Seeing your quote in a news story or hearing your voice on the radio is more than an adrenaline rush — it's a public service, says Rhea K. Farberman, APA's executive director of public and member communications.
"Psychologists' most wide-reaching interactions with the public are via the media — traditional or social. The media are a very important channel for us," she says.
While graduate students aren't usually quoted in the media, some may get the chance to do so if they've published important research or are spearheading an innovative initiative in the community. Reaching out to journalists or responding when they contact you can set you up to be a media expert once you achieve your PhD.
Farberman and Mary Alvord, PhD, president-elect of Div. 46 (Society for Media Psychology and Technology), weigh in on what to know before you pick up the phone:
Because today's news cycle never stops, the people who return a reporter's call the fastest are often the ones who are quoted — regardless of their qualifications. So, get back to journalists quickly to ask for more details about their request. Then, clear all appearances with your advisor and your program's media relations office before doing the interview.
Before an interview, research the journalist and the news organization to better understand their angle and audience. Ask the interviewer about the context and purpose of the story, how long the interview will take and whether it will be live or taped. Then, suggests Alvord, make a "cheat sheet" with talking points and — if you reference other relevant studies — be sure to have the citations to back them up.
Patient examples can help illustrate a story, but they can also cross ethical boundaries of confidentiality. If a reporter asks for an example, describe how the condition manifests in a person, but be clear that these "patients" are hypothetical, Alvord says.
Keep it simple.
Speaking in layperson's terms can be challenging for graduate students, who are steeped in academic jargon, says Alvord. She pretends she is talking to a family member or a neighbor. But don't dumb down your work. "We want to communicate that psychology is a science, based in solid methodology," says Farberman. Before interviews, practice articulating why your research is significant and what it means for the public. "If you can answer simple questions in plain English, you're going to do some good interviewing," she says.
Stay within your bounds.
If you are asked about public figures, be careful not to diagnose them with mental illness. Chances are you've never done a clinical interview with the person in question. If you have, well, "that's a confidentiality issue," so you can't address the diagnosis publicly anyway, says Alvord.
Know it's OK to decline.
If during your pre-interview research you get the sense that the publication has an agenda you don't agree with, it's OK to say no. You should also decline if you aren't trained to speak on the topic or you don't have the time to prepare appropriately. Even better: Offer the journalist a name of a colleague who is qualified for the job.
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