Should Criminologists speak to the news media?

Depending on lots of factors (including your specialization, department/school, college or university, and the number and type of news media outlets where you live), academic criminologists may be asked by reporters, journalists, and other news media support personnel (like bookers) to provide commentary or analysis on crime and criminal justice related topics.

More specifically, news media organizations might contact criminologists for their insights about:

  • recent crimes; 
  • unusual crimes;
  • crime rates, especially violent crime and homicide;
  • criminal justice agency plans, actions, and responses;
  • police shootings and use-of-force issues;
  • crime rates, especially violent crime and homicide, during significant anniversaries;
  • sentencing;
  • the hiring of new criminal justice personnel, in particular leaders. 

To begin with, although all manner of news media exist, most of the reporters and journalists who interview criminologists typically work for either print or broadcast organizations. Likewise, there are lots of new media formats, including live interviews that take place in broadcast studios, and other situations where interviews are done including in your office, over the phone,  via e-mail, etc.. In the latter context, the reporter may only be interested in extracting a short quote or very small clip from the entire time that they talked with you (the source), to integrate into a  larger news story or news segment.

Meanwhile not only are there numerous types of news media organizations, but there are various kinds of reporters (e.g., general assignment, breaking news, and specialists). In big established news organizations, there will be highly specialized beats, including policing, courts, corrections, and juvenile justice. But in small town news outfits, the reporter covering the cops may also be the same one covering the local church happenings.

Print journalists, as opposed to broadcast reporters (e.g., radio and television) basically extract one or more quotes from sources to get their opinion, to round out the story they are working on, and to put some color in the narrative. Broadcast can either be live or taped segments and get a sound bite.

Over the past two decades, particularly among the large national news networks, there appears to be an increase in having subject matter experts (e.g., Criminologists) come to the studio for live segments. There is also considerable diversity in these settings too. 

Sometimes you are asked a appear on panel with one or more other experts and the host asks you and the other “guests” relevant questions, while the producer mixes up the visual component with some B roll footage (shots of an incident or similar ones under discussion). Alternatively, it’s you and the host and they pepper you with a bunch of predictable, but sometimes irrelevant, incendiary, or provocative questions.

There are also all various stages in the process of being interviewed including the initial inquiry or invitation, where the reporter or the production assistant may sus you out to gauge your subject matter expertise, willingness to participate in an interview, and your political leanings. For example, organizations like Fox News Network, most likely does not want to interview (or have on as guests on a show) Criminologists who have strong left leaning opinions. 

Sometimes the process of being interviewed is mediated by your university’s department of media relations. In this case the reporter contacts this office, asks them who would be best to talk about the particular subject, and then the media person at your institution of higher education contacts you. 

Likewise, in the case of a live broadcasts, occasionally you are given the questions that the host will ask beforehand, but more likely you are put on the spot. Your ability to sound less than a babbling idiot depends on your ability to think fast on your feet. It is also the time when the host asks you questions that are the most provocative and out of your subject matter expertise, including forcing you to take positions that are out of your comfort zone.

Disadvantages of doing news media interviews.

Many professors and instructional staff, regardless of the discipline, don’t like talking to the news media. 

And, there are lots of well-founded reasons why. To begin with responding to news media inquiries can be a major inconvenience and interruption.

For example, earlier in my career, I chose to ditch well laid out plans to make progress on a paper, grade exams or essays, etc., not to mention childcare contingencies, to be interviewed. Shortly after arriving driving the television studio, finding a parking space,  having make up applied, escorted to a studio, and having a mike attached to my suit jacket, I was told that there was breaking news and my services were no longer needed. 

Doing a good job may include  prep time, drive time, and waiting around time. This is time that could be better spent doing other more pressing and enjoyable things.. 

Interviews can also be exhausting. One day I did eight interviews in connection with the DC beltway sniper shootings starting at 8 am and ending at 11 pm. I could have said no at any point in time, but I thought that it was important to provide thoughtful commentary on this important local developing crime story. 

Professors and instructors may find news media inquiries to cost too much resources (especially time), and their public comments can lead to unwarranted criticism from people who read, listen to or watch their commentary in the news. 

Just like a consulting gig, many professors think that they should be paid for their efforts. After all someone other than a colleague, student, or journal editor is asking you for your expert opinion. But being paid for a news media interview is rarely the case.

