l Capital University Journal
Sac State professors help reporters get the story
by Frank Whitlatch
You’ve graduated, and you think that means you’ve gotten your last lecture from Sac State. Then you pick up a newspaper. Or you turn on the television news. And there’s a Sac State professor giving the short version of their expertise, providing insight on some current issue.
It might be Shirley Moore on World War II shipyards in the New York Times or Will Vizzard talking gun control in a Newsday column. It might be Barbara O’Connor talking politics in—no exaggeration here—nearly any California newspaper.
“I really believe we have a responsibility to contribute to the discussions going on in the larger community,” says O’Connor, a Sac State communication studies professor who studies political communication. She does about 200 interviews annually, more in election years.
“I think if you have something relevant to say about an issue, it is your responsibility to say it, and not just publish it in academic journals,” she says. “As a bonus, I get to hear about breaking news earlier than most other people.”
O’Connor is among countless Sac State faculty interviewed each year by newspaper, magazine, television and radio reporters.
Some, like O’Connor, do it so often they know exactly what to expect and exactly what reporters want. They all agree to leave the slow, deliberate pace of the academic world for the frantic pace of the media world—where meetings are set up on the fly and conversations are abrupt.
In the process, they share ideas with potentially hundreds of thousands of individuals rather than a small classroom of students, and they make a valuable contribution to Sac State’s reputation.
“Reporters can ask some fairly obscure, sort of funny questions,” says Moore, a Sac State history professor. “But I like to do the interviews whenever I can. I think it is part of my commitment as a teacher, and to making the larger community aware of what type of integral resource this University is.”
Moore has been interviewed on issues related to African Americans and the West in the New York Times and in California media including the Sacramento Bee and television stations. She was even featured as a character in the syndicated cartoon “Wee Pals.”
Sociology professor Tom Kando has done hundreds of interviews during his three-decade career at Sac State.
Topics have included the American family, violence and juvenile delinquency. He says reporters often want to know why something happened—such as crime rates going up or down.
“I obviously have to provide a little more than the man on the street already thinks,” Kando says. “With crime, I almost always stress the importance of demographics—when there are lots of young men in a population, that can often explain a crime jump.”
Another professor with extensive media experience is Nancy Kalish.
The psychology professor’s “Lost Love Project” is a media favorite, especially around Valentine’s Day—she’s been interviewed by ABC’s “20/20,” the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” CNN and many other national media outlets. In fact, all the media attention helped her find more people to interview for her project, which eventually led to a book and website (www.lostlovers.com).
Of course, media interviews can be tough. Faculty with strong media experience say the keys are knowing the information, being able to distill the salient points of an issue clearly and providing attention-grabbing quotes.
And even with preparation, there are no guarantees. Reporters can misunderstand a point, miss important nuances, take quotes out of context.
But the risk is worth it for many professors.
For recreation studies professor Kevin Tatsugawa, who has limited experience with the media, an interview about an outdoor sports film festival on campus was a strong success.
“It was a very positive experience, and it was good exposure for the festival and for my department. It showed the department in a positive light, and it let people know that you can study these areas,” he says.
Dennis Tootelian, a business management professor, has also found media coverage useful. He runs the Center for Small Business, which offers students a chance to work on real-world business projects. Media mentions have helped him find clients.
He’s also widely respected by the Capital Region’s business reporters, who use him as an expert source on everything from retail to the economy.
“It is so important for the University and the College of Business Administration that we are continually in front of the public, showing what we know,” Tootelian says.
As California’s Capital University—and one that emphasizes public policy research and support—Sac State has plenty of experts in policy and politics who get quoted in the media. Some do a few interviews a year, while there’s joking that O’Connor and Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Sac State, compete at the statewide level for the most quotes.
Sac State social work professor Tony Platt has used media interviews to share his progressive political views with a mainstream audience. He’s done interviews on the Rodney King riots, crime, homeland security and affirmative action, and his op-ed pieces have appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.
“I think it is a part of what it means to be an intellectual, and I think it’s a way to affect the public discourse on issues,” Platt says.
For Will Vizzard, who studies gun control, media interest comes all at once. “It goes in cycles for me,” he says. “Whenever gun control becomes an issue, I do more interviews.”
The same is true for John Syer, a government professor with expertise in international relations. He’s widely used by local media whenever there’s trouble in the Middle East.
Another Middle East expert often in high demand for media interviews is sociology professor Ayad Al-Qazzaz. He’s often quoted in Sacramento and national media outlets, and just as often helps reporters with stories in which his name never appears.
“Because of my specialty, I can help where there is a dearth of information,” Al-Qazzaz says. “My perspective is different than most reporters expect, though. I’m often critical of American foreign policy.”
In fact, crises and conflict often generate demand from the media for scholars who can provide perspective.
That was the case in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Sac State professors shared their insights in newspaper, radio and television stories throughout California and the nation.
Among them were Stephen Brock and Miki Vohryzek-Bolden.
Brock, a professor of school psychology, was the perfect expert for a piece of the coverage. He had a book in print dealing with school crisis, and was co-chair of the crisis intervention committee for the California Association of School Psychologists.
The San Francisco Chronicle tracked him down for an interview, and in a Sept. 13 story quoted Brock extensively on the need for parents to talk to their children about the attack. Interviews with the New York Times, Boston Globe and numerous local outlets soon followed.
It was just the sort of effort Brock recommends to those handling a school crisis. “The media can be a very powerful tool for reaching people quickly and effectively with these important messages,” Brock says. “One of the most helpful interventions is psychoeducational—giving people a road map to follow to show how they’re reacting to an event is normal, and suggesting what they can do.”
Vohryzek-Bolden, a criminal justice professor, studies domestic terrorism. In fact, she had a book on the subject about to go to press.
Her first media interview on Sept. 11 was at 9 a.m. She did more than a dozen interviews in the next couple days. Reporters were desperate for information about why the attacks happened, how they could have happened, almost anything someone with Vohryzek-Bolden’s expertise could tell them.
“We as faculty at a university often have specific knowledge related to the issues at hand,” she says. “And I would say we have an obligation to share that knowledge.”