How many media scholars have been watching what is currently unfolding in the United States and Europe and commented to themselves (and others), “This is what we have been warning people about in our field for decades”?
But have we?
Yes, there have been thousands of articles on the problematic relationship between (to take but one example) the political economy of commercial media and racism, sexism, and politics. We have discussed these issues in classes, seminars, and public lectures. Yet, as is typical for academia, we (and I mean that as a collective “we”) have done a poor job of taking that avalanche of material and converting it into arguments accessible to the broader population.
I realize, of course, that the very word “accessible” is loaded—that we are perhaps venturing into the dreaded “dumbing down” territory, where the seriousness of academic labor and rigor is abandoned in favor of the dirty notion of being “popular.” It is one of the great ironies of the broadly-defined field of Media and Communications Studies that we, on the one hand, are constantly having to defend our turf from accusations of academic frivolity, while on the other refusing to take part in the production of popular content we claim (in our own defense) has social and political power.
I am someone who feels that, when given the chance, it is incumbent upon me to try and reach out to publics outside of my conventional academic sphere. For me, that usually takes the form of opinion pieces written in mainstream newspapers or online publications, as well as appearances and interviews in the media. I am also someone who is willing to engage via social media. These are, of course, personal choices, but the more I speak out publicly on issues that I feel are related to imbalances in power in society, the more I feel the need to continue to do so.
I realize that this is not the case for many of my colleagues around the world starting out in their academic careers, or those working in countries where the very institution of higher education is under attack from those who feel that knowledge and critical thinking are threats to their positions of authority. As an academic in Sweden (although American by birth), however, I happen to work from a position of relative privilege.
So, in concrete terms, I tend to write about issues that are of particular importance to me, and about which I feel I can say something of value. While I don’t always link to academic articles or make reference to scholars, the vast majority of my Opinion pieces are rooted in what I have been reading and writing about since I began my academic career as a Ph.D. student 20 years ago. Just this week, for example, I wrote a piece for The Guardian (in the UK) about the rise of “fake” Muslim attacks such as Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “Bowling Green Massacre.” Then, just 24 hours after the piece was published, Donald Trump spoke of a fictitious terror incident in Sweden. I was contacted by the editors of The Guardian, and asked if I would be willing to write a second piece. I agreed. Am I worried about dilution or over-exposure? That fear disappeared when I realized that these articles were excellent vehicles for public discussion, and that the benefits outweighed the costs.
Blow-back from the public for these pieces is common. That comes with the territory. But, it is worth saying that the negative feedback a white, male scholar receives is only a fraction of what is dished out to women and/or non-white writers, which can be brutal and scary. When I wrote about the need for feminism in politics, or about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s stand against racism, there were a lot of comments on the websites, but very few people contacted me directly via email or on Twitter. That relative lack of harassment is also privilege that we cannot (and should not) forget.
So, what am I saying here? At a basic level, I am saying that public engagement is important. It is good. I get a lot out of it. I am not saying, however, that it is (or should be) for everyone. I have picked a form (opinion pieces) that I have become comfortable with. I have established a relationship with a few editors, and have learned how to distill my ideas down into 600-1000 words. The pieces are also a nice compliment to academic writing, which has its own particular demands.
It takes some time, and it takes a fair number of rejection emails (or no responses at all), but the effort, for me, is worth it.