press briefings and policy Reports
press briefing with a bunch of very sharp journalists. I love this part of my job, though I'm inevitably way more confident in the research than I am in my ability to convey it to others. Today it was the release of a Sentencing Project report, coauthored with Sarah Shannon and Jeff Manza, where we offer some new numbers on the people affected by U.S. felon voting restrictions.
Academics often feel tension between their research and public outreach activities, but the two can work hand in hand. A few suggestions when writing a report such as this one:
- Embrace description. To a much greater extent than academic audiences, journalists and their readers value our ability as social scientists to provide basic social facts about the world. We still sneak in a little theory and analysis in our reports, of course, which provides much-needed context for the data we present.
- Vet your methods. If your report is not peer-reviewed, it is critical to be able to point to your peer-reviewed articles applying the same methods to the same data that you will be presenting publicly. Good journalists care about the academic integrity of the work they write about (and some will dig deep into the methods sections of those articles). At the outset, we could easily identify some particularly surprising and, hence, controversial numbers (sorry, Florida) and we did all we could to double- and triple-check them.
- Insist on caveats -- but you don't need to lead with them. Responsible social scientists are transparent about potential problems with their data or analysis, but a high "caveat to content ratio" will kill a press release. Editing this report we ultimately moved some caveats from the first page to the last -- but we would not have cut them completely.
- Choose partners who respect research. Marc Mauer and the Sentencing Project have earned a great reputation for their non-partisan reform work. While some organizations are more oriented to deadlines or to spin than to research integrity, Marc and his colleagues were remarkably patient and understanding about our need to get it right before going public.
- Teach! Whenever I'm in doubt about how to present something to journalists or policy folks, I try to think about how I'd teach it. For example, Sarah, Jeff, and I realized that the felon voting story was increasingly "spatial as well as racial." So, we started doing cartograms like the one above to visually represent the concentration of disenfranchisement in the Southeast (arguing at length about whether it was appropriate to refer to certain states as "engorged"). We still present plain vanilla charts, of course, but the cartograms and our slider maps tested especially well in my lectures this spring, with students quickly picking up the story behind the numbers.
- Tough it out. Backlash is always a possibility, with people sending nasty comments or emails about everything from your research to your haircut -- and they aren't always as polite as our academic critics. Sometimes this is because the reporter got something wrong or because you didn't express something precisely, but mostly it is because they just disagree with the implications of your work. That's just part of the deal, I think. If you've done the work in good faith and to the best of your ability, your career and your ego will survive the criticism.
- Don't worry about cite count. To the extent that stories are written, some mention names and others won't make any attribution. Either way is just fine with me. We pick up certain research projects because we'd like to encourage a public conversation about them -- not to see our names in the paper. Often, I'll only know they're using my work because I recognize a number or two that came out of our shop.