but anonymised to protect individuals).

Professor A, a woman with over 30 years research and teaching experience and a savvy and entertaining communicator was asked to appear as a talking head on a programme. When she turned up for filming she overheard the producer berate one of their colleagues with ‘who the hell is she? I wanted someone young and attractive!’ Although they filmed her, she never appeared in the final programme.

Dr B, a black medic was invited to be a ‘tv doc’ for a forthcoming daytime show. They had been approached via email and had a lot of positive indications they were already chosen for the role, all they had to do was screen test but that was really a formality. When they arrived at the TV company’s offices a staff member rushed out to greet them. However rather than approaching Dr B they enthusiastically shook hands with a young white woman sitting in reception. ‘Dr B how lovely to meet you! We love your work and can’t wait to work with you’. The woman explained she wasn’t Dr B then Dr B introduced themselves. The staff member went bright red, stammered something about ‘not recognising’ Dr B. The screen test went ahead and Dr B felt it went well. They never heard from the company again, despite emailing them to ask first about progress and latterly for feedback. The tv doc was appointed though – they were less qualified than Dr B, but they were white.

Miss C a school nurse was invited onto a breakfast news programme. She was told she would be talking about the need to provide young people with access to health information within schools. In the studio she discovered another guest was on with her, and live on air she found out the interview focus had changed from being about general health to providing contraception advice to teenagers. The other guest was from a religious group against sex education in schools. Both the guest and the presenters rounded on Miss C accusing her of encouraging risky behaviour in children.

Cory Silverberg
has also just highlighted a media run-in of sex writer Violet Blue explained here in her video blog ‘My brush with the Tyra Banks show’ (this is about 10 minutes long). It’s a fantastically explained and very depressing account of how the media treats its talent.

Frequently when academics, writers and educators criticise the media we’re told that it’s our fault for not being charismatic, not communicating complex ideas effectively, or not understanding how the media works. However, many of the problems people experience working with the media – particularly TV – are nothing to do with their skills, media experience or understanding. Being ‘too old’ or not ‘televisual’ are things we’ve got no control over. And we’re never going to perform at our best if we’re not given questions in advance, if we’re made to feel we’re somehow lacking, when questions or content change midway through filming, or we’re suddenly asked to do something that makes us look unprofessional (such as dress up in a rubber nurses outfit as one therapist friend of mine was invited to do just before filming what she thought was a serious piece about male sexual dysfunction).

Those experienced with media work continue to do so with the understanding of these occupational hazards, although it’s fair to say we all really hate them when they happen. It can certainly shake your confidence and often puts you off doing media work for a while, sometimes forever. There are also huge numbers of professionals who have one go with the media, are made to feel bad, and never do it again. All of this means the public miss out.

While media training for academics and health professionals can help, very often it focuses on telling you how to manage discussing your own research, whereas often the media wants you to debate a general issue. Media training tends to present journalists as busy and important with your job is to deliver a message to them quickly and comprehensively. It doesn’t teach you how to cope when you’re made to feel too old, too unattractive, too ethnic or not adequately qualified by someone who clearly has absolutely no clue about what you do and no interest in your values, ethics or self esteem.

Obviously as we’re supposed to work with the media as part of our ‘science communication’ remit most media trainers don’t let on how at its worst encounters with the media can make you feel like shit – both personally and professionally. If they did people would be even more fearful of getting involved and even less likely to try. So instead you’re given a much more rosy view about the press meaning when you encounter a problem you’re likely to blame yourself for it. You’re stung twice – once by a bad media experience and again by assuming you caused the problem.

In the meantime very often journalists assume when we appear in the media it’s because we want to be famous. So we’re treated as though we’re lucky to have the chance to appear on TV rather than us just wanting to share information. Although there are many people who do want to get into the media to be famous or make money there are an equal number who want to communicate health or science messages and aren’t bothered about celebrity.

When you have a bad experience it’s very difficult to get support as people don’t often want to speak out. After all do you want to tell your colleagues that someone in TV thought you were an ugly old bat or underqualified? For academics in particular since there’s such strong discouragement from colleagues about working with the press if you do have any bad experiences their view is ‘I told you so’ or taken as further confirmation that you’re clearly unprofessional since you waste your time with journalists and even they don’t think you’re up to the job.

This is why we need joint training for journalists and educators, practitioners and writers so we get to hear what life’s like for journalists and they get to see things from our side. Without such opportunities journalists, particularly those working in TV, have no concept of the impact of dismissive or timewasting behaviour. And no concept of how this loses them the chance to work with many capable and qualified people.

We also need more people to be brave enough, like Violet Blue has, to speak out about poor treatment. It’s only when we start to notify the public and other journalists about these behind the scenes aspects of media that we might find the ‘talent’ is actually started to be treated as such.

In the meantime if you’re a journalist and would like to know how to work with experts more effectively click here. And if you’re a writer, academic, medic or educator and want some tips on media work click here.

I’ll continue to encourage others to work with the media, as well as inviting us to speak out on poor practice. Talking about these issues is empowering and can make it easier to work with the media again after one of those ‘why am I doing this?’ days.

I’m feeling loads better already!

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