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What Is the Role of the Media in Social Science?

  • Wed, May 30 2007
    • 2007 Fellows

On April 29th, 2007, the American Academy of Political and Social Science inducted new Fellows for 2007, including: Claudia Goldin, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, Robert Keohane, Professor of International Affairs, Princeton University, Robert J. Sampson, Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, and Shelley Taylor, Professor of Psychology at UCLA. After the induction, the floor was opened for a Q&A session with Fellows. Following are excerpts from that Q&A session.

Cass Dorius, AAPSS Graduate Fellow, Department of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University: What is the role of media in social science and what it should be? How important is it to communicate your research findings to the media?

Shelley Taylor: I think the media are very important as vehicles for getting our findings out to the general public and I think that their role has improved dramatically over the last few decades. The very first question that I was ever asked by a reporter from The Boston Globe was if I could please comment on why the gorilla costume was the most popular costume at Halloween. And I swallowed hard, several times, and I tried to be polite. But the nature of the questions, the degree to which fact-checking takes place, the sophistication of the people who interview you now is head and shoulders above what it was 30-some-odd years ago. And so, despite the fact that many of us are still answering gorilla costume questions, I think we can safely say that the media have adopted a more responsible attitude toward representing social policy. That said, I think there’s much farther that we can go. I think that it’s important for social scientists generally to make their findings readily available to the media. I think some fields have done a better job of that than psychologists. For example, in my field very few people do press releases. Very few people actually try to get the implications of their findings out there and one of the things I’ve been agitating for is to try to get my students and my fellow faculty members to write press releases when they have notable findings so that we can tell the story the way we want to tell it. Because if you don’t tell the story the way you want it to be told, you’re not going to hear it back the way you want to hear it.

Robert Sampson: I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude about the media. I think they have become more responsible, but I think there are certain structural limitations in terms of what can be presented. One usually has to deal with the notion of the “individual case” or story, which is really how the news is often reported. Even the best reporting outlets, even if you take the New York Times, I can guarantee you almost any story will start out telling the portrait of an individual person. And everything has to come within that framework, which oftentimes is not the way that social science evidence should be interpreted or reported. I also think that no matter how much we put our research out to the media, it’s always going to be selectively used. If some side views it as consistent with their story, it will be used in that way; if it’s not, it will be ignored. I think organizations that provide a synthesis of findings for the media to use are actually a very good idea—organizations that don’t just release findings to the newspapers but actually provide cogent interpretations of research studies. I’d like to see more of that.

Robert Keohane: I would just contrast, through my own experience, the American media with the foreign media. The American media have never shown any interest in my work, whatsoever. The view seems to be that anybody--especially among lawyers, politicians, business executives--has a more sophisticated view on world politics than professional students of world politics. So, for example, in the run up to the Iraq War we had a petition by several hundred international relations specialists about the war being a bad idea and nobody would report it. It was simply not reported, a zero, despite some effort by some people to make it reported. The contrast is the foreign media. I have had long interviews in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Danish, and Dutch press, but never in the United States.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.