Author: Samantha McCann

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 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.

When “Bragging” is a Good Thing

A foundational part of the OpEd Project curriculum (as well as the Public Voices fellowship curriculum, the year-long program that provides scholars across all disciplines with the resources, support and skills needed in order to dramatically increase their visibility and influence as thought leaders) centers around the idea of expertise. When are we experts? Are we experts in anything? What defines expertise? For an idea to have maximum effect, the audience needs to know that you’re qualified in the topic. But before even that can happen, you have to believe that you’re qualified.

expert-button_forweb-e1345329354880In a game called “Peak Credibility” during the public seminar, the moderators had us go around and say “I am an expert in _____ because ____.” The first blank could be as broadly or narrowly defined as we wanted–“I’m an expert in writing,” “I’m am expert in travel writing,” “I’m an expert in travel writing about Africa”–but whatever expertise you claimed had to be backed up with evidence in the latter blank. For example, “I’m an expert in travel writing about Africa because I’ve been to 10 African countries and have been published in numerous outlets.”

My group had a hard time owning their expertise. One particular thing that seemed hard for many was dropping in big name awards, companies, employers, or publications. At the OpEd Project, we call these big names “Shiny Baubles.” They’re meant to stop you in your tracks, like when you show off a diamond ring, eliciting “oohs.” The phrase originally derives from World of Warcraft: shiny baubles are a “fishing lure available to players” that “increase fishing skill for a limited time.” So essentially, they’re a booster that will make you more effective. This can be attending a prestigious university, working for/with a well-known public figure, or having experience at a top company or institution; they’re names that grab your audiences attention. One woman omitted Yale when mentioning where she got her graduate degree; another failed to mentioned big-name U.S. senators for whom she had been chief of staff. Almost all the participants, myself included, agreed that such name-dropping of these shiny baubles was “bragging”–not a good thing, we said. (more…)

Reflections from a Public Seminar

Ready to go.

Last Saturday, I attended my first OpEd Project event, a public seminar in Washington D.C. The room was full of bioethicists, lawyers, policy wonks, land rights activists, reproductive rights advocates, and journalists. Many may have expected to receive a training in how to make effective pitches to editors, use more accessible language in their writing, and receive a list of connections for future journalistic endeavors.

What we received instead was a 7-hour training in thought leadership. We got the practical info as well–structuring pieces, how to pitch, etc.–but the real meat was in the morning session.

It’s impossible to capture to the energy, the excitement, and the empowerment that happened in that room. I hesitate to use the phrase “life-changing” because people use it these days to describe burritos or slices of pizza. But this workshop taught a group of smart, talented people how to value their ideas, something that is truly invaluable.

I recounted the big takeaways to a close friend the next day. “I have shivers,” she said. “I have shivers and feel empowered to change the world and I’m living this secondhand in a five-minute recap.”

We struggled to find the answers to questions like “What are you an expert in?” “Is there a difference between being an expert and having expertise in something?” We debated whether we have a duty to contribute to the public forum when we have knowledge that might be of public value. We asked ourselves why we hesitated to consider ourselves experts and share our knowledge when others so readily volunteer information. We thought about what we know as individuals, how we think about what we know, and what our responsibility is when we know something. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring these ideas in more depth on this blog, sharing the wealth of knowledge offered by the room’s teachers and participants that day. 

If a burrito can be described as life-changing, than this seminar truly was world-altering. I can’t wait to see the op-eds (and beyond) that come out of this group. 

Write the Draft

A great quote from Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life was just brought to my attention:

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

I’ve often said to friends that the thing about writing I’m best at is Facebooking and cleaning my apartment. Getting those ideas down initially is, to use the most trite and most apt of metaphors, pulling teeth. When you value prose (or battle perfectionist tendencies), it can be hard to get the words down because your first take will usually be…messy. Verbs will be weak, characters undeveloped, “aha!” moments more “ah…hmm…?” That can be hard to accept.

But the breakthroughs come, eventually, sometimes while you’re writing, sometimes while you’re dusting. Even if you write the perfect paragraph in the middle of your essay first and work out from there, or fumble your way through an outline with indecipherable talking points and excessive bullets, you got your idea out there.

Write it down. It won’t always be perfect at first, it might not be perfect in the end. But it’s not the perfection that matters; it’s the contribution to the conversation. You can fix the verbs later.

Female Journalists: “Leave My Body Out Of It”

Guest Post by Samantha McCann

The Op-Ed Project aims to expand the diversity of voices that are heard in the broader public forum, to include the best ideas, regardless of where they come from. Currently, the majority of voices that we hear on op-ed pages come largely from one slice of our society: mostly males, mostly caucasian.

Journalist Amy Wallace published an op-ed in the New York Times last week on why this might be the case. [To be clear, the Op-Ed Project did not facilitate this piece.] In the op-ed, “Life as a Female Journalist: Hot or Not?“, Wallace addresses the unique attacks and criticism faced by female journalists. Regardless of the topic on which they write, Wallace argues, women journalists find themselves consistently fending off attacks not on the merit of their ideas, but rather on their physical appearance.

Wallace gives an example of the kind of attacks she’s talking about, this one in response to an article she wrote on the anti-vaccine movement [emphasis mine]:

In online comments and over email, I was called a prostitute and the C-word…sent me an essay titled, “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine”…implied that my subject had slipped me a date-rape drug…Photoshopped my head onto the body of a woman in a strapless dress who sat next to Dr. Offit at a festive dinner table. The main course? A human baby.

Her piece was a continuation of the discussion started by Amanda Hess, whose article “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” addressed harassment of women online by anonymous trollers. Wallace focused more on harassment of female journalists, not by anonymous internet users, but attacks by well-established organizations. In this CNN clip, in which Brian Stelter interviews Hess and Wallace about their pieces, Wallace notes that “…When we see that these things happen with people from named organizations standing behind them, as if to say this is legitimate public discourse, this is okay, this is funny, that’s really disturbing.” (more…)