Also, although your dean, provost and university president may like that fact that you are quoted by the news media, or appear on the news, but if your opinions are highly controversial or you seem foolish, you also run the risk of making  university personnel cringe every time you are on the news media. Your frequent appearances may also run the risk of fostering jealousy among some of your colleagues. 

Many professors and instructors worry that they will say something inaccurate, silly, or that their comments will be taken out of context and that this will negatively haunt them. This is more of a problem with broadcast news organizations. But if all reporters want is a short clip then there is less likelihood of this occurring.   

Likewise, because of the strange, novel, or unusual situation, many professors and instructional staff, may find being interviewed by the news media to be awkward situations and get unnecessarily nervous.

Finally, if you are commenting on a controversial subject, then be prepared for push back and maybe even hate mail. Earlier in my career I was on Bill O’Reilly and questioned the evidence upon which he claimed that there was an increase in crime in NYC. In principle, the producers liked this sort of thing because it added a little drama to the segment and they thrived on controversy. In the next 24 hours however, I got lots of e-mails, and phone messages calling me all sorts of names and questioning my authority. 

Thus, if you are too thin skinned then you might want to think twice about which news media outlets and formats you are willing to cooperate with, and what topics you prefer to act as a subject matter expert.

Advantages of serving as a news media source

There are numerous benefits acting as a source and being interviewed by the news media.

Talking with journalists about important aspects of crime and criminal justice can be  a way to break up the monotony of your day.

Speaking with the news media can and has been for me relatively interesting and mostly fun experiences.

Although professors and instructional staff who are interviewed by the news media are generally not paid for their time, occasionally there will be other benefits. Some years back, I once got a trip from Washington DC to NYC paid including two nights in a decent hotel and food. But in this day and age of shrinking newsroom budgets, not to mention the rise of Zoom, Teams, and FaceTime interviews this sort of arrangement rarely occurs.

Another advantage for professors is that talking with the news media generally counts as community service. Thus it’s important to keep track of these sorts of opportunities and to list it on your vita.

News media appearances may give you an opportunity to test some of your ideas with an audience beyond your students and colleagues. 

Also, as I’ve advised before, it’s important to periodically get out of your lane. Especially if this means trying something new or different.

Given the importance of the news media in shaping the publics’ and politicians’ ideas about crime and criminal justice, acting as a credible source for the news media is not only a way to see how this important actor works in their news gathering efforts, but it’s a way to correct things or to set the record straight about one or more subjects that you have expertise in.

Most importantly, your expertise in the fields of criminology and criminal justice, if properly conveyed by the news media can minimize sensationalism, biases, and oversimplification in the reporting process. 

How to optimize news media interviews for a positive experience?

Some criminologists are interviewed more frequently by the news media than others, and there are various reasons why this occurs. If this is something you aspire to do then not only must you have appropriate subject matter expertise, but it helps if you are articulate and reasonably accessible.

Given the fast-paced nature of most journalism, reporters often operate under tight deadlines. This means that you can’t unnecessarily postpone responding to news media inquiries and expect continued interest from the media professionals. Timeliness is crucial.

Also, once you agree to be interviewed, journalists and hosts will pose a range of questions related to criminology and criminal justice. Although you may be tempted to answer every question that may arise, it is advisable to politely decline when confronted with queries beyond your specific area of expertise. If circumstances permit, recommend another knowledgeable individual.

Although news media professionals may offer excuses, such as being on deadline, or make appeals to your ego, it’s important to remain within your expertise, or “staying in your lane,” is key.

Likewise, sometimes the questions you are asked appear to be designed to provoke extreme positions. Even if you are experienced in public speaking, it’s crucial to handle these types of inquiries with caution.

Over time, professors and instructors who work with the news media will gradually be able to identify reporters who are not only well-informed about the subject matter they are asking you questions about, reliable, and those genuinely interested in learning about the issues they inquire about, and those less invested. A useful strategy involves educating media personnel on the subject they’re investigating, as many are open to such discussions. Taking this approach enhances interactions with the media, fostering a more informed and productive dialogue. In the end, this process can contribute to better-informed decision-making by the public and politicians regarding crime and criminal justice.

Photo Credit

Photographer: Kristin Wolff

Title: interview