NYT’s Jodi Kantor: How to Be an Expert Source

In this month’s Media Gatekeeper call, leaders at the OpEd Project and over 75 Public Voices Fellows from across the nation at institutions like Yale, Northwestern, Dartmouth, and Texas Woman’s University, dialed in to speak with the New York Times’ Jodi Kantor. Kantor began her journalism career by dropping out of Harvard Law School to join Slate.com in 1998. Four years later she became the Arts & Leisure editor of the New York Times, the youngest person in memory to edit a section of the newspaper.

During the call, Kantor had lots of great advice about how to become an expert source. We know from the OpEd Project’s 2012 Byline Report that men are more likely to be cited as experts in almost all age categories.

Kantor had some great tips about how to make your voice be heard. One of her biggest tips? “Don’t be shy.”

“There is nothing journalists love more than getting a note from someone smart,” Kantor said. If there is a journalist you like, whose work you’re familiar with, get their email address and send them a note. Journalists working a beat want to hear from someone new, want someone new in their Rolodex with a different take on an issue. It can be as simple as “Dear X, I enjoy your work. I work in the field of X and something my colleagues and I have been talking about lately is X, something that has been unexplored so far in the media.” These kind of reader responses are helpful to journalists and to fields alike, as it can bring new issues to light, not to mention new expert sources.

Kantor added a note about the tone: don’t email journalists just to tell them they’re wrong. If you have criticisms, frame it in a way that signals “I’m somebody who can help you multiply your field of vision so that you can see multiple angles.” Make sure you make clear that you want to help the field and not just take jabs–starting off with a critique is a bad way to start the relationship.

Kantor also discussed the art of giving a quote. Some academics have great difficulty in giving quotes to journalists. The way may top journalists write stories, Kantor noted, is to interview 80 experts, with usually only 3 expert quotes making it into the final story. Her advice on how to be one of those three? “Be interesting.”

“I think there’s an anxiety on behalf of those sources that their ideas won’t be represented with sufficient complexity in the  newspaper,” she said. “But it’s important to understand our general readership: we want this to be a paper an 8th or 9th grader with good reading comprehension can read. Making things accessible is a real public service. It’s not because we don’t care about the idea.”

At the OpEd Project, we ask who narrates the world? Is your voice being heard? Kantor’s advice shows how to amplify your voice and contribute to the conversation. The larger effects of being cited in a newspaper or on TV shouldn’t be underestimated, as made evident in a widely-cited 2001 Harvard Business Review article, “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion,” by Robert B. Cialdini:

When the news media present an acknowledged expert’s views on a topic, the effect on public opinion is dramatic. A single expert-opinion news story in the New York Times is associated with a 2% shift in public opinion nationwide, according to a 1993 study described in the Public Opinion Quarterly. And researchers writing in the American Political Science Review in 1987 found that when the expert’s view was aired on national television, public opinion shifted as much as 4%.

Now that’s thought leadership with a serious public impact–just what the OpEd Project is all about.

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