When U.S. Senator Tim Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage last month, television reporters scrambled for expert commentary on what the South Dakota Democrat’s illness could mean for the Senate’s newly won slim majority.
Within hours, two Boston University professors appeared on Fox News, Bloomberg Television, and PBS’s NewsHour, providing analysis of the impact on the Senate for millions of viewers, as well as the procedures that exist for dealing with the situation.
The two professors, Julian Zelizer, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of history, and William Keylor, a CAS professor of international relations, were the first BU faculty members to use a new on-campus television studio, the most recent development of an initiative that began in summer 2005 to enhance the profile of BU faculty by making University experts in various fields readily available to major media covering current news.
Construction of the studio, a converted filing and storage room on the eighth floor of One Sherborn St., was completed in November. Its single camera is operated remotely by VideoLink, a video production and transmission company that also processes the video feed and manages the satellite connections with broadcast outlets. Before the new studio was installed, producers wanting to book BU experts would either dispatch a crew to the professor’s office, or in the case of national outlets, require the professor to go to a video production facility in Watertown (also operated by VideoLink).
Similar studios are in place at other local universities, including Harvard and Brandeis, and at several hospitals and investment firms. Mary Tunney, BU’s associate director of media relations, says that having the on-site studio is a “win-win situation for everyone involved.” News producers can now set up interviews simply by arranging satellite time, and BU professors no longer need to devote hours of their day to a brief on-air appearance.
“In a breaking news environment, it is invaluable when a leading university has a television studio on campus,” says Bloomberg Television producer Amy Shniderman. “This tells me that the university encourages its professors to engage the media and ensures that experts will be available on short notice.”
“It definitely helps, especially on a day when there’s some big news event happening and I get multiple calls for comment,” says Zelizer. Since August 2006, he’s done 120 interviews with print and broadcast reporters, sometimes between 10 and 20 a week, making him one of BU’s most quoted professors.
“I’ve hit the point this year where I feel like I have two full-time jobs,” he says. Nevertheless, he relishes the opportunity to “participate in the big stories in the public arena as they’re unfolding.”
Another frequently quoted faculty member, James Post, a School of Management professor of strategy and policy development, says media appearances by faculty also give the University more visibility and a greater voice in the big issues of the day. “A major research university like BU needs to be involved in those debates and discussions,” he says.
The frequency of quotes in major media by BU professors has spiked since the summer of 2005, when the University’s public relations department began daily discussions of the day’s top stories, pitching professors with relevant expertise to reporters and producers nationwide. During the first year, these “self-initiated” quotes numbered 533, averaging about 10 a week. In the first quarter of the initiative’s second year, the average number of quotes per week has nearly doubled.
While both Zelizer and Post feel at ease talking to reporters and speaking in front of a camera, they acknowledge that taking time to speak to the media is not something all professors are comfortable with.
“When you’re an academic, you spend a lot of time thinking about a subject,” says Zelizer. The media, on the other hand, hunger for sound bites and instant responses. Nevertheless, he says, working with the press has actually helped both his teaching and his writing. “It’s sharpened how I think about issues, and it helps me make my arguments more forcefully, because reporters don’t want grey; they want you to get to the black-and-white of an issue.”
Tunney, a former producer for Dateline, accompanies professors to the studio for each interview and offers on-the-spot training to those who aren’t television veterans. Tip number one: relax, and “smile right at the beginning to avoid the deer-in-the-headlights look.” Tip number two: practice what you’re going to say. Most producers will help out with a “preinterview,” using the basic questions that will be asked on-air.
In the new studio’s first month of operation, excluding the week of intersession, BU professors used the facility seven times. Stephen Burgay, vice president of marketing and communications, expects the numbers to grow as more producers “walk away impressed with the quality of BU’s experts and the ease with which they can work with them.”
“I think we have a mandate to raise BU’s profile in Boston and across the country, and the faculty is one of our biggest and strongest assets,” says Burgay. Given the time pressures of major media outlets, he adds, matching expert faculty with news stories is “a little bit of a needle in a haystack, and what we’re trying to do is throw a spotlight on our needles.”
Chris Berdik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.