How to Ride the Media Wave

RWJF Scholars offer advice about influencing public discourse and policy through the news media.

    • February 5, 2013

Comilla Sasson, MD, an emergency physician in Colorado, had spent most of her career in relative anonymity.

But that all changed on the early morning of January 20, when the University of Colorado Hospital, where Sasson was working as an emergency physician, was deluged with victims from a mass shooting at a nearby movie theater. Just before dawn, after hours of non-stop trauma care, Sasson was asked if she would brief the press on the night’s events.

She could have turned them down; she had already worked an 8-hour shift and was on sick call for the rest of the weekend. She was exhausted, and traumatized from the grisly and grueling ordeal; flashing through her mind were visions of patients with bullet wounds to the head, neck and extremities, some with their intestines exposed, others with tubes inserted in their chests.

But Sasson knew that speaking to the media would enable her to speak directly to an audience of millions, and she couldn’t turn down that opportunity. As a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholar (2007-2010), Sasson had been trained in media management and understood the media’s power to influence public discourse and public policy.

So she stepped into the media glare and, in doing so, became a kind of de facto spokesperson for the hospital that night, updating the news media every 15 minutes and giving some 200 interviews to reporters. Sasson appeared on many of the major television news programs the next morning, and has been in the limelight ever since, appearing in publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many others.

She wrote about her experience in a popular post on RWJF’s Human Capital blog, and she’s now on call as a substitute health correspondent for NBC News and speaks regularly with other local and national media outlets about health matters.

Harold Pollack, PhD, MPP, a 2011 recipient of an RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research and an alumnus of the RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research program (1994-1996) also knows how to ride the so-called media wave during crises. A public health researcher at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, he saw an opportunity to speak out about gun violence in the wake of two recent tragedies: the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the 500th homicide in Chicago, both of which occurred in December.

After the shooting in Newtown, Pollack pitched an article to The Nation, a leading liberal opinion magazine, about the risks of gun ownership. It was published soon after, just as the debate over gun control was heating up. Later that month, he was widely quoted in a number of newspaper articles marking Chicago’s 500th homicide of the year—the highest number since 2008.

The articles were the latest manifestation of a long effort to become a commentator on issues at the intersection of health and violence. “If you want to play a role at the intersection of health politics and health policy, then it is valuable to take a more public presence as your career moves along,” Pollack says.

Pollack has published numerous articles in scholarly journals, but it wasn’t until later in his career that he began to get attention from the national news media. In 2008, he co-wrote a narrative piece in Health Affairs about the challenges of caring for his developmentally disabled brother-in-law. He has also cultivated media contacts as co-chair of then-presidential nominee Barack Obama’s public health advisory group (a position he held in 2008) and as co-director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

The efforts to join the media fray have been highly successful: A search for Pollack’s name and affiliation over the last five years in the Lexis-Nexis news database yields 140 results in outlets ranging from the New York Times to National Public Radio to MSNBC. “It’s been very satisfying to have an impact on public policy,” he says. “There’s a lot that we can do that contributes to the public conversation in a distinctive way by finding ways to take known facts and new research findings and communicate them accurately and simply.”

For scholars interested in amplifying their voices in the mainstream news media, Pollack and Sasson offer the following advice:

  • Understand the power of the media. A lot of people view the news media as the enemy, Sasson says. But the media can, in fact, be an ally. “If you can harness the media and get your message out,” Sasson says, “you’re actually going to be a lot more effective than if you publish in scholarly journals.” Using the media to make change is critical, she adds. “If you don’t use the media, your amazing article will sit on a shelf somewhere and no one will read it.”
  • Lay the groundwork. Pollack advises junior scholars to develop an area of expertise before seeking media attention and to remember that scholarly work is more important than media coverage. When scholars are ready to join the public conversation, they should develop relationships with communications professionals and reporters. During times of crisis, these people will turn to you for comment if you already have trusting relationships, they say.
  • Hone communications skills. Pollack and Sasson encourage scholars to learn to speak in concise, simple language that can be understood by the lay press and to learn the art of writing well. Pollack also urges scholars to resist the temptation to jump into the partisan fray. “I often have to remind myself that the way to be an effective advocate is to maintain my credibility and be judicious … in a way that is respectful of policy and ideology disagreement.”
  • Be proactive. Sasson keeps a list of all the reporters and communications professionals she’s ever worked with and reaches out to them when she has a message to spread or research findings to share. Before she pitches stories to reporters, she finds sources, both experts and patients, who are willing to speak about the subject on the record to ease the burden on reporters and increase the odds of coverage. Pollack, for his part, uses social media sites like Twitter to engage with reporters, communications professionals, and others in the field.
  • Stay abreast of current events. Follow the news cycles and be able to speak a variety of topics at a moment’s notice. Answer phone calls from reporters and return voice and electronic mail messages quickly. At the same time, don’t get discouraged if you aren’t quoted in a story or if the story about your study gets postponed. “The media has a short attention span,” Sasson says. “All you can hope for is a slow news day.”

Learn more about the RWJF Clinical Scholars program.
Learn more about the RWJF Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research.
Learn more about the RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research program.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit www.RWJFLeaders.org.

Related Reading

RWJF-funded doctors, nurses and professors have generated media coverage for their published studies which, in turn, boosts their research and their careers.

Read the story